Winifred Knights @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is a fabulous opportunity to soak yourself in the life and achievement of a strange and haunting woman artist, Winifred Knights, born in 1899, active in the 1920s and 30s, but who had stopped painting well before her sudden, tragically young, death from a brain tumour in 1947.

Knights was in many ways a pioneer, being an award-winning student at Slade School of Art and then the first woman to win the prestigious Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting. Knights was born into a liberal circle of Fabian socialists and female emancipationists and her artistic style and biography bespeak her lifelong self-possession and determination.

Childhood and the Slade

Knights was born in the south London suburb of Streatham and attended the very posh James Allens School for Girls, where she first showed her gifts as a draughtsperson. The show opens with pencil drawings of figures and nudes done when she was 17, 18, 19, all of which are very impressive. She won a place at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, in the Bloomsbury district of central London, at the alarmingly young age of 16 and studied there from 1915 to 1917. Among the drawings the standout piece is this breath-taking female nude.

Full-length Seated Female Nude, three-quarter view by Winifred Knights (1917) University College London © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Full-length Seated Female Nude, three-quarter view by Winifred Knights (1917) University College London © The Estate of Winifred Knights

At the Slade she was taught by Henry Tonks, a stickler for accurate depiction of the human body and so perfect for Knights, who he came to regard as one of his finest students. (The tall strict Tonks had taught the generation just before Knights, who featured in a previous Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, A Crisis of Brilliance.) Throughout her life Knights did beautiful depictions of figures clothed and unclothed. Even in the 1930s, when her style had evolved far from naturalism, she was still capable of producing sketches like this stunning –

Appearance and self-portraits

From the start of her career through to the end she turned these talents on herself, producing scores of self-portraits and featuring images of herself in many of her paintings, sometime more than one image.

Self-portrait by Winifred Knights (1920) Pencil on tracing paper © Trustees of the British Museum. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Self-portrait by Winifred Knights (1920) Pencil on tracing paper © Trustees of the British Museum. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

These self-portraits are all the more striking because Knights herself had very striking features -possessed of a long oval face which she accentuated with an austere hair-style, her long black hair parted in the middle and drawn tightly over her ears, revealing only the imaginative ear-rings she favoured.

The air of self-possession which comes over strongly in the photographs was emphasised or brought out by her long sweeping dresses, swathing her from throat to toes and covering the arms up to the wrists, which she made herself to her own designs from a variety of fabrics. She affected a big black broad-brimmed hat which features in many of the sketches and paintings.

Photo of Winifred Knights

Photo of Winifred Knights

Her own self-presentation was so distinct and striking that the final room in the show has a wall dedicated just to photos and portraits of her by other artists. These include:

  • Photo portrait by Paul Laib
  • Allegory by Colin Ginn, where Winifred is the tall figure in the characteristic high-necked blouse and her signature black Spanish hat, standing left

All this emphasis on her portraits and photos isn’t a peripheral matter, because Knights not only used herself in many of her compositions but based her increasingly stylised depiction of the human body on her own body shape – elongated, symmetrical, posed in geometric and formal attitudes.

Rural life and art

This move away from the sensuous curve of the life studies towards something more hieratic is apparent even in the first room.

Knight’s studies at the Slade were interrupted when she suffered a nervous breakdown after witnessing the vast explosion in the East End area of London’s docklands caused by a German zeppelin dropping bombs on a dynamite factory during the Great War in 1917.

She was sent to stay with her father’s cousin on the family farm in Worcestershire and this opened her eyes to a whole new world of rural life and work. The effect on her output was immediate, resulting in a piece like her Design for a Wall Decoration (1918). (She didn’t call her works ‘paintings’, she called them ‘decorations’ and had a lifelong interest in creating art which was decorative, more often than not commissioned to be placed in specific locations within specific buildings.) She meant the design for a wall decoration to be just that, a sketch for a much larger work to be painted onto a wall.

A work like Potato Harvest is surprisingly unlike the supple sensuousness of the pencil portraits. It is deliberately flat and angular, the figures almost deliberately amateurish and set against a backdrop which emphasises simple lines and shapes.

The Potato Harvest by Winifred Knights (1918) Watercolour over pen and ink on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Potato Harvest by Winifred Knights (1918) Watercolour over pen and ink on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The show includes some very early book illustrations Knights did – specifically, this arresting illustration of Little Miss Muffet (note the use of her own self-portrait with the characteristic sharply parted hair and high-cut blouse) After returning to the Slade after the War she produced works like Leaving the Munitions Works.

Leaving the Munition Works by Winifred Knights (1919) Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Leaving the Munition Works by Winifred Knights (1919) Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

It has the lightness of a book illustration, with the geometric sharpness of the walls and pavement and houses and the washed-out water colours. This little part of the show makes you wonder whether Knights couldn’t have had a very effective career as a book illustrator, or pursued it as a sideline; but it was not to be.

The exhibition never fully explained to me what ‘Decorative Painting’ is, but it clearly is more interested in lines and shapes and patterns for their own sake rather than the depiction of any ‘reality’. In her final year Knights won the Slade Summer Composition Prize for Mill Hands on Strike, the stylised fields in the background reminding me of the landscapes of John Nash.

The Deluge

In 1920 Knights won the coveted Rome Scholarship with her huge and most famous work, The Deluge. The competitors for the prize all had eight weeks to paint a work on the same subject. Despite losing time when she was ill for a week, Knights won the prize with this stunning huge work. A whole room in the exhibition is devoted to it, and also contains the full-size cartoon of the work and the many preparatory studies she did for it. Every detail was very carefully planned and worked over.

