In the course of her career, Winifred Knights reversed the traditional artistic trajectory. She had little trouble in becoming a painter and none at all in winning early acclaim and glittering prizes. Where she struggled was in producing the pictures to sustain her reputation and grow into a figure of substance. It was a struggle she eventually lost.
Knights’s output was vanishingly small, perhaps as few as five significant works over a career of more than 25 years. What she did leave was a great number of preparatory works – drawings, studies and trial pictures – that are evidence of both her talent and a working method that took meticulousness to the point of obsession. Her way of picture-making resulted in some of the most distinctive British works of the interwar years but was ultimately self-sabotaging.
Knights (1899-1947) was born in Streatham in south London to a well-off (her father ran a Guyana sugar plantation) and progressive family (her mother wore “rational dress” – clothing that was more comfortable and practical than the approved corset and long skirt ensemble). Her aunt was Millicent Murby, treasurer of the Fabian Women’s Group and a campaigner for married women’s right to work. It was a household that not only encouraged Knights to take up an artistic career but also constantly badgered her to work harder at it.
It was at the Slade School, under Henry Tonks, a surgeon turned professor of painting, that Knights absorbed her painstaking style. She studied there in 1915-16 and 1918-20 and while Tonks was known for a sarcasm that could reduce students to tears – female students in particular – he quickly took to Knights. For him, the colour and free brushwork of post-impressionist painting was “an evil thing that had seduced the most gifted of the Slade students”. His favoured pupil, however, was already an immaculate draughtswoman and receptive to his belief that drawing and scrupulous composition were the bedrock of art.
The gap in Knights’s Slade years came after she saw the huge explosion at the Silvertown TNT works in east London in 1917 that killed 73 munitions workers and injured 400 more. The trauma was compounded by Zeppelin raids over London, and she left the city to calm herself at a farm in Worcestershire belonging to her father’s cousins.
On her return, she entered the competition for the Prix de Rome, a scholarship awarded by the British School in Rome for a decorative painting, meaning one suitable for a public space. The subject given in 1920 was the biblical Deluge and students had just eight weeks for their submissions. Knights won with an extraordinary picture that combined elements of modernism with a Renaissance technique. In it a crowd of terrified people rush to scramble up a steep slope to escape the pouring waters: the scene is stylised, ghostly, and redolent of the fear Knights felt during the war years. One of the judges was John Singer Sargent, who was adamant in his support.
Knights was the first woman to win the prize and was rather taken aback by the response. “People seem to be sorry for the other men,” she wrote. “Why should they be, they had just the same chances as I and more?” The Daily Graphic featured her achievement on its front page: “Girl Artist Remodels the Flood… Critics declare the painter a genius!” It also ran a photograph of Knights, showing her with hair sleekly and centrally parted framing a striking oval face and dressed in a self-designed costume of simple blouse and skirt. Here was a new talent who looked like a Modigliani but painted like a latter-day follower of Piero della Francesca.
During the course of several years in Rome, Knights shed her fiancé Arnold Mason and met and married her fellow scholar Thomas Monnington. Italy provided her with the example of its early Renaissance painters – her “beloved Masaccio, Giotto and all the rest of that blessed company” – its religious art and its landscape. Biblical scenes would remain the focus of her work even though she had abandoned Christianity after the death of her baby brother David in 1915.
The influence of quattrocento painters can clearly be felt in this painting, Edge of Abruzzi: Boat with Three People on a Lake, of 1924-30 and now in a private collection, which was started in Italy and finished in England. Landscape was an important element in all her major works and also the subject of smaller, more relaxed pictures she made for herself. She would paint the cliffs near Beer in Devon or the River Stort at Roydon in Essex but even then use dry fresco colours – dusty mauves, ochres, greens and greys – as if these English scenes were to be found on the wall of a rural Umbrian chapel.
Here, Knights shows the Lake di Piediluco, halfway between Rome and Perugia, and the way the landscape is rendered, as a careful, low-toned and unblended collection of elements – the trees don’t grow but are placed – could come from Piero. As in his paintings, the mood is still and timeless, the colour range is pared back, the atmosphere is that of a vision, a dream or a parable. It is also an enigma: what is the relationship between the three people in the boat who are together but emotionally distant? Where are they going and why? Why are there no people in the fecund lakeside fields? Is this a story or something personal to Knights herself?
It is a square picture very carefully composed, with exactly a third given over to an unmodulated expanse of water. Flat and curve, sweep and detail, play off against each other. There is modernism in the simple structure and tradition in the forms. If the scene is poetic, it is of a desiccated sort. Everything here – people, boat, landscape, weather – is becalmed.
When Knights and Monnington returned to England in 1925-26 it was she herself who was becalmed. Her star had waned in her absence and public commissions were both scarce and tended to go to men. Knights’s underlying anxiety was exacerbated by the stillbirth of a son in 1928. The birth of a healthy boy in 1934 didn’t soothe her fretfulness and she barely allowed the child out of her sight. Her painting also tailed off and when she did win a major commission, for an altarpiece depicting St Martin for Canterbury Cathedral, it took her fully five years to complete.
Knights’s mental anguish was given renewed grip by the Second World War. While she produced almost nothing, Monnington designed camouflage and then worked as an official war artist. The marriage broke down in 1946, hastened by Knights’s emotional struggles, and in February the following year she collapsed with a brain tumour and died two days later. Not a single obituary appeared in the newspapers.
There was an even more poignant footnote in 1955, when Monnington cut up and reused the large canvas she had intended for a picture with another landscape background, The Flight into Egypt. Knights had started work on the theme in 1937 but there was barely any progress at her death ten years later. What there was, was painted over: Knights had disappeared.
This article appears in the 24 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britain unlocks