Laura Knight with model, Ella Louise Naper ('Self Portrait')

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Reproduced with permission of The Estate of Dame Laura Knight DBE RA 2021. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images

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Laura Knight with model, Ella Louise Naper ('Self Portrait')

by Laura Knight
oil on canvas, 1913
overall: 60 x 50 1/4 in.; 1524 x 1276 mm
Purchased, 1971
Primary Collection
NPG 4839

On display in Room 24 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sittersback to top

Artistback to top

This portraitback to top

This portrait of artist and model, the artist Ella Naper, is a bravura statement about the ability of women to paint hitherto taboo subjects on a scale and with an intensity, that heralds changes.

Related worksback to top

  • NPG 6494: Sir Richard Branson (appears within the portrait)

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 104
  • Broadley, Rosie, Laura Knight Portraits, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from National Portrait Gallery, 11 July - 13 October 2013; The Laing, Newcastle, 2 November 2013 - 16 February 2014; Plymouth Art Gallery, 2 November - 1 March - 10 May 2014.), p. 46
  • Cooper, John, A Guide to the National Portrait Gallery, 2009, p. 50 Read entry

    In 1936, Knight was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Academy since the eighteenth century, and in 1965 the first to be honoured with a retrospective exhibition. She is best known for paintings of ballet and the circus, and for her work as an official war artist during the Second World War.

  • Flavia Frigeri, Women At Work: 1900 to Now, 2023, p. 135
  • Forster, Margaret, BP Portrait Award 2006, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 15 June to 17 September 2006), p. 12
  • Gibson, Robin; Clerk, Honor, 20th Century Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1993, p. 9 Read entry

    Laura Knight's long and productive career began at art school in Nottingham where she met her future husband Harold Knight. After ten years as part of the artists' colony at Newlyn in Cornwall, they settled in London in 1919 and it was during the inter-war years that Laura Knight painted the ballet, theatre, circus and gypsy scenes for which she is best known. In 1946 she was sent by the War Artists' Advisory Committee to record the Nuremberg War Trials.

    During 1912 and 1913, as she wrote in the autobiographical Oil Paint and Grease Paint (1936), she 'became definitely aware of an ability that enables eye and hand to work simultaneously without conscious intervention of thought'. Depicting herself here in a cardigan known as 'The Cornish Scarlet' (it had been bought at a jumble sale for half a crown), the artist has achieved a painting of complex structure which still retains a feeling of intuitive harmony. The nude model was Laura Knight's neighbour and friend Ella Naper, also a painter.

  • Lydia Miller; Samira Ahmed, Inspirational Women: Rediscovering stories in Art, Science and Social Reform, 2022, p. 29
  • Rab MacGibbon, National Portrait Gallery: The Collection, p. 77
  • Ribeiro, Aileen, The Gallery of Fashion, 2000, p. 206
  • Ribeiro, Aileen; Blackman, Cally, A Portrait of Fashion: Six Centuries of Dress at the National Portrait Gallery, 2015, p. 214
  • Rideal, Liz, Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, 2001 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 September 2001 to 20 January 2002), p. 57 Read entry

    At the age of fifty-nine, in 1936, Dame Laura Knight was the first woman to be created Royal Academician since Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser in the eighteenth century. This fact reveals her popular success as an artist in her own lifetime, and also perhaps her singular ambition. Born in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, she studied at Nottingham School of Art, where she met and married fellow student Harold Knight in 1903. They went to live in Staithes on the Yorkshire coast in 1894, and between 1908 and 1919 were members of the artists' colony in Newlyn, Cornwall. This portrait was painted there, the model Laura's friend and fellow artist Ella Naper (1886-1972).

