Winifred Knights || Sacha Llewellyn

The second world war has a lot to answer for. As well as the obvious upheaval, it marks a turning point in so much of the life of the twentieth century and marks a lacuna that effectively delineates a “before” and an “after”. The urgent sense of a need to change and progress in its aftermath took the form of a sort of desperate optimism that drove the building of the Common Market (later to become the European Union), the development of the United Nations and the construction in Britain of the welfare state. It has taken over seventy years of peace for it to seem logical to start dismantling all that.

The counterpart to such forward vision was a refusal to look back and a rejection of what was past, out of date and, in terms of the build-up to war, destructive. A whole art movement had been developing in the early years of the twentieth century. Some of it was eschewing naturalism, but there was also much that celebrated everyday life and saw historical or mythical events in terms of what we might call “ordinary people”. Stanley Spencer’s Entry of Christ into Liverpool is one such, and Winifred Knights’ The Marriage at Cana is another. Both are mundane and mondaine and strip the scene of its mysticism. The Cana marriage guests are sitting down to melon and dressed in what are, while not suits and ties, certainly not overtly Biblical clothes.

The point of this rather roundabout introduction is to attempt an explanation of why Winifred Knights (1899–1947) is one of the great ignored talents of British art. Her short life didn’t help, but then Eric Ravilious didn’t suffer from longevity either. The fact that she was a woman may have contributed, but women were not completely invisible at the time. Maybe she just didn’t have anyone to champion her at the right time and everything just got put onto a high shelf.

Whatever the reason, this substantial volume sets the record straight. Comprehensive in its coverage and number of illustrations, it exhibits the sweep of Knights’ work. Along with complete paintings, there are several portraits of Knights by other artists – she was quite striking – as well as drawings, sketches and studies. Maybe it is the proliferation of these that are the clue to her obscurity and there isn’t quite the body of work to give her the momentum to have been studied before. Quantity doesn’t equate to quality, and of the latter, there is plenty.

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