Open accessibilty tools
Back to Blog

Dame Laura Knight in Staithes

Dame Laura Knight was one of the most well-known women artists in England. She worked mostly in Nottingham and London and produced paintings that depicted circus performers and travelling communities, and her paintings of England’s war effort during World War Two.

In the mid-1890s to mid-1900s, she lived and worked in Staithes, and while many of her paintings and drawings during that time have not survived, Kirkleatham Museum holds a small collection of the sketches that were a part of her development as an artist.

One of Dame Laura Knight’s sketches of a Staithes fisherwoman, over a black and white photograph of Staithes (date and photographer unknown). Images courtesy of Kirkleatham Museum and Grounds.

Laura Johnson was born in 1877 in Derbyshire. Her family were poor, as her father had left them not long after she was born and her mother, the sole-earner, worked part time as a teacher at the Nottingham School of Art. Her occupation allowed her to enrol Laura at the School when she was 13 without paying for her studies.

Laura was determined to become a successful artist and threw herself into her studies. One of the students she met there was Harold Knight, who she admired since he was very talented at drawing and painting. She would set up her easel behind him in order to observe him and learn from copying his technique. The two became close friends.

At just 15 years old Laura lost her mother to cancer and had to take over her mother’s duties very quickly as a teacher. Laura wanted to produce paintings professionally as well as teach, but she was unsure of where to go when she had to leave the School of Art. It was one of the School’s Masters, Thomas Barrett, who told her – “Staithes is the place to go!… There is no place like it on all the coast for painting”.

Laura was persuaded further after Harold had spent 6 months in Staithes in 1894 and had returned to Nottingham with a portfolio of paintings and drawings. The following year she took the plunge and started renting a cottage overlooking the village, where she would stay for the next 12 years.

A sketch of a Staithes fisherman with cobles and houses in the background. Image courtesy of Kirkleatham Museum and Grounds.

Laura started out by painting the fishermen on the quayside as they hauled in their catch. She attempted to paint in the style of the Impressionists – outside and using quick brush strokes with pure unmixed colour – but she struggled without the influence of other artists to learn from.

That soon changed with the arrival of some more experienced artists who had come to Staithes seeking the same inspiration as her. One of them, Charles Hodge Mackie, would come to her studio and teach her how to paint simply, how to lay her palette, and how to paint the effect of light on colours. Going forward in her career Laura would keep his lessons in mind as she painted.

Other artists she met and learnt from included Henry Silkstone Hopwood, Frederick Jackson, Arthur Friedenson and Fred Mayor, who would go on to join the Staithes Art Group. The Group had been founded in 1901 by William Gilbert Foster and Thomas Barrett in response to the large group of artists who had come to Staithes. They organised exhibitions, three of which Laura displayed her work at between 1902 and 1904. The Group eventually became so large that no venue in the village or neighbouring Whitby could be found to exhibit their work and they disbanded in 1907.

A detailed sketch of a man, possibly a fisherman. Image courtesy of Kirkleatham Museum and Grounds.

Laura also made friends with some of the fishermen. Some even taught her how to row in their fishing cobles. Harold once bought them a boat for their own use but it was not well equipped to handle the rough and unpredictable seas and they frequently got into trouble. The fishermen soon got tired of having to rescue them that they got rid of the boat.

The fishermen attended the Methodist Chapel regularly and Laura would go with them every week. She recalled them singing the hymn ‘For those in peril on the sea’ whenever storms came in. Inspired, she attempted to paint a scene of boats out on the harsh seas, however it ended up being one of the paintings she made at this time that she decided to burn.

It is a sad fact that very few of Laura’s drawings and paintings of Staithes survived. She was still living in poverty and could not afford firewood on top of costly painting supplies, so in order to keep herself warm in the winters she would burn some of her early sketches and artworks.

A sketch of the Staithes fisherfolk waiting for the cobles to come in with the catch. Image courtesy of Kirkleatham Museum and Grounds.

One painting that has survived is ‘The Fishing Fleet (1900)’, kept by Bolton Museum and Art Gallery today.  Laura had wanted to make a larger painting that encompassed more of the rush of boats and people when the catch came in and of the fish market that followed, but soon realised that the concept was too big for a novice artist like her to achieve. While ‘The Fishing Fleet’ may not have been what she envisioned as an all-encompassing painting of the catch coming in, it does depict the working life of the Staithes fisherfolk.

Life was often hard at Staithes – it was usually accepted that death was common among the fishermen and Laura sometimes witnessed the bodies of fishermen being pulled from the sea. There was also great poverty. For a short time she worked in a cottage owned by a miner and his family. The miner’s wages didn’t cover all their expenses and there was little for them to eat. When Laura left Staithes she lent £5 (£392 in today’s money) to them to start a new business selling fish. Her painting, ‘Dressing the Children (1906)’, now at Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, depicts a day in the life of the family.

A sketch of the Staithes fishermen arranging the catch. Dame Laura Knight wanted to capture the sense of the hard work they experienced. Image courtesy of Kirkleatham Museum and Grounds.

Laura and Harold married in 1903. Following their wedding they spent some time in Nottingham and London meeting other painters, preparing to host their first exhibition in London in 1906 and for the first time earning enough money from their artworks in order to build their savings. Laura had learned much and treasured her time in Staithes, but she also wanted to experience more outside of the village.

From 1904 she and Harold travelled to Holland intermittently for three years to paint but they would always return to Staithes. It was in the Summer of 1907 that they decided to leave and move to Newlyn in Cornwall. She wrote in her autobiography that it had been a difficult decision – “To turn away from all that it had meant, fearing never to return, hurt me terribly… It was there I had found what I might do”.

A sketch of a child playing on the beach while the fishermen work behind them. Dame Laura Knight used to pay children in pennies so that she could sketch them. Image courtesy of Kirkleatham Museum and Grounds.

It was in Newlyn that Laura continued to develop as an artist. She caused controversy when she sketched models in the nude for the first time, since this was something women artists had been forbidden to do. And in the 1920s she produced the paintings she is most recognised for, of ballet dancers backstage, clowns and circus performers and members of the travelling community. Much of her work was about working people, and their influence always showed in her work.

In 1929 she was made a Dame, and in 1936 she became the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Academy as a full member. When she was contracted by the British Government as an official war artist, she painted women Corporals, women working in the Auxiliary Air Force and women factory workers, such as in ‘Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring (1943)’, one of her most popular paintings at the time.

She returned to painting backstage in theatres once the war was over, painted for Queen Elizabeth II before she was crowned, and continued to exhibit her work before her death in 1970.