Laura Johnson was born in Derbyshire and brought up in Nottingham. She received informal instruction from her mother, an art teacher. She attended the Nottingham School of Art, where she met her future husband Harold Knight, and the Royal Academy, winning several awards. She travelled with Knight to Paris. They went together to the Staithes Artists Colony on the Yorkshire coast until 1910, also spending time in another community in Laren, in the Netherlands. They then moved to Cornwall, first to Newlyn and later to Lamorna. Her work at Staithes was influenced by The Hague School but after moving to Cornwall, where she created a scandal by painting scantily dressed models, she embraced Impressionism ( Daughters of the Sun, 1910; Flying a Kite, 1910).
After World War I the Knight's moved to London. They maintained a studio in Cornwall for a time and paid frequent visits there. In London, Laura Knight began painting what were to become her most famous subjects, the ballet and circus. Her colourful and energetic narrative representations of the Diaghilev Ballet, dance classes at St Martin's Lane and life on the road with the Mills and Carmos Circus, capture the excitement and intensity of performance. These technically accomplished paintings secured her reputation.
In 1929 Knight was made a dame for her services to art and in 1936 she became the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy. During World War II she received several commissions from the War Artists Advisory Committee and was the only female British artist to be sent abroad. In 1945 she was appointed a British correspondent and was commissioned to paint the war crime trials at Nuremberg. Once back in England she concentrated on landscape painting.
Laura Knight was also a talented engraver, etching in a mixed technique using aquatint, softground and line engraving as well as pure etching at dry point. Her earliest works in this field date from 1923. She engraved the Bohemian world, circus scenes, ballet and gypsies ( Some Clowns, 1931; Merry-Go-Round; At the Footlights). She also engraved the female figure ( Make up, Girl Bathing, Putting on Tights), and landscapes ( Cornish Harbour, 1927).
She wrote about art and published Oil Paint and Grease Paint (1936), A Proper Circus Omie (1962) and The Magic of a Line (1963).
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Birmingham (Mus. & AG): Les Sylphides (1915-1925, oil on canvas); Autumn Sunlight, Sennen Cove (1920-1925, oil on canvas)
Brighton (Mus. & AG): The Ballet Shoe (c. 1932, oil/panel, study)
Cardiff (National Museum and Galleries of Wales): The Cornish Coast (oil on canvas); Motley (oil on canvas)
Harrogate (Mercer AG): Ready for Rehearsal (watercolour and charcoal)
Liverpool (Lady Lever AG): Ballet (1936, oil on canvas)
Liverpool (Walker AG): Spring in St John's Wood (1933, oil on canvas)
London (Imperial War Mus.): Corporal J.D.M. Pearson, GC, Women's Auxiliary (1940, oil on canvas); Corporal J.M. Robins, Women's Auxiliary Air Force (1941, oil on canvas); Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (1942, oil on canvas); A Balloon Site, Coventry (1943, oil on canvas); Take Off: Interior of a Bomber Aircraft (c. 1943, oil on canvas); The Nuremberg Trial (1946, oil on canvas)
London (National Portrait Gal.): Ella Louise Napier (1913, oil on canvas); John Freeman (1928, charcoal drawing)
London (Tate Collection): Spring (1916-1920, oil on canvas); The Gypsy (exhibited in 1939, oil on canvas)
London (Transport Mus.): several posters
London (Victoria and Albert Mus.)
Los Angeles (County MA): Portrait of Ethel Agnes Bartlett Robertson (charcoal)
Wellington (Mus. of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa): Self-portrait (c. 1913, oil on canvas