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1937 Laura Knight and Dod Procter

The Summer Exhibition of 1937 saw the Royal Academy celebrating the recent coronation of King George VI with a display of historic portraits of royal patrons. The art press, while keen to report on this new feature, nevertheless lent fewer column inches to royal portraiture than to the Academy’s only two female Academicians, Dame Laura Knight and Dod Procter. Both artists had enjoyed critical success at the Academy since before the First World War, but in the 1930s, prominence and membership of women in the Academy was still exceptional. Their success in this coronation year invites discussion about the position of women at the Academy in the period. It also shows how their engagement with the Academy was complemented by their wider commercial activities. 

Explore the 1937 catalogue

Knight and Procter were two of the first women to be elected to the Academy. Knight was made ARA in 1927, becoming the first full female Academician in 1936, and Procter was made ARA in 1934, and RA in 1942. Just one women preceded them, Annie Swynnerton, who was made ARA in 1922.1 The Academy had provisionally agreed in 1879 that women were ineligible for full membership, and the only women previously involved in the institution were founding members: Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser.2 Knight’s and Procter’s elections in the 1920s and 1930s mark the beginning of female participation in the Academy in the twentieth century.

Favourable reports of their works in the 1937 Summer Exhibition align with the critical status implied by Academy election. Knight’s The Palladium was singled out for most comment as the first picture sold on opening night (Fig. 1). Critics praised this “impressive and amazingly skillful work”, however, many preferred her less ostentatious paintings such as The Gyppos and Holiday Time.3 Procter’s success, while not in the same financial league as Knight’s, was perhaps more pronounced among the critics, who favoured her still life, Margueritte, Myrtle and Scabious, but reserved the highest praise for Mother and Child, described by Edward Halliday in The Listener as “charming, sensitive, unassuming” (Fig. 2).4 The popular appeal of both artists was compounded by their inclusion in the Royal Academy Illustrated, which published three works for each.5

For both artists, their notoriety by 1937 was part of a longer story of critical and commercial success at the Academy. Knight had first exhibited at the Academy in the late Edwardian period, subsequently garnering attention with The Artist and Model (1913).6 Procter likewise had exhibited at the Academy since before the war. Initial acclaim came with her work Morning (1926), voted “picture of the year” at the Academy in 1927, purchased for the nation following a campaign by The Daily Mail, and gifted to the Tate.7 Additional recognition followed the Academy’s exclusion of Virginal in 1929, subsequently exhibited to great applause at the Leicester Galleries, further raising Procter’s profile.8 These incidences all show the ways in which the Academy provided critical validation. The artists’ involvement with the Academy, however, must be understood as just one facet of their wider commercial activities.

Knight was a competent self-promoter, seeking opportunities to exhibit and sell with the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour, Leicester Galleries, Women’s International Art Club, International Society, and the Venice Biennale.9 Her RA election in 1936 coincided, possibly by design, with the publication of her first autobiography, Oil Paint and Grease Paint.10 Usually the prerogative of male artists, autobiographic publication shows Knight taking control of her own professional identity, through what Rosie Broadley has termed “her negotiation with the mainstream, male-dominated art establishment”, which served to “pave the way for greater professional recognition and status for women in the arts.”11 Procter deserves equal praise for her own canny manipulation of the critical and commercial field. She engaged with artists networks, for example, in Newlyn (where she met Knight), and exhibited internationally at the Carnegie Institute in America, and in the UK with the New English Art Club and the Leicester Galleries, coinciding shows at the latter with prominent Academy submissions.12 These numerous activities show that the artists’ engagement with the Academy was a part of their broader commercial practice.

Looking at the self-determined commercial activities of Knight and Procter, it is possible to begin to piece together a sense of female agency at work around British art institutions such as the Academy. Charting these activities reveals how female artists demonstrated professional sophistication and mastery of the economic field. This revelation is important for a number of reasons. It provides a way to think about women’s art beyond the strictures of stylistic canons, an issue for Knight and Procter certainly, given their equivocal aesthetic styles typified with Knowles’ definition of “classic-modernist realism”.13 It shows how ephemeral historical material (newspapers, illustrated catalogues) can be brought to bear as evidence for the activities of women artists, particularly where actual works of art are difficult to trace, as is the case for both Knight’s and Procter’s work, since only three of their exhibited works from 1937 can be located. Finally, it avoids a traditional, and, for feminist historians, eminently problematic monographic approach that can trap the study of women’s art practices in narrow, patriarchal avenues of enquiry, centred on aesthetics and biography.14 By using the artists’ participation in the Academy as a starting point for mapping their wider commercial activities and corresponding critical status, we glean greater insight into their careers, the Academy’s approach to women, and the mechanisms by which female artists could develop their professional identities.

  1. Swynnerton passed away in 1933, and so was never elected as a full Academician.↩︎

  2. Sidney Hutchinson, The History of the Royal Academy, 1768–1968 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1968), 122.↩︎

  3. See T.W. Earp, “Modern Spirit Shown in the Royal Academy”, The Daily Telegraph, 1 May 1937, 10.↩︎

  4. Edward Halliday, “The Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Listener, 5 May 1937, 860.↩︎

  5. The Royal Academy Illustrated (London: Walter Judd, 1937).↩︎

  6. Pamela Gerrish Nunn, From Victorian to Modern: Innovation and Tradition in the work of Vanessa Bell, Gwen John and Laura Knight (Nottingham: Djanogly Art Gallery and Phillip Wilson Publishers, 2006), 51.↩︎

  7. Dod Procter’s Morning at the Tate, (accessed November 2017).↩︎

  8. Elizabeth Knowles, Dod Procter RA, Ernest Procter RA (Newcastle: Laing Art Gallery, with Newlyn Orion, 1990), 19.↩︎

  9. Gerrish Nunn, From Victorian to Modern, 39.↩︎

  10. Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease Paint (London: Nicholas and Watson, 1936).↩︎

  11. Rosie Broadley, Laura Knight Portraits (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2013), 11.↩︎

  12. These include one-women shows at the Leicester Galleries in 1925 and 1929, see Knowles, Dod Procter RA, Ernest Procter RA, 14–19.↩︎

  13. Knowles, Dod Procter RA, Ernest Procter RA, 19.↩︎

  14. This issue has been addressed in a number of feminist art-historical studies, in particular Griselda Pollock’s Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988).↩︎

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Explore the 1937 catalogue