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Winifred Knights Exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery

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Winifred Knights

Dulwich Picture Gallery presents an exhibition exploring the work of British artist Winifred Knights (1899-1947). This presentation is part of a programme of exhibitions devoted to neglected Modern British artists taking place at Dulwich. 

Although well-known during her lifetime, Knights' has somehow slipped into obscurity since her death. The exhibition aims to establish Knights as one of the most original British artists working in the first half of the 20th century. Key works such as The Deluge appear alongside more than 100 preparatory works, full-size life studies, and completed masterpieces. The display offers a unique insight into the artist's creative processes. 

In the first major exhibition of her work we see how Knights explores themes such as women’s independence, modernity, and her experiences of wartime England. She was a great admirer of the Italian Quattrocento[1] and artists such as Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and C. R. W. Nevinson. Her work is often contemplative, with smooth surfaces, and a muted palette.  Depicting her own personal experiences, the artist puts herself in many of her paintings, often re-interpreting female characters from the Bible, Pagan mythology, fairy-tale and legend.

Sacha Llewellyn - Guest Curator

Speaking recently Sacha Llewellyn, guest curator of Winifred Knights, said: 

“Although never part of the modernist avant-garde, Knights engaged with modern-life subjects, breathing new life into figurative and narrative painting to produce an art that was inventive and technically outstanding. She explored form and colour to create a mood of calmness and reflection that impacts directly on our senses. Like so many women artists, heralded and appreciated in their own day, she has disappeared into near oblivion. This exhibition, in bringing together a lifetime of work, will create an irrefutable visual argument that she was one of the most talented and striking artists of her generation.”


Winifred Knights 1899-1947
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Winifred Knights - About the Artist

Born in Streatham, south-west London, in 1899, Winifred Margaret Knights showed early artistic talent. 

Winifred Knights, 1919, A Scene in a Village Street with Mill-hands Conversing
From 1915-16 and 1918-20 she studied under Henry Tonks and Philip Wilson Steer at the Slade School of Art. In 1919 she won the Slade Summer Composition Competition with A Scene in a Village Street with Mill-hands Conversing. A female trade unionist calls for better conditions for women workers showing Knights' keen interest in working conditions for female workers. 

In 1920, she received the prestigious Scholarship in Decorative Painting awarded by the British School at Rome, the first English woman to do so. The newspaper, The Daily Graphic, (8th February 1921) dubbed the painting “the work of a genius”. 

In April 1924, Knights married fellow Rome Scholar Thomas Monnington.

Winifred Knights, c.1928-33. Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours
On her return to England in 1926, Knights struggled as she faced the ingrained chauvinism dominating the art world. However, in 1928 she received an important commission to create an altarpiece for the St. Martin's Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral. The altarpiece, which took five years to complete, shows scenes from the Life of Saint Martin of Tours. After giving birth to a stillborn son in January 1928, she poured her heart and soul into the work. Three sad figures – Knights, her mother Mabel, and husband Thomas – stand gazing at the scene. Their shared sense of loss is almost tangible. 

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the artist's only concern was for the safety of her son John and her artistic output came to a standstill until 1946. She died of a brain tumour, aged 48, in 1947. 

Winifred Knights - Layout of the Exhibition

This exhibition unites a number of important works loaned by private and public institutions including UCL Art Museum, University College London, The British Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, and Tate London. Other key lenders include the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and The Wolfsonian-Florida International University. Many of these works have not been publicly shown until now.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition charts key developments in the artist's career, starting with works created during her time at the Slade School. Through these works we get a clear view of art education at the Slade at the time. 

Winifred Knights, Portrait of Millicent Murby, 1917.
We start to understand Knights' growing interest in women's rights. Her aunt Millicent Murby, with whom she had a close relationship, was a determined campaigner for women's emancipation and the right for married women to work. 

Paintings from this period, such as The Potato Harvest (1918) and Leaving the Munitions Works (1919) show male and female workers working together.



Winifred Knights, Preparatory Sketch for The Marriage at Cana, c.1922
The next gallery charts the artist's stylistic development at the British School at Rome through works such as The Marriage at Cana, (1923) Edge of Abruzzi; boat with three people on a lake (1924-30), and The Santissima Trinita (1924-30).

In the Marriage at Cana Knights appears several times as a wedding guest. Every scene was carefully planned and recorded in her preparatory studies also on show. 

Winifred Knights, The Marriage at Cana c.1922

The display also features a number of studies for other compositions, including ParadiseJairus’s Daughter, Bathsheba, but it is not known if final paintings were completed.

The most important work featured in this exhibition is The Deluge (1920). The work appears together with several preparatory studies showing the artist's initial ideas for the painting.

Winifred Knights, The Deluge, 1920

The finish painting shows 21 figures racing towards and climbing up a mountain, which is about to be submerged by a flood. A representation of Noah's ark rests in the background.

Knights is the central figure in the scene looking back in terror at the approaching flood waters. Although making no direct reference to war, the painting probably reflects her personal experience of zeppelin raids over Streatham.

Modern War Paintings by C. R. W. Nevinson
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Winifred Knights at Dulwich Picture Gallery

A beautifully illustrated catalogue, the first monograph devoted to this artist, provides an enduring reminder of the works featured in the exhibition. Winifred Knights is open at Dulwich Picture Gallery from 8th June to 18th September 2016.

During your visit you might also enjoy the Gallery's outstanding collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings.  Tickets and further information are available from the Gallery.

Dutch and Flemish Paintings: Dulwich Picture Gallery
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  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica " Quattrocento - Italian Art History." Encyclopaedia Britannica Read more at: https://tr.im/Rr6hU. 7/06/2016 <Web >

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