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.
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.
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