How painter Winifred Knights became Britain’s ‘unknown genius’

Knights’ use of classical subjects in a modern age made her the most promising painter of the 1920s. So why is she only now receiving her first retrospective exhibition?

The Deluge (1920) remains one of the most instantly familiar artworks of the first half of the 20th century. Bought by the Tate in 1989, Winifred Knights’ 6ft canvas is packed with 21 anguished, beseeching figures and a worried-looking dog. The nominal subject is the biblical story of Noah’s ark, but the timeless look of the clothes and the distant buildings suggests that the moment depicted is actually the unplaceable now. Strikingly absent from Knights’ landscape is the ark itself, and with it any hope of safety or salvation. Instead, terrified men, women and children scrabble up a mountain that is soon to be submerged by the rising tide. Anguish is bitten into their upturned faces, while desperation stiffens their imploring bodies into racked diagonals. What we are witnessing is the end of history.

The Deluge remains the default option of any picture editor in need of an easy notation for any number of Very Bad Things from cultural despair to the Third World War. Through its endless reproduction it has become part of our visual landscape. So the fact that, even after 40 years of recuperative feminist art history, its maker should remain so obscure seems extraordinary. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Winifred Knights’ only appearance is as the first wife of Sir Thomas Monnington, one-time president of the Royal Academy.

This summer the Dulwich Picture Gallery is mounting a retrospective of her work, the first ever. On display are all her significant pieces, including The Marriage at Cana (1923), shipped from New Zealand, and Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours (1928‑33), a stunning triptych that will be unhooked from the wall of Canterbury Cathedral and trundled up the A2 to south London. Most thrilling of all, The Santissima Trinita (1924-30), generally considered Knights’ masterpiece, has been lent by its private owners. These works appear alongside The Deluge, together with scores of preparatory sketches.

A detail from Winifred Knights’s The Deluge (1920). Photograph: © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights
A detail from Winifred Knights’s The Deluge (1920). Photograph: © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights Photograph: © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

In a Knights painting, a group of monumental figures typically pauses at a moment of revelation or transcendence. Although individual shapes have been simplified and stylised, the figures are still emphatically human, much in the manner of an early Renaissance church fresco. Indeed, Knights’ painstakingly drawn and luminously coloured work is a reminder that pre-Raphaelite art – with its love of detail, decorative colour, interest of line and the conveyance of nature – had a long and distinguished influence in British painting right up to the second world war. Yet here, in fact, may lie the reason for Knights’ fall from critical favour following her early death in 1947. When art historians in the postwar period came to describe what they believed had happened during the first part of the 20th century, they inevitably privileged modernism, with its international language of abstraction, over the kind of figurative work that seemed tied to a regressively local way of seeing the world. According to this paradigm, Knights’ work wasn’t just old-fashioned, it was wrong.

And if her work has troubled the historians, then her biography also refuses to fit with the kind of story that we generally require of our female artists. Far from having to fight for the right to paint, Knights was born in 1899 into what sound like ideal circumstances. She was the eldest child of parents who combined socialist convictions with the happy knack of making money (her father ran a Guiana sugar plantation from his London office). The household at 22 Madeira Road, Streatham, was intensely progressive: Mrs Knights wore rational dress, visiting Aunt Millicent was high up in the Fabians and Walter Knights, far from forbidding his daughter to follow an artistic career in the way that suburban Edwardian patriarchs are supposed to, constantly chivvied Winifred to try a bit harder.

This sense of specialness and good fortune continued at the Slade where Knights enrolled in 1915. Henry Tonks, the notoriously sarcastic surgeon-turned-artist-turned-professor, took a particular interest in her work. That didn’t mean, though, that the rules were about to be relaxed or corners cut for the wonderful Miss Knights: all students were required to spend the first two years drawing, first from casts and then from life models, before being allowed into the painting room. Even as artistic London continued to judder in the slipstream of Roger Fry’s post-impressionist shows of 1910 and 1912, the young women and dwindling number of men at Gower Street were expected to take Albrecht Dürer as their model of close observation and meticulous draughtsmanship. Tonks referred to the Modern Movement in France as, ironically enough, ‘The Deluge’ and described Post-Impressionism as ‘an evil thing that had seduced the most gifted of the Slade students.’

A detail from Winifred Knights’s The Potato Harvest, (1918).
A detail from Winifred Knights’s The Potato Harvest, (1918). Photograph: © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The avant garde didn’t seduce Knights, but nor did Tonks’s draconian diktats keep her corralled in nostalgia. Instead she sought to apply traditional techniques to contemporary subjects. The results of this fruitful hybridity become obvious in the pictures that she made, tellingly, during the year she took out from the Slade.

In 1917, traumatised by the zeppelins looming over Streatham, Knights found refuge on her cousins’ farm in Worcestershire (it says something about her father’s over-investment in her career that he fretted that she might be harming her artistic chances). The Potato Harvest (1918) shows a frieze of male and female workers in social and economic harmony on the land. The distant fields have been flattened into a patchwork quilt of contrasting colours, out of which rise strong verticals of haycocks and ladders. The workers – modelled by Knights and her cousins – are all wearing robust rural dress of the kind advocated by Aunt Millicent’s friend, Edward Carpenter, as a way of resisting the endless consumerist churn of factory-produced fashion. Knights adopted this part-peasant, part-bohemian rig for the rest of her life, self-aware enough to know that it suited her lithe body and Modigliani facial features to perfection.

