Artist, feminist, style icon: Winifred Knights

Winifred Knights, Self-portrait sketching at a table, c. 1916.jpg

Winifred Knights, Self-portrait sketching at a table, c 1916, private collection. Copywright: The Estate of Winifred Knights.

Her gaze is level, unwavering; her concentration absolute. Her dark hair is drawn back, Mona Lisa style, from a neat centre-parting. In this accomplished, early self-portrait, she knows exactly what she’s doing, and she’s about to beat the men at their own game.

This is Winifred Knights, an artist I confess I’d not even heard of before Dulwich Picture Gallery’s retrospective of her work opened. Her genre and style – “decorative painting”, inspired by early Renaissance frescos – have been resolutely out of fashion.

This exhibition, then, is a rediscovery. Knights’ draughtsmanship is both delicate and bold, especially in her lovely portraits of her sisters, mother and aunt (the doughty early feminist campaigner Millicent Murby, whose views influenced much of Knights’ work). Her large-scale paintings are both modern and timeless, carefully planned though many preparatory drawings included in the exhibition, with a subtle and clever use of colour.

Knights was a star pupil at the Slade School of Fine Art in Bloomsbury, from 1915 to 1919, under the tutelage of Henry Tonks, then at the British School in Rome. Her subjects ranged from reinterpreted Biblical scenes (two of which, The Deluge and The Marriage at Cana, are highlights of the exhibition) to intimate portraits and conversation pieces showing agricultural or industrial workers engaged in work or discussion.

In addition to substantial artistic success, she cut an elegant figure. Her distinctive dress style was entirely her own, based on her own designs of homespun long cloaks, round-necked bodices, full skirts and ribboned shoes. Ignoring the fashion of the day, she dressed to express her artistic vision. She won scholarships, travelled to Rome and across Italy, had relationships with seriously handsome men (judging by their portraits) and picked up lucrative commissions. I’m more than a little envious.

And yet her life was blighted by war. She witnessed a disastrous explosion in a munitions factory in West Ham that triggered a breakdown in 1917, then was so distressed by the outbreak of the second world war that she almost gave up painting. Only two years after the war ended, when she had just begun to work again, she died suddenly of a brain tumour, leaving a husband and young child. I’m delighted to have made acquaintance with her art, almost 70 years on.

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