    Knight comments on the role of the woman artist by a bravura display of painting techniques, a complicated composition, and the pointed inclusion of a naked female model, traditionally painted by men. The painting is powerful and physically imposing, the scale life-size, and the whole is underpinned with flamboyant colour. The model's malleable pink flesh is lurid against the orange backdrop. Knight's red cardigan was a favourite (she had bought it at a jumble sale in Penzance for half a crown); it appears in a number of other paintings and here it vibrates with spots of colour painted in a thick impasto style and is the first focus of our attention when we confront the painting. Three back views are counterposed in a triangular composition, a visual tactic that underlines the relationship between artist and model, model and canvas, canvas and artist: we follow Knight's gaze and profile towards the female model and then across to the painted form emerging on her canvas. Knight's black hat is stark against the unpainted part of the canvas and her profile is clearly delineated, anchoring the work - an integral part of a highly organised composition. She manages to arrest our attention despite showing us her back, an unusual stance for a self-view.

    Knight was an official war artist from 1940 to 1945 and in 1946 was commissioned to make a pictorial record of the Nuremberg Trials. Renowned for making an old Rolls-Royce her miniature travelling studio, she was also famous for her plein-air paintings of gypsies, circus performers and studies of the Diaghilev Ballet. In 1965 she had a retrospective exhibition of her work in the Diploma Gallery at the Royal Academy, the first woman to be so honoured. Her work is in many public collections including the Imperial War Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate.

  • Rideal, Liz, Insights: Self-portraits, 2005, p. 19 Read entry

    This iconic work reasserts the importance of the model and promotes Knight’s identity as a woman artist. She appears almost defiant in her now famous red cardigan (two-and-sixpence from a Penzance jumble sale). The complex composition showcases her skills, verticals and horizontals vibrating in tune to the colour attack of orange and red. A black hat defines her profile against the white of the unpainted canvas she is working on. The painting is big, deliberately designed to take up space, dominate and attract the viewer. This is in marked contrast to the self-portrait of her husband, Harold, which was painted ten years later.

  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 181
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 180 Read entry

    At the time this self-portrait was painted Laura Knight, then in her early thirties, and her husband Harold were living at Newlyn in Cornwall. The portrait shows Laura Knight looking away from the act of painting Ella Naper, a friend and neighbour, who was also evidently willing to act as a model. The bright red cardigan, which Laura Knight had bought at a jumble sale for half-a-crown, the even brighter scarlet background to the artist's model, and the way the eye travels from artist to model to the painting of the artist's model, together create an unusually complex and satisfying composition.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 357
  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 414
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 190 Read entry

    Nottingham-born Laura Knight was one of the most popular artists in Britain in the twentieth century. Resolutely representational and figurative at a time when this approach was being challenged by modernist movements, she was, nevertheless, committed to painting contemporary life. Her diverse subjects include the Cornish coast, the ballet and circus, Gypsy communities and, as a war artist during the Second World War, air crews and munitions workers. She was the first artist to be made a dame (1929) and the first woman to be elected a full member of the Royal Academy of Arts (1936).

    This self-portrait, in which she presents herself as a professional painter with a mastery of the nude figure, is a defining work in Knight’s career. As a student in Nottingham, Knight had been barred from attending the male-only life classes held at the art school, and she found this omission in her art training deeply frustrating. In 1907 Knight joined an artistic community in Cornwall and this portrait, with its complex composition and vivid red tones, is an expression of the liberation and confidence she found there. The figure of the model was posed by fellow artist, Ella Naper (1886– 1972), a friend and neighbour in the Cornish village of Lamorna.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1913back to top

Current affairs

The Suffragette, Emily Davison dies after stepping out in front of the King's horse as a protest at the Epsom Derby. In the same year the Liberal government passed the Cat and Mouse Act allowing them to release and re-arrest Suffragettes who went on hunger strike while in prison. Davison, herself, had been on hunger strike and was force-fed while detained at Holloway Prison.

Art and science

Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring comes to London following its premier at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris. Audiences were shocked by Stravinsky's rhythmic and dissonant musical score and by the violent jerky dancing of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which were intended to represent pagan ritual.


Henry Ford introduces the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company, rapidly increasing the rate at which the famous Model T could be manufactured, leading to massive growth in the motorcar industry and demonstrating to other industries the efficiency of mass production.

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