Even with men returning from the front and filling up the Slade once again with trousers and tobacco, Knights managed to maintain her reputation for brilliance. A Scene in a Village Street with Mill-hands Conversing (1919) won the Slade’s most prestigious prize, the summer composition competition, in her final year. Beneath the anodyne title, however, there is a more complicated, more personal scene playing out. The central figure in the red jacket who appears to be addressing the workers may be Aunt Millicent, a trade unionist campaigner for the cause of “equal pay for equal work”. The figure to her side listening intently is Knights herself, while her sister, mother, boyfriend and various cousins are also identifiable in the crowd.

Knights used family members as models for the usual reason, because they didn’t need paying and were available at a moment’s notice to pose. However, by making herself a protagonist in her paintings, and selecting figures who played a significant part in her emotional life, Knights was also able to create visual distillations of her own experiences. Her own concerns over gender equality (as in Millworkers) or divided sexual loyalties (Marriage at Cana) or female recuperation (Santissima Trinita) are coded into her work, so that while casual spectators may not be able to read her buried message, they nonetheless feel its uncanny charge.

For now, though, Knights had very little to feel aggrieved or anxious about. In 1920, The Deluge won her the prestigious scholarship to the British School at Rome. The idea behind the award was to encourage an outstanding young British artist to develop their work in what was known as decorative art, pictorial work on a great theme that could be applied to a public building as a frieze or a mural. Here was a brief that played to Knights’ great strengths: simple shapes, flat colour, a quattrocento approach reimagined for the modern age without ever descending into pastiche.

All of these skills are on triumphant display in The Marriage at Cana, a monumental account of the New Testament miracle in which Christ turns water into wine. Knights, who had long abandoned church-going, is more interested in the human rather than the sacred drama. The figure of Christ, smuggled off to one side, has no halo and the actual moment of transformation is blocked from view by the staunch buttocks of a leaning woman, modelled by Knights’ own sister. The focus of the painting instead is on the astonished faces of the guests, dining al fresco in the Villa Borghese gardens. Turning aside from their luscious pieces of watermelon, they regard the miracle with serene awe. Knights puts herself at each of the three main tables, a sly comment perhaps on the way that, during her time as the first female Prix de Rome scholar, she had become a ubiquitous celebrity in the ancient city. Sharp-eyed viewers will also spot that her fiance Arnold Mason poses with his arms defensively crossed and at a distance while, on the background table, and seated next to Knights, is Monnington, the Slade scholar whom she would soon marry.

Winifred Knights’s The Marriage at Cana (1923)
Winifred Knights’s The Marriage at Cana (1923). Photograph: © The Estate of Winifred Knights Photograph: © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Eugénie Strong, the assistant director of the British School, warned Knights against letting “happiness or new responsibilities interfere with work or hamper it” and, at the outset of her life as a married woman, she seemed able to follow this advice. Certainly Monnington was no one’s idea of a patriarchal bully: taking up where her father left off, he nagged Knights to keep pushing on with her great talent. Both of them, though, were hampered by having been taught by Tonks, who demanded such a high degree of draughtsmanship that, according to a concerned friend, “the completion of a picture is almost impossible”. Here, then, is the reason that so many of Knights’ paintings remain unfinished and why she started to lose out on the commissions on which her kind of public art depended. In 1926 she was not invited to be part of a commission for a major decorative cycle, Building of Britain, at St Stephen’s Hall in the palace of Westminster, even though several Rome scholars junior to her, including Monnington, were chosen.

Knights was unlucky, too, with some of the commissions that she did manage to win. Although in 1928 she was given a prestigious opportunity to paint a reredos for the St Martin’s Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, the project stuttered from the start. Her careful slowness, together with constant fussing from the architect Sir Herbert Baker, who was responsible for the commission, meant that the process took on a nervy, doomed feeling. Once the triptych, which shows scenes from St Martin’s life, was finished, the dean insisted that it be removed to the Lady Chapel in the crypt. Knights was inconsolable. (The work has long since been restored to its intended position and is heralded on the cathedral’s website as the work of a woman who was “an unknown genius”.)

In happier economic times Knights might simply have shaken the Canterbury dust from her feet and moved on to the next commission. But by the 1930s there was simply no money being spent on large-scale public art. Anyone would find this disappointing, but Knights’ underlying mental health problems made her doubly vulnerable. The birth of a stillborn boy in 1928 reanimated the memory of losing a baby brother when she was just 15. Even the birth of a healthy son, John, in 1934 was not enough to soothe her. Indeed, it seemed to provoke even more intense anxiety, and Knights refused to leave young John with a nanny or let him out of her sight. The outbreak of war only intensified her watchful terror, reigniting the traumatic memory of the zeppelins over Streatham. It is this horror about what might be about to fall from the sky that gives The Deluge, with its anguished upturned faces and supplicant outstretched hands, its particular terrifying power. For the next four years Knights bustled her son John from one temporary address to another in a bid to outsmart the bombs that she was convinced were coming any moment. The only time she picked up a pencil was to scribble something to amuse her beloved boy.

Knights’s mental health put a strain on her marriage, and it ended in 1946. On 5 February 1947, at the age of 47, Knights collapsed, dying two days later of a brain tumour that may have been incubating for years. It was a sad ending for a woman who had been regularly referred to as the most promising painter of her generation, the one who, once and for all, might end the tired discussion about whether women could create big, important works of art. Not a single obituary appeared.

• Winifred Knights (1899-1947) is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21, until 18 September.


Kathryn Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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