Winifred Knights – at Dulwich picture gallery visit

on the 18th of August I visited the Dulwich picture gallery in London and saw  ‘Winifred Knights 1899-1947’ a major retrospective of a largely unknown 20th century woman artist – these are my thoughts and reflections of the exhibition

London born Winifred Knights is an artist that prior to the Dulwich show ,  I knew nothing about.

I was hoping to be enlightened and I was not disappointed. Interestingly the exhibition included lots of drawings, studies and preparatory works for  her major  paintings – which was really interesting and allowed the viewer an insight into Knights working practices as well as giving the visitors a sense of personal and  intimate thoughts .

Armed with a notebook I made notes on what I saw  – these are my notes:

Born in 1899 Knights first studied art at the age of 16, at the renowned Slade school of art in London. The first room  of the exhibition grouped together many of her drawings from the early  period of her life. One of these ‘self portrait c.1916’ a luminous pencil drawing , I really liked  particularly as she seemed to have  captured a piece of her personality  – i liked the way she  had conveyed   her direct and confident stare , she  seems to glaze at the viewer. I felt that the  early pencil  drawings seemed to show a competent use of the medium with subtle mark making and shading. There is a delicate lightness in these early drawings with fine hatching that  adds dimension. There was also an interesting drawing entitled ‘Portrait study of Joyce Knights during a thunderstorm ‘ pencil on paper dated 1918. This  drawing captures the models  face in a three quarter profile. Knights used  delicate parrellel hatching which was  popular at the Slade that had been introduced by a former professor called Alphonse Legor. This style of drawing seems to add a real sense of drama and structure to the planes of the face. I felt the drawing had  a quiet and emotive feel. There was a larger figure drawing ‘full-length  female seated nude , three quarter view 1917 ‘ that I thought was interesting. Again a really good example of how to use  pencil  marks to build up  light and form, the drawing demonstrates Knights fine draughtsmanship  skills and her precise use of delicately applied hatching – with  this drawing Knights  was awarded a first class certificate.

Winifred Knights was  initially intending to study to become an illustrater and there were  some  excellent examples of her illustrative work including ‘Little Miss Muffet’ a stylised self portrait with many strong design elements including vertical and horizontal stripes as well as an interesting elongated neck and long thin hands adding a sense of drama and atmosphere to the composition . During this period at the Slade students were taught to draw with the intention to develope strong compositions. Knights was tutored by Tonks and Derwent Lees. For two years she worked almost solely on figure drawing. During the early stages of World War One Winifred Knights had a nervous breakdown and left the Slade to recuperate at a family farm in Worcestershire. It was during this time in 1917 that she met socialist philosopher Edward Carpenter. Carpenter greatly influenced Knights and she moved away from illustration becoming instead concerned with scenes of rural life. In 1918 she joined her family in rural West Sussex – producing work that was far removed from what was happening in the war. I feel that these pictures have an almost visionary quality to them. The pictures have an almost peaceful sense of harmony – the colours are muted and soft.  The people in these works seem , to work together sharing a comradship regardless of their social postitions, working together in unison. Knights included local buildings and scenery building up a fascinating picture of an almost rural idyll away from the harsh nature of the war. Some of this work during this period  is remarkably  ambitious including some detailed and interesting studies for a wall decoration – it was interesting to see the preparatory works which included detailed squared up colour studies. Also on show was an inquisitive pencil drawing ‘Eileen November 1918’  she perfectly captures the delicate contours of her sisters face using careful shading that successfully conveys the subtle  lights and darks of the facial features. Also fascinating in a glass cabinet was displayed a selection of Knights sketchbooks including one for ornamental design and  one for anatomy studies.

SECOND ROOM – the Slade 1918-1919

Knights style has now envolved and she is now focusing on meticulous composition a discipline she appears to have excelled  at. She won the prestigious summer composition prize in 1919 with ‘ a scene in a village with Mill hands conversing’ I think it is an interesting painting with lots of different elements including  beautifully painted figures and a busy background with buildings. I really like the shapes of the buildings and the way Knights has suggested the faraway glimpse  of the undelating curves of the hills in the background contrasting with the straight blocks of the buildings. I feel it is a very confident and competent painting  for an artist aged just  20!

also on show were a number of studies for the painting which hi light her working processes as it is very apparent that Knights spent  a lot of time  planning her major works.

