Tag Archives: Dulwich Picture Gallery

Take five

January passed in a blur of protests, marches, outrage, petitions and emails. Time to regroup for five bars’ rest, before returning to the fray. Here are five things I’m going to do in February to keep me fresh.

  1. Plant some vegetable seeds. Nothing says “hope” like tomato seedlings growing on the windowsill.P1040212.JPG
  2. Go book-shopping, in an independent book shop. I’m working my way through the excellent long-list for the Wellcome Book Prize, always stuffed with thought-provoking literature.G Heywood Hill window
  3. Explore the vibrant art of the belle of Bloomsbury. Dulwich Picture Gallery hosts the first major retrospective of Vanessa Bell, a pioneer in life and in art. Starts 8 February.
  4. Bake some cake. I’ve had the builders in, re-making the kitchen, since the middle of December, and I’m craving the warm, delicious smell of a cake baking in the oven. Which one? I think I’ll see which page falls open first in my well-used copy of Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook: Cakes.img_02135: Walk by the sea. For a clear head, wide horizon and lungful of breathable air, I’m heading out of polluted old London and down to the Kent coast.

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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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Paul Nash, St Pancras and Camden Town Hall

Nash's blue plaque at Alexandra Mansions

There’s a fantastic exhibition of Paul Nash paintings at Dulwich Picture Gallery. As all self-respecting Bloomsburies should know, Nash was one of us, renting a flat in Alexandra Mansions on Judd Street for many years.
There’s an intriguing painting of St Pancras’ grand frontage in the exhibition. It shows the station, resplendant in red brick, criss-crossed with scaffolding. Now, that’s pretty much how we’re used to seeing it at the moment. But it wasn’t like that in Nash’s day. Who was building what?
I walked past Alexandra Mansions yesterday and the penny dropped. Nash had a lovely, uninterrupted view of St Pancras from his flat, until they built Camden Town Hall. The building site in the painting was Camden Town Hall in the making. Mystery solved.
Now, get down to Dulwich (the Thameslink takes you straight to West Dulwich station a couple of times a day) and check it out for yourself.

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