Winifred Knights exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery has now come to an end. I’ve written an article about the artist and some of my thoughts on the show.
Winifred Knights (1899-1947) was an award winning student at the Slade School of Fine Art and the first woman to win the prestigious Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting. Appreciated in her own lifetime though little known today her admiration for Italian Quattrocento art is discernible throughout her career. From her student years to World War I evacuation in rural Worcestershire to her time in Italy and her interwar years output.
Instead of slavishly imitating the Renaissance art of Italy she reinterpreted it. Engaging with contemporary subjects she often presented herself as central protagonist and drew on her inner circle of friends and family for models. Fairy tale, legend, pagan mythology, and biblical narrative (all essentially the same thing) provided subject matter but she also tackled female self-empowerment and subjugation. Her maternal aunt, Millicent Murby, was Treasurer of the Fabian Women’s Group and she also sought inspiration from the Utopian writings of her childhood hero, the socialist philosopher Edward Carpenter.
Sketches of carpets, ceramics, herself, and Little Miss Muffet (!) take us to 1919’s Wall Decoration, below.
A Worcestershire apple harvest. The idiosyncratically attired Knight (we’ll come to that later) can be seen in the foreground wearing a red headscarf.
She’d enrolled at Slade four years ealier intending to pursue a career in book illustration. Under the tuition of Henry Tonks and Derwent Lees she became an excellent draughtswoman. Suffering a breakdown, exacerbated by the war, in 1917 she moved to Worcestershire and fell under the influence of Carpenter. Carpenter proposed a simple pastoral economy as a socialist alternative to urban industrial capitalism. It sounds quaint now but in those uncertain times must’ve made at least some sense.
The following year, now based in Sussex’s West Hoathy with family, she turned her hand to landscapes, nudes, and rural idylls.
October that year she returned to the Slade. There she found what was to become her style. She called her paintings ‘Decorations’ and they made use of flattened perspectives, harmonic colour schemes, and shallow picture planes.
She won joint first prize in the highly regarded Summer Competition in 1919 for A Scene in a Village Street with Mill Hands Converging, above. A response to a wave of strikes that was worrying England at the time. A female trade unionist (again in red) resembling Millicent Murby addresses workers outside Roydon Mill in Essex. Knights herself is directly to the right of the speaker clad in sombre brown attire.
1920’s Portrait of Anna Matilda Fryer shows how Knights had become familiar with the works of Amadeo Modigliani. A rare example of her being inspired by contemporary artists. Though he was Italian so maybe that made it ok. Fryer was born in British Guiana and owned the Schoonoord Sugar Plantation where Knights’ father was employed. It’s a very respectful portrait and I imagine Knights was impressed by the very concept of a woman as a captain of industry nearly one hundred years ago.
Her acknowledged masterpiece, The Deluge (above, also from 1920), has an entire room devoted to it. Entering a competition for the Rome Scholarship she was given an eight week time limit to complete a work. After a ten day illness she applied for, and was refused (via the petition of jealous male competitors), a time extension. Despite this a panel that featured John Singer Sargent unanimously awarded her the scholarship. Suck on that, haters!
The frequent citation of the Biblical flood as a metaphor for the Great War led Knights to draw on her experience of Zeppelin raids and she also utilised James Thomson’s 1874 poem The City of Dreadful Night when composing the work. A fleeing cleric is symbolic of the Church’s wartime impotence. Its combination of modern Vorticism and Renaissance compositional devices saw some critics declare it a work of genius.
Winifred Knights arrived at the British School in Rome in October 1920. Remarkably she was unimpressed with the city. Yet she found inspiration in the Roman Campagna of which she produced a series of small oil panels.
Her preference was for Tuscany and Umbria where she marvelled at the the frescoes of Giotto and Masaccio. Inspired by Piero della Francesca’s Legend of the True Cross in Arezzo’s Church of San Francesca she came up with the delightful Marriage at Cana.
The bride in the loggia is Knights herself. She’d recently come out of a relationship with Arnold Mason and had found new love with Thomas Monnington. It’s set in the Villa Borghese Gardens where the artist spent long hours walking among the fountains, ruins, oaks, and avenues. Like in a Merchant Ivory film or something.
She completed her scholarship in 1923 but was back in Rome a year later, “London was horrible after Italy”, where she married Monnington at the British Consulate. It wasn’t exactly a honeymoon but both Knights and Monnington accompanied a group of ‘peasants’ from Anticoli Corrado in a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Santissima Trinita in Lazio. Deeply moved by the ethereal and ritualistic nature of this journey she produced The Santissima Trinita (below).
A bit like Where’s Wally you can spot Knights sleeping peacefully under a puce blanket cradling a pillow like the memory of a lost lover. In typical artist style she’s having a kip while the other women do all the work. I hope my flippancy doesn’t detract from the work’s otherness and beauty.
Following the Italian tradition of getting out of the city in the summer Knights and Monnington spent July 1924 at Lake Piediluco in Umbria. The ‘wonderful and fearsome’ surroundings inspired Edge of Abruzzi:boat with three people on a lake. It, apparently, takes its inspiration from the folkloric legend of Melusine. A feminine spirit of sacred springs and rivers.
Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours (1928-1933) records three episodes from St Martin’s life. Giving his cloak to a beggar. Restoring a child to life and, finally, his vision of Christ. The central scene must’ve been both painful and, perhaps, liberating to paint as Knights had recently given birth to a stillborn son. Again inspiration came from Piero della Francesca (this time his snappily titled The Queen of Sheba in Adoration of the Wood and The Reception in Soloman’s Palace) and Simone Martini’s The Vision of St Martin.
It’s apt that drapery and robes play such importance in this and other works because Winifred Knights chose to define her identity through dress. She designed her own clothing and, contrary to the fashion of the time, wore long cloaks, loose jackets, and wide-brimmed hats. A reaction against mass-production and modernity. Even her hairstyle was inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci. Her reaction was nothing if not reactionary.
Returning to England she received great acclaim and commissions followed. to design tapestries for Eltham Palace and to paint a reredos for Canterbury Cathedral.
After the birth of her son, John, in 1934 she struggled to reconcile motherhood with her artistic career. This slowed her output down to a trickle. It stopped completely during World War II. An event she was deeply affected by. Like everyone else.
After the war she took baby steps back into the art world with a series of Scottish landscape drawings that were well received. But in 1947 a brain tumour brought her fascinating career, and life, to a premature end.
She may not have lived long but she made good use of her time here and left a legacy which, once again, thanks to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, ass receiving the acclaim it’s undoubtedly due.
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