ROOM three

In room three  were some very interesting self portraits I particularly liked a drawing from 1920 that demonstrates her drawing skills as the medium used is silver point,  a very difficult drawing tool. The exhibition curators state ” natural extension of Knights interest in Renaissance drawing , the technique requires precise craftsmanship to allow for the subtle rendition of light and shade” ( source Dulwich picture gallery).  Also interesting is ‘self portrait with compositional figure study 1919 ‘ the medium is pencil but what i thought  was interesting is that the drawing seemed fairly experimental . The head and facial features of the figure are developed with Knights usual style of hatching to capture tone, light and form however the body and costume of the figure is very loose and sketchy  rendered with no tone or hatching . to the  the right of the figure , on the wall like a framed picture is a squared up compositional study of a rural scene.  Also interesting is a oil painting from 1920 entitled ‘Life study Eileen Knights. ‘ The young model is painted nude and Knights has captured her sisters youthful adolescent awkwardness, the teenager appears to have a sulky expression on her face, the contours of her body suggests an uneasy gawkiness. The colours are again on the neutral spectrum reminding  me of the palette used by another British woman artist and former Slade student –  Gwen John. Also on show were a variety of works produced for the Slade sketch club that explored compostition. I really liked the small coastal landscapes in oil depicting Beer in Devon. Although the two small paintings at first look very simple in nature and style they are beautifully executed particularly the way she uses composition and colour.

FOURTH – room

I found this room very interesting as it showed the direction that Winifred Knights had gone in her artistic career once she had left the Slade. In 1920 she had become the first woman to win the prestigious scholarship in decorative painting. The four selected finalists were tasked with producing a painting and cartoon in an eight week period. The set theme was “the deluge”. This room documented the sheer hard work that had gone into the competition. The large canvas painting ” the deluge 1920″ I thought was extremely powerful, very visual and visionary in its timelessness as although inspired  by the Biblical scene of the great flood and the ark the figures clothing and their features seem very modern. The  very angular figures almost appear to be dancing in formation with their strange stances and outstretched arms. It was easy to spot A self portrait of Winifred Knights within the painting in the foreground. The composition is  striking and is filled with interesting shapes , with a lively perspective and good use of negative spaces. The dance like movement of the panicking figures reminded me of  the moving figures produced by members the  “vorticist ” artistic movement?  Knights also  used members of her family as models for ‘the deluge’ ” the biblical flood was often used as a metaphor for World War One ” ( source Dulwich picture gallery)

also on display was a large cartoon in pencil squared. Although a study the facial features of the figures are beautifully rendered with her fine use of shading. There was also another working cartoon which was used to add the essential forms of the elaborate compostition onto the canvas , this study had less shading but instead seemed more concerned with shapes. There were 3 other small pencil sketches of “the deluge ” and 2 colour studies one with watercolour as the chosen medium, the other oil over pencil sketching in loosely the colours for the background of the painting. It was fascinating to experience how Knights worked and her thought processes , and  remarkable  to remember she was still only 21.

FIFTH ROOM – the British school

Winifred Knights won a scholarship to spend three years working in Italy. The scholarship artists  were required to study and produce large paintings essentially focusing on composition.

‘the marriage of cana’ a large oil painting dated 1923 I thought was very exciting and mesmerising with an interesting composition I counted around 35 figures in the painting .  The setting of the tables laid with white cloths I found fascinating and the direct facial expressions were powerful and emotive. The carefully painted trees seem to be posed and appear to frame the story of a elaborate theatrical marriage ,  the trees revealing a tableau like scene almost acting the role of stage curtains pulled back to reveal the scene. Again Knights colour palette is largely neutral in tone with a sense of peaceful harmony. It appears like a happy scene. My eye was particularly drawn to the table off scene just glimpsed though a square like building structure. The composition is very balanced with strong vertical and horizontal lines. The whole work had a serene quality and is very decorative and  Is clearly inspired and influenced by Italian Renaissance art. There were also examples of Knights careful preparatory studies setting  out in detail her working processes including an oil study squared up on paper , a thinned oil sketch on tracing paper that is mainly concerned with looking and plotting colour and tonal values. The last study was a  squared up sketch using wash on paper. It’s seems that at this stage in her career Winifred Knights is concerned with producing very much a narrative style of painting allowing the viewer to intrepate a  multi-layered story visually unfolding .

