WINIFRED KNIGHTS 1899 - 1947
Winifred Knights, a little known British painter, was the first woman to hold a Rome Scholarship. In the 1920s she forged a path that married continental modernism with an austere British figuration. Considered to be one of the rising stars of her generation, her painting The Deluge was exhibited in the Britain pavilion during the Paris Exposition of 1925. Her early death at forty-eight and a chronically slow painting process – a total of just seven finished paintings throughout her career – has resulted in an obscure reputation.
What Knights actually left behind was a discrete and expanded legacy, an intense but diminutive body of autobiographical work, an intelligent and frank correspondence, a scattering of keenly felt observations and the careful
documentation of a persona; manifested through the design and making of clothing, employed both in her paintings and the navigation of everyday life. If her body of work is recast to include the paintings, the clothing, interior design and the correspondence, a very different legacy emerges from the one she is currently ascribed.
Knights studied at the Slade School of Art, University College London from 1915 to 1917 and from 1918 to 1920; a prize-winning student, she was shortlisted for the Rome Scholarship in 1920. The Deluge now held in the Tate collection, was her scholarship submission. Four shortlisted artists had two months to prepare a painting on the theme of the deluge. Judged by a panel including Henry Tonks, John Singer Sargent and Philip Wilson Steer, along with other Slade luminaries, Knights’ submission won her the Prix de Rome without competition. A prestigious prize, the awarding of the scholarship was followed by some notable publicity – even at this early stage in her career, Knights’ distinctive dress received attention. The Daily Sketch ran a regular feature entitled “We Take Our Hats Off To” and on October 6, 1920 the paper included a photograph of Knights with the caption: “For Looking The Part As Winner Of The Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting,” continuing with “her appearance accords in every particular with the decorative canons laid down by the most up-to-date art circles.” Later when the competition works were shown at the Royal Academy in February 1921 and The Deluge along with a photograph of Knights made the front page of The Daily Graphic with the caption: “Girl Artist Remodels the Flood … The ark suggests the modern concrete buildings, and the figures are those of present-day men and women. Critics declare the painter a genius!” The figures indeed were present-day men and women clad in Knights’ distinct dress, and in later works, particularly those made during the tenure of her scholarship, the stylised clothing played a key role in setting the paintings’ acute tone. Knights’ Rome scholarship ran from 1920 –23, during which time she was resident at the British School at Rome and Anticoli Corrado, thirty kilometers outside the city.
The purpose of the newly instated scholarship was to instruct young painters in the art of decorative mural painting through a study of Italian Quattrocento painting. Both Sargent and Tonks believed this instruction would foster a new school of decorative painting that would result in public commissions, predominantly for municipal buildings, across Great Britain. For a short time this vision of the elder statesmen of the British Art establishment flourished; the majority of ex-Rome scholars did indeed receive notable commissions back in the UK. However, for Knights these mural commissions never materialised. The same egalitarian view that allowed her to study at both the Slade and the British School at Rome did not follow into her professional life, and twinned with her chronically slow process, the career of a decorative mural painter was not a path open to her. However, other non mural commissions did follow, most notably a painting for the Milner Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral.
Throughout the majority of her time at the BSR, Knights maintained a frank and detailed correspondence with her mother, Mabel Knights and her aunt, social reformer Millicent Murby. The correspondence, now housed at the UCL Archive details a young woman’s entrée into an exotic and highly social environment. With a levelheaded seriousness Knights finds her footing in the complex academic setting and in effect creates a persona through her distinct choice of clothing and her ebullient but serious manner. Throughout the correspondence, Knights carefully details and often illustrates a number of the outfits she designed, assembled or made; outfits for everyday studio wear/working, along with formal dresses, evening wear and costumes for the many fancy dress parties and balls held at the BSR and other academies in
Rome. From the start of her career Knights clothed the figures in her paintings and drawings in these ensembles. The clothes are characterised by their subtle, subdued colours and understated design. Crucially Knights’ palette runs through from the clothing to the paintings and this visual scene setting is key to the paintings often austere but sensuous tone. What status do we ascribe this clothing now? If Knights were working today, the outfits would stand as works in their own right. In reconsidering Knights’ legacy, it seems vital that the clothing she employed is brought into play. While reading a duplicate of the correspondence held at the BSR archive, I came across notes of a researcher working in the 1990s. The commentary states that there is little to be found in the letters “... just a great deal of dancing and dressing up.” To underplay the clothing’s importance is to misrecognise the complexities, strengths and ultimately the subtext at play in the paintings themselves. In a total of seven completed large-scale works, Knights’ self-portrait features in several. The body of work represents a sense making of an individual’s concerns, observations, and experiences as they progress through a brief life. Autobiography is thinly cloaked in religious narrative. While in all likelihood, Knights would not herself have named the costuming as a practice, it is key to understanding her edifice and by extension the breadth of her legacy.
Although Knights’ scholarship came to an end in 1923, she continued to live and work at the BSR during 1924 –25, where she formed a relationship with fellow Rome scholar Thomas Monnington. Knights and Monnington were married in Rome on April 23, 1924, and while Mrs. Monnington was present, Knights wed without the full support of her family.
The correspondence held at the BSR, itself a facsimile of the UCL correspondence, becomes sporadic after Knights’ marriage to Monnington. It appears that the confidences shared in the earlier letters with mother and aunt are now shared between husband and wife and hence rarely committed to paper. Knights and Monnington returned to England in December 1925 and January 1926 respectively, setting up home and studio in London. While commissions and teaching ensued for Monnington, and to some degree for Knights, they struggled financially.
As early as 1921 Knights acknowledged a frustration with the slowness of her working process; defined by a scrupulous draughtmanship, each element within the larger paintings was painstakingly condensed from a number of preparatory drawings. Architecture, figures, landscape were all carefully transcribed from life and as Knights’ career continued, the paintings took increasingly longer to complete. Her last commission for the Milner Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral took five years from 1928 to 1933. Certainly a process characterised by such an intensely focused, cumulative looking must have been hard to maintain after the birth of her son, John Monnington in 1939. Although John was only eight when his mother died, he vividly recalls her drawing daily. During this time Knights also advised on the interior decoration of Eltham Palace, the Courtauld family’s art deco residence in South London.
In a period where an artist’s career was defined by narrow creative parameters, Knights’ output clearly didn’t fit. Her early death in 1947 has compounded her obscurity, and without a later body of work to frame the early career, her creative legacy has been little regarded.
My own introduction to Knights’ oeuvre started with a single photograph seen while on a scholarship at the British School at Rome in spring 2008. Taken in 1923 in Studio 6 at the British School at Rome, the photograph acts as both an
assertion and an invitation. In considering this image it was somehow no surprise to find a practice that moved beyond established definitions particularly beyond early twentieth century definitions. Knights both struggles with and enjoys the possibilities of her femininity and her work for me is shot
through with a cognisance and self-reflexivity that connects it to now, most significantly to a radically subjective female voice increasingly emergent in literature and fine art.
In the photograph, Knights knows we are looking at her but her gaze shifts back to the work in hand. We must consider her in the act of looking and thinking, a young woman with volition in the world.