The Deluge by Winifred Knights (1920) Oil on canvas © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Deluge by Winifred Knights (1920) Oil on canvas © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Only a few years after the slight amateurishness of The Mill Hands, her style here is astonishingly finished and achieved. Note the way all the women wear long robes of the kind Knight herself wore – in fact the figure in the front is a self-portrait of the artist, while some of the other faces are based on friends and families. (The central figure carrying a baby is Knight’s mother and Knight’s then partner Arnold Mason modelled for the male figure beside her and also the man scrambling up the hill).

But it isn’t the faces you look at, it’s the extreme stylisation of the landscape and the geometric posture of the figures. It is a kind of naive Modernism, a variation on the Futurism or Vorticism of the pre-war years, except far more open and clear and simple. Maybe it is the post-war return to classicism, which took place across all the arts, as applied to cubism-futurism-vorticism, and so bringing a kind of clarity and order to the more chaotic pre-war modernism. Whatever it is, the longer you look at it, the weirder – and more compelling and powerful – it becomes.

The Rome scholarship and Italy

The scholarship paid for Knights to go and study in Rome from 1920 to 1925. Here she married fellow Rome Scholar Thomas Monnington (1924) and toured the Italian countryside, soaking herself in her beloved Early Renaissance frescoes. The way the frescoes were designed for specific locations, particular buildings, their decorative element is what she took and applied to a series of large-scale works over the coming decade.

The second half of the exhibition dedicates an room to each of these works. After The Deluge comes The Marriage at Cana (1923).

The Marriage at Cana by Winifred Knights (1923) Oil on canvas. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Gift of the British School at Rome, London, 1957. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Marriage at Cana by Winifred Knights (1923) Oil on canvas. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Gift of the British School at Rome, London, 1957. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Here again design and decoration are everything, the starkly geometric lines of buildings and doorways and benches and even hedges, emphasising the static postures of the bodies, lined up in rows. Eerily, the faces – once again – are of friends and family and the painting of course features at least two self-portraits. But the faces, although more realistic than in The Deluge, are eerily blank. The picture doesn’t contain a shred of religious feeling – instead conveys a peculiar and unsettling sense of stasis. The figures are almost like zombies.

Each of the rooms dedicated to these big works contains some of the many preparatory sketches, drawings, cartoons and paintings Knights made for them and I found myself warming to the sketches far more than to the finished works. The initial pencil depictions of the figures have the supple humanity of her earliest portraits, but the way they’re hung lets you see all the life being slowly drained out of them as they become part of a larger, more abstract, schematic design.

Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours

I found this especially true of her last big work, a series of Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours commissioned for the Milner Memorial Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral. She worked on these for five long years, from 1928 to 1933, demoralised at one stage by disagreements with Sir Herbert Baker who commissioned it, almost abandoning the scheme, but eventually returning.

Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours by Winifred Knights (c.1928-33) Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours by Winifred Knights (c.1928-33) Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

More than ever the composition is flat and stylised like an early Renaissance fresco, and yet the flatness of the composition contrasts oddly, jarringly, with the highly realistic depictions of the faces – Knights herself is the woman standing to the left of the kneeling saint (who himself has the face of Baker, who commissioned it, just as Renaissance works included the image of the work’s patron). The faces are realistic but oddly blank. It is like a science fiction disaster has come over all the people in the picture, draining them of all expression and warmth.

By this stage (this is the last room in the exhibition) I was used to being much more attracted to the sketches and preparatory works than to the finished products, which I find cold, flat and distanced. Her works hold you at arm’s length – just as the precise clothes, the formal hat and the emotionless gaze in most of her portraits do; whereas many of the sketches are warm and wonderfully evocative; take for example:

There are three small rectangular oil paintings in the final room, which are very rough preparations for the St Martin work, in which the faces are just greyish-brown ovals, but which somehow – in their unfinished and rough state – have more energy and emotion than the highly cleansed and clinical final product.

Conclusions

There is a huge gap in Winifred Knight’s work between the warmth and sensuous immediacy of the pencil drawings, some of her preparatory sketches, and the landscapes dotted throughout the show (I particularly liked the landscapes done around Roydon in Essex and at Cuckmere Haven in Sussex) – and the deliberately static, arrested and detached feeling of the really big compositions – her large ‘decorations’.

For me The Deluge is the most successful of these because it is the closest to the dynamism of the Futurist-Vorticist tradition, whereas the later master-works – The Marriage at Cana (1923), The Santissima Trinita (1924-30), Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours (1928-33) – have become too ‘decorative’ for my taste, too like the cold detachment of her beloved Renaissance fresco work.

Last years

Knights struggled over long periods with these later works and then, after the birth of her son in 1934, found herself bogged down with the duties of motherhood. By the time was broke out in 1939 she had virtually stopped painting and the war itself was a further demoralising period of frustration and privation. Thus the final room in the exhibition has the patchy feel of covering a long period (1928 to 1947) during which not a lot was produced.

Because it contains a wall of photos and portraits of her the last room prompts the thought that in one way, Knights was her own most striking work of art – the austere, intense and ascetic image she recorded in her many self-portraits and which others were also moved to record in photos and paintings, leaving a more lasting and somehow more intimate impression than many of her strange and unsettling decorations.

Self-portrait sketching at a table by Winifred Knights (1916). Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Self-portrait sketching at a table by Winifred Knights (1916). Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The video

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