I liked ‘ study for Jairus daughter ‘ 1921 again inspired by a biblical story. The drawing depicted a simple bedroom with a beautiful and harmonious use of light to add depth to the drawing. There was also hanging with this another sketch ‘study of sleeping nude for Jairus daughter’ 1921 again an exquisite and delicate sketch  very reminiscent of an old master drawing. Also in this room there were some Italian landscape studies for paradise that I found interesting.

SIXTH ROOM – Italy 1924

in March 1924 after completing her scholarship Knights returned to Italy and in Rome married the Rome scholar Thomas Monnington and the couple spent some time on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Santissima Trinita near Vallepietra in Lazio. Much of the 6th  room explores the Italian work. ‘The Santissima Trinita ‘painted 1924-30 is a large powerful painting capturing the lush Italian scenery in muted yellow and green shades. I liked the vista of the mountains. The figures in the foreground look as though they have strayed from a Renaissance painting, the folds  of their flowing robes are minutely observed, The composition is again planned and harmonious and Knights includes a banner that is painted with precise and minute detailed brushstrokes. Although the painting has a stillness to it with the languishing relaxed figures  there is a sense of  the texture in the way she had painted the grass and haystacks  that appears to suggest movement. I thought it was a very relaxing painting imbued with symbolism.  Another large painting also stood out ‘ Edge of Abruzzi boat with three people on a lake 1924-30’ this work is inspired by the legend of Melusine , Monnington, Knights and a male friend are depicted in the boat – their expressions suggest a reflective mood , again the Italian landscape features in the picture. Also on show are several interesting landscape and  mountain studies  using a variety of drawing mediums including pencil and thinned oil , also some pencil figure studies for the Santissima painting – again demonstrating Knights  very precise and ordered working processes.


The final room focused on Knights later work including a number of sketches and preparatory drawings on tracing paper, looking primarily at the composition for a work called ” scenes from the life of Saint Martin of Tours c.1929″ . This work is again inspired by medieval art and mythology  and some of the drawings reminded me of the watercolours illustrations that the Pre-raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti produced during the nineteenth century as his response to the work of the medieval poet Dante. Some of Knights studies in this room seem much sketchier and looser than much of her earlier work. But I still thought that they  still manage to  skilfully record  light , shapes, form and some colour , there were also some interesting pencil studies including ” study of a tree in winter” 1929 I particularly liked the way Knights had explored the entwined branches.  Also of note ” study of an angel for scenes from the life of Saint Martin c.1933 – a pencil drawing. The Angel   has a fragile look with an almost unintelligible unworldly  look that reminded me of a Raphael face. Also interesting are two large Cartoons for ” scenes of Saint Martin” one was a full sized drawing made to plot the placing of the figures , the vanishing point directs the viewer up to the landscape  beyond the main Narrative section  of the art  work. There was another delicate drawing inspired by Piero Della Francesca.

Winifred Knights died  suddenly of a brain tumour aged just 47, and her work disappeared from the public eye – much of her work appears to be in private collections. I left the exhibition wondering what may have been if Knights had not died?



I really enjoyed the show particularly the way the curators had chosen to include many of the drawings and preparatory studies relating to the major works – it provided a fascinating insight on how Winifred Knights  worked and also provided clues to her thinking processes and how artists were trained during the last century. I was also stuck by her energy , her  sheer hard work and her passion for her art and Italy.  I liked Her obvious draftsmanship  skills -how she  managed to explore composition and perspective. I liked her use of delicate mark making and how she managed  in her many portrait drawings and  studies to capture a sense of the personality of her sitter. However I feel that Knights large oil paintings although interesting lacked the spark of her luminous  drawings,particularly the flattered forms of her  figures who I felt seemed too stilted , stiff and angular. But I did fell that show was helpful to me and that I learnt many things that I could explore on my own artistic studies  and

I came away totally inspired about pursuing my own creative journey.

Interestingly there was a small display of work done by young  teenaged artists on a display in a public gallery space  . These works were a response to the Winfred Knights  exhibition  – the artists have taken Knights  themes but added a modern twist and  slant, it was a fascinating to see the young people’s ideas , and it was definitely  interesting and worth looking at as a response to Knights work.







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s