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Mill-hands, pilgrims, and saints  

09 September 2016

Nicholas Cranfield sees a little-known artist’s compositions

Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Ill-treated commission: Winifred Knights’s Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours, c.1928-33, in the Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral

Ill-treated commission: Winifred Knights’s Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours, c.1928-33, in the Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury C...

FEW will have heard of the Slade artist Winifred Knights. During her lifetime, it would appear that she eschewed public exhibition of her art, and, apart from a 1995 retro­spective (Fine Art Society and British School at Rome), this is the first substantial exhibition of her work.

This show is part of the continu­ing commitment at Dulwich to devoting exhibitions to modern British artists who have been critically neglected, and it is accompanied by a resourceful catalogue written by the curator, Sacha Llewellyn.

Knights was a south-east Londoner who was born in Streatham and privately educated at James Allen’s Girls’ School at Dulwich; her family had money, owning sugar plantations in the West Indies. Appropriately enough, the Christ’s Chapel of God’s Gift at Dulwich was open on the day of the press view. What, I wondered, would the young budding artist have made of the sentimentality of the figurative reredos that was introduced when she was at school (W. D. Caröe, 1911)?

When she was 13, her mother sought out a training school for her, but Henry Tonks, the new director at the Slade School of Art, advised her to wait till her daughter turned 16. When Knights entered the Slade (October 1915) she intended to become a book illustrator, and several early designs show her as more than competent. After a break­­down, and a brief respite in the countryside with cousins, away from the bombing of London, she returned to the Slade.

In 1919, she was joint winner of the Slade Summer Competition with a Scene in a Village Street with Mill-hands Conversing (UCL Art Museum). It seemingly depicts a lunchtime break for workers outside Roydon Mill in Essex, but in the strike-torn years of the 1920s it later became known at the Slade as “Mill-hands on strike”.

It is painted in tempera on board, and there is a silent almost timeless quality to the two dozen figures, six of them in the background, who stand around idly, seemingly with­out purpose. Measuring three foot by four, it is an imposing composi­tion. Already the frieze-like ar­­range­ment of the figures and flattened perspective hint at the interest Knights had in Quattro­cento painting.

The following year, against all odds, she became the first woman to win the prestigious Scholarship in Decorative Painting awarded by the British School at Rome. Thomas Monnington, her later husband, entered the Slade in January 1918 and followed her out to Rome on the same scholarship in 1922. Italy would at last bring her to the land of “Masaccio, Giotto and all the rest of the blessed company”, as she called them. In Italy, she fell in love, not just with Renaissance painting. She was engaged to Arnold Mason, a fellow student, but later married Monnington.

That so little of her life is known is because Knights has hitherto lacked a biographer and been overshadowed by her husband’s later career. Indeed, at her death from a suspected brain tumour (7 February 1947) there was no formal obituary, and there is still no in­de­pen­dent entry for her in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; her work is written up in the entry for her husband, who died in 1976, when he was President of the Royal Academy. The Canterbury Cathed­ral website has, since October 2015, included a lengthy piece about her.

The competition for the Rome scholarship pitted her against three older male artists, among them Leon Underwood (1890-1975). Candid­ates had to produce a paint­ing of The Deluge (Tate, London). Initially, she toyed with depicting Noah entering the ark with his family.

Being painted thinly in oil on canvas gave the final painting the effect of using tempera. The ark has gone, as, instead, Knights con­centrates on Genesis 7.8, with figures fleeing helplessly up a steep slope. Several contemporary critics suggested that the scene was remin­iscent of Londoners fleeing the 1917 Zeppelin bombings that had occa­sioned her own breakdown. In 1921, the critic for The Daily Graphic called it “the work of a genius”.

Although Knights never identi­fied herself as a religious painter, her work, rather like that of Stanley Spencer, often returns to biblical sources. This in part shows the influence of the spirit of the Italian Renaissance. In part­icular, travelling out of Rome, she was transfixed by the landscape of the Campagna, and by the fresco cycle of Piero della Francesca which she and Monnington saw in the church of San Francesco in Arezzo. What would she make of that since its 2002 restoration?

This year’s exhibition of Piero and Modernism at Forlí, near Bologna, highlighted how Italian Modernist painting of the 1920s was affected by the 15th-century artist, and showed paintings by Virgilio Guidi and Felice Casorati. It also wrote up the foreign artists who drew similar inspiration at the same time, including Knights, Monning­ton, and Frederick Cayley Robinson (Arts, 19 August 2010), and the earlier neo-primitives of Roger Fry’s generation at the Slade.

We get to see studies for Jairus’s Daughter (1921) and a 1923 pencil-and-oil sketch for Bathsheba, in which her husband stands in for King David, high on the parapet wall of what is clearly Orvieto. The major paintings displayed include The Marriage at Cana (1923), which won a silver medal in Paris at the 1926 International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts; a scene from a local Italian pilgrimage (The Santissima Trinita); and a reredos for the north-east transept chapel of St Martin, in Canterbury Cathedral. This she undertook once she returned from living in Italy. As Llewellyn tells it, the salutary story might persuade DACs and PCCs as well as the cathedrals’ fabric advisory com­mittees to have a better under­standing of their shared respons­ibilities with invited artists.

The chapel of St Martin, which had lain empty since the Reforma­tion, was restored by Herbert Baker and rededicated. It included a memorial to Viscount Milner (1854-1925), who had served in Lloyd George’s five-man War Cabinet; but it lacked a reredos. The Dean himself, George Bell, proposed Eleanor Brickdale (1872-1945), who at the time was known mainly for her work in stained glass (she does merit an independent entry in the ODNB, perhaps because she was unmarried), but was overruled in committee. Instead, Glyn Jones (1906-84), the Rome scholar for 1926, was chosen.

Jones (also missing from the ODNB) concentrated on this project for two years when he was in Rome, and relinquished his final year’s scholarship to complete it. On his return in June 1928, Baker and the cathedral committee rejected the finished work outright, claiming that it was “more suitable for fresco work than for an altarpiece”. Whether the cathedral ever did the honest thing by him is unclear: he was still trying to have the painting hung there as late as 1950.

Seeking another artist, the Com­mittee was advised to ask “Mrs Monnington”, even though her style and use of tempera was more akin to the very fresco style that had been objected against Jones. Knights did not get on with Baker, but was encouraged by Bell, who particularly reminded her of the frescoes of Simone Martini that she had seen in Assisi in March 1921.

When Bell left to become Bishop of Chichester, the commission faltered under both his successors, as neither of them much liked it. Baker interfered routinely, and the picture was finally installed only in November 1933. Dean Hewlett Johnson remained unconvinced, and it was removed in 1935 to the crypt.

Not that this unhappy conclusion was the last indignity to be meted out against the altarpiece. Some time before 1990, water damage or poor conservation destroyed the right-hand panel, so that the reredos can only be understood when read alongside the full-scale sketch next to it. Without the panel with the Annunciate Angel, who carried the other half of Martin’s robe, the surviving picture is oddly unbalanced, and appears to be a triptych, which was never the artist’s intention.

This exhibition should do much to advertise the real quality of this overlooked artist and to promote a better understanding of the Slade School artists of the period.


“Winifred Knights 1899-1947” is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until 18 September. Phone 020 8693 5254.


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