Winifred Knights

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, UK

The first solo exhibition in the UK of British artist Winifred Knights comes almost 70 years after her death. Although she was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome for her painting The Deluge, in 1920, 95 percent of the 120 works on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery have never been shown before.

Knights’s work is deeply autobiographical. Incorporating themes of women’s suffrage, workplace politics, war, marriage, motherhood and death, it straddles the gap between emancipation and subjugation experienced by many women during and after World War I. Combining influences from the Italian 15th century with a sharp-edged, surrealist modernism, Knights’s paintings often depict a bold ideal of women’s solidarity, in which the harmonious social and economic emancipation of women drives wider societal and industrial progress.

winifred_knights_the_potato_harvest_1918_watercolour_over_pen_and_ink_on_paper_30_x_39_cm._courtesy_c_the_estate_of_winifred_knights

Winifred Knights, The Potato Harvest, 1918, watercolour over pen and ink on paper, 30 x 39 cm. Courtesy: © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Winifred Knights, The Potato Harvest, 1918, watercolour over pen and ink on paper, 30 x 39 cm. Courtesy: © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The exhibition’s opening room reveals Knights’s startling aptitude for drawing in a series of lucid self-portraits created before and during her studies at the Slade School, London, where she enrolled in 1915. Other early sketches highlight a meticulous clarity to her draftsmanship, combined with a quiet perspicuity that, when carried through to her paintings, grants them a very particular stillness. Despite their somewhat anodyne titles, works such as The Potato Harvest (1918, painted while Knights was in rural Worcestershire taking a year out of her studies to escape the traumas of WWI) and A Scene in a Village Street with Mill-hands Conversing (1919), also portray Knights’s firm political convictions. Women and men work the land together, as equals, and figures such as her aunt Millicent Murby, treasurer of the Fabian Women’s group and a campaigner for ‘equal pay for equal work’, feature repeatedly.

At the centre of the exhibition is The Deluge. With its wide-angle view and raking diagonals, the painting conflates the well-known biblical story with Knights’s horror at the devastation of war. The canvas is crowded with 24 anguished figures (including Knights herself and at least two of her lovers) who, with no ark in sight or hope of salvation, scrabble up a soon-to-be-flooded hillside. The painting won Knights the scholarship to Rome, a trip that fuelled her admiration for Italian painting – particularly that of Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico – as well as her interest in socialist politics.

Winifred Knights, The Marriage at Cana, 1923, oil on canvas, 1.8 x 2 m. Courtesy: Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa; © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Winifred Knights, The Marriage at Cana, 1923, oil on canvas, 1.8 x 2 m. Courtesy: Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa; © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Winifred Knights, The Marriage at Cana, 1923, oil on canvas, 1.8 x 2 m. Courtesy: Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa; © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Marriage at Cana (1923) is Knights’s personal retelling of the New Testament miracle in which Christ turns water into wine. Again, she places herself in the scene, this time at two guest tables, as well as concealed in the rear antechamber, as the bride to be. Elsewhere, her fiancé Arnold Mason sits with his arms defensively crossed, while beside him is Thomas Monnington, the Rome scholar whom Knights would soon marry. Each guest at the celebration appears muted and impassive, lost in thought. The work is animated by 11 gleaming slices of pink watermelon, which sit nibbled on each guest’s plate, infusing the occasion with a heavy air of temptation that perhaps suggests Knights’s concerns around divided sexual loyalties and women’s autonomy. Similar issues are foregrounded in Knights’s final Italian painting,  Santissima Trinita (The Holy Trinity, 1924–30), which shows female pilgrims resting on their way to Vallepietra. 16 women in candy-coloured robes (one of whom is Knights) seem to float in a surreally still hillscape, independent of one another but united nonetheless in
their increasing social freedom as unaccompanied female travellers.

Ending with a selection of portraits of Knights by her friends, colleagues and lovers, the final room celebrates the impact she had on her peers during her lifetime, while the exhibition as a whole makes a perceptive and compelling claim for her enduring significance. At a time when women’s rights were becoming national concerns, Knights presented a quietly tenacious imagining of what emancipation might look like. 

Lead image: Winifred Knights, The Deluge, 1920, oil on canvas, 1.5 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: © Tate, London 2016; © The Estate of Winifred Knights 

Issue 183

First published in Issue 183

Nov - Dec 2016

Most Read

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The museum director, who resigned last year, acted with ‘integrity’, an independent report finds
In further news: study finds US film critics overwhelmingly white and male; woman sues father over Basquiat
With the government’s push for the controversial English baccalaureate, why the arts should be an integral part of the...
From Bruce Nauman at the Schaulager to the story of a 1970s artist community in Carona at Weiss Falk, all the shows to...
Sotheby’s and Christie’s say they are dropping the practice of using female-only staff to pose for promotional...
For the annual city-wide art weekender ahead of Basel, the best shows and events to attend around town
For our second report from BB10, ahead of its public opening tomorrow, a focus on KW Institute for Contemporary Art
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
In further news: declining UK museum visitors sees country fall in world rankings; first winner of Turner Prize,...
The Icelandic-Danish artist’s creation in Vejle, Denmark, responds to the tides and surface of the water: both artwork...
In further news: Emperor Constantine’s missing finger discovered in the Louvre; and are Van Gogh’s Sunflowers turning...
The opening of a major new exhibition by Lee Bul was delayed after one of the South Korean artist’s works caught fire
The LA-based painter’s exquisite skewing of Renaissance and biblical scenes at Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London
Lee Bul, Abortion, 1989, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist and PKM Gallery, Seoul
In a climate of perma-outrage has live art self-censored to live entertainment?

A tribute to the iconic New York journal: a platform through which founder Andy Warhol operated as artist, hustler and...
A distinctively American artist who, along with four neighbourhood contemporaries, changed the course of US painting...
From Assemble’s marbled floor tiles to Peter Zumthor's mixed-media miniatures, Emily King reports from the main...
From Ian White's posthumous retrospective to Lloyd Corporation's film about a cryptocurrency pyramid scheme, what to...
Kimberly Bradley speaks to ‘the German’ curator on the reasons for his early exit from the Austrian institution
In further news: #MeToo flashmob at Venice Architecture Biennale; BBC historian advocates for return of British...
German museums are being pushed to diversify their canons and respond to a globalized world – but is ‘cleaning up’ the...
Sophie Fiennes’s new film Bloodlight and Bami reveals a personal side of the singer as yet unseen 
‘At last there is a communal mechanism for women to call a halt to the demeaning conventions of machismo’
The German artist has put up 18 works for sale to raise money to buy 100 homes
The novelist explored Jewish identity in the US through a lens of frustrated heterosexuality
Artist Jesse Jones, who represented Ireland at last year’s Venice Biennale, on what is at stake in Friday’s Irish...
‘I spend more time being seduced by the void … as a way of energizing my language’: poet Wayne Koestenbaum speaks about...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018