It has been argued that Winifred Knights is one of the most important female artists of the 20th century. But who is she, and why has her importance not been recognised more universally?
Winifred Margaret Knights was born in London in 1899, and by 1915, at 16 years old, had enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art. She diligently continued her studies until 1927, with sporadic returns to the Slade. She became a favourite student of Henry Tonks, surgeon turned progressive war artist and art teacher. Knights’ work won early acclaim, winning prizes such as the Slade Summer Composition Competition in 1919, and she became the first English woman to win the highly coveted Scholarship in Decorative Painting awarded by the British School in Rome in 1920. The painting that won the prize, The Deluge, was called “the work of a genius” by the Daily Graphic in 1921. Around this time she had become engaged to a fellow student, Arnold Mason, and had moved to Italy for her scholarship.
In Italy, Knights not only studied, but here found her muse in the Italian landscape. It would influence her works to come and be an integral part of her artistic vision. It also affected her personal life, as she ended her engagement to Mason, and married fellow Rome Scholar Thomas Monnington (another talented pupil of Henry Tonks) in 1924. She completed some works whilst in Italy, including, amongst others, The Marriage at Cana and Santissima Trinita, as well as studies for several others, all with a biblical theme. She returned from Italy in 1925. During her career, she undertook commissions, both by herself, and jointly with her husband Thomas, such as the decoration of the Courtaulds’ newly acquired Eltham Palace in 1933.
In 1928, Knights was commissioned to create a painting for the newly renovated and dedicated St Martin’s Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, working with the architect of the chapel, Herbert Baker. The chapel had been restored and dedicated to Viscount Alfred Milner by his widow, but had not yet the desired altarpiece painting. The Milner trustees had rejected the design by the more well-known Glynn Owen Jones, and had instead turned to Knights. It is due to this that the Cathedral is lucky enough to count her stunning painting Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours, as part of its artistic collection. A stylistically interesting painting, it was not completed until 1933, partly due to Knights’ exhaustive preparations and drafts, partly due to the difficulties she experienced working in conjunction with the vision of Herbert Baker. The pressures this put her under sadly left her close to a breakdown.
The painting itself is unusual in composition. Described as a triptych, the painting depicts three scenes from St Martin’s life on one large panel. It shows St Martin dividing his cloak with the beggar, St Martin restoring a dead child to life, and the visitation by Christ and angels to St Martin. Notable artistically, is the somewhat stark Italian (rather than French) background landscape, and the First World War helmet worn by St Martin in the first scene. Also notable is the strangely lopsided shape of the painting, which has led to some debate and speculation. There was originally an extra panel attached to the left hand side of the painting, depicting an angel. This section was removed in the 1990s following damage incurred to the painting. There is no mention of there ever being a matching panel on the other side, and to have just the one seems a strange artistic choice. The painting fits well into the niche in the space for which it was commissioned, and yet for some still maintained an asymmetrical and slightly cramped appearance.
In 1935, Dean Johnson removed the painting from St Martin’s Chapel, installing it in the Dean’s Chapel and citing “unsuitable colouring for the Milner Chapel” as a reason (Chapter Acts 19). Lady Milner was fervently opposed to the move, considering St Martin’s Chapel to be the painting’s true home as a commissioned part of the Milner Memorial. By 1949, the painting was restored to its position in St Martin’s Chapel. Knights had sadly passed away in 1947 at the young age of 48, leaving behind unfinished works. It was decided to erect a plaque in her memory near St Martin’s Chapel, which can be seen on the north wall of the north-east Transept.
Knight’s lack of fame, despite the accolades she has received for her work, both contemporaneously and posthumously, could be due to the more well-known works of her husband. Indeed the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography only affords her a sub-entry under Thomas Monnington. She seems somewhat eclipsed by her husband, and other contemporaries’ work, despite being picked from amongst them for prestigious awards and commissions. This may also be due to her relatively small portfolio of completed works. She seems a thorough and unusual woman, and her work is experiencing a resurgence of interest, both scholarly and through exhibition. A retrospective exhibition of her work will be on display next year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, bringing together her major works and studies for them. In the meantime, Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours can be seen here in the Cathedral in St Martin’s Chapel.
Laura Matlock, with thanks to www.winfredknights.com