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1936 Laura Knight Becomes The First Woman Elected RA

Even before the doors of the 1936 Summer Exhibition opened to the general public on 4 May, one artist was guaranteed to be the centre of attention: Dame Laura Knight. Three months earlier, on 11 February 1936, she had been elected a Royal Academician, the first woman to attain this rank since the eighteenth century. Two of the founder members had been women, Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann, but since they were invited, not elected, Knight’s achievement was a highly significant milestone in the Royal Academy’s history. Knight’s acceptance within this all-male bastion was no accident, nor was it due to artistic merit alone; ever since her first appearance on the Academy’s walls in 1903 (when she received the encouragement of selling one of her submissions, Mother and Child, to the artist Edward Stott), she had conducted a quiet, yet astute and determined campaign to assert the equality of her sex and to reach the very height of professional recognition as an artist.

Explore the 1936 catalogue

For the past eight years, since her election as ARA in November 1927, Knight had taken full advantage of her right to show six works at the Summer Exhibition (falling short only in 1929 and 1931), and 1936 was no exception. The six paintings covered the range of subject matter for which she was best known, and amounted to a mini-retrospective. The newest work was a large circus scene, hung in pride of place in Gallery III (Fig. 1). It had the title, The Show is On, a reference not only to the clowns, acrobats, and bareback riders waiting to enter the ring, but also a scarcely veiled allusion to Knight’s own moment of glory as she stepped into the ultimate artistic arena. She had called her autobiography, published in February 1936, just weeks after her election (and evidently prepared months before in anticipation of this eventuality) Oil Paint and Grease Paint. By the time of the Summer Exhibition in May, it had been twice reprinted. Knight’s close identification with the circus was well known, from a one-woman exhibition on this theme in 1929, preceded by an earlier one devoted entirely to another of the performing arts, the ballet, in 1920. In the title of her book, Knight was underlining the importance of these subjects to her public success; towards the end, she made the reason explicit:

Painting, music, ballet, theatre, circus, art and physical skill, what joy to project oneself in each, to feel the daring of the acrobat, the control of the artist, in understanding and sympathy to live many lives in one!1

Knight’s mastery of institutional politics was further demonstrated by two of her other exhibits, Spring in Cornwall and Dawn.2 The former, a huge, finely crafted landscape, had been purchased in the previous year for the Tate Gallery through the Chantrey Bequest. Substantially a work created in 1916, it now had one figure repainted and, with an amended title, it qualified as a new picture. Dawn had already been shown in 1933, but was exhibited again as Knight’s Diploma work. The two half-length female nudes would have been understood by the many who had read the autobiography as her riposte to the art school system, which denied women the opportunity to study the nude; except that, not wishing to present too overt a challenge to the authority of the Academy, and to entrenched ideas of decorum, both these figures are draped below the waist, and so remain within the boundaries acceptable within the state system. Unclothed models, both male and female, were by this time drawn by women in private art schools, such as the Slade, but not elsewhere. The pose of the left-hand figure, with her hands clasped behind her head, so that the torso is stretched and the musculature of the arm beautifully displayed, is the same as the nude in Knight’s now famous painting of 1913, The model, which she reproduced in Oil Paint and Grease Paint with the new, fully explanatory title of Myself and Model.3 In the later painting, the model is seen from the front, rather than from the rear as before; might this too be Knight’s comment on the slowly growing acceptance of the nude as a subject for women artists? 

The other pictures were Ballet, a low-key scene of dancers from the corps de ballet waiting in the wings, which again displays Knight’s command of anatomy and subtle half-light.4 Finally, she submitted two recent studies of crowds at Ascot, most likely painted on the spot. Photographs of her painting at Epsom in the back of a hired Rolls Royce had been widely circulated in the press, and reveal the extent to which she was happy to be in the public spotlight.5 Ascot, then, as now, was known as much as a fashion parade as for the horse racing, and one might ask whether the choice of subject compromised the feminism Knight displayed so clearly at other times. Her election may have been a watershed for her personally, but the conservatism of society at large is forcibly expressed by The Times of 2 May, where the article on the Summer Exhibition (admittedly headed First Notice) is followed by a significantly longer column detailing the clothes worn by women at the opening on the previous night.  

Although Knight was to live for another thirty-four years, in her lifetime only one other woman, her great friend Dod Procter, was elected a full Academician. This poor representation appears even more scandalous when the numbers of women exhibitors are taken into account: 354 in 1936, fully one-third of the total of 1,076, who contributed around 28 per cent of the works on view. The purchase by the Chantrey Trustees of another painting by a female artist, L’infirmière by Beatrice How, would hardly have provided much encouragement to them, when the artist herself had died in 1932, and the work, an attractive but fundamentally conventional assessment of a woman’s role, dated from the First World War.

  1. Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint (London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1936), 368.↩︎

  2. Spring in Cornwall, Tate:; Dawn, Royal Academy of Arts:↩︎

  3. Caroline Fox, Dame Laura Knight (Oxford: Phaidon, 1988), 2.↩︎

  4. Ballet, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, Lady Lever Art Gallery; T. Wilcox, Laura Knight at the Theatre: Paintings and Drawings of the Ballet and the Stage (London: Unicorn Press, 2008), 89.↩︎

  5. Fox, Dame Laura Knight, 92.↩︎

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Explore the 1936 catalogue