Dulwich Picuture Gallery
Until 18 September 2016
Along with Pallant House, Dulwich has got a reputation for putting on shows by slightly recherché and partially neglected 20th century English artists like Evelyn Dunbar, Eric Ravillious and now Winifred Knights. She was declared a genius by the Daily Graphic for her seminal painting The Deluge, which was displayed at the Royal Academy in 1921. Prior to that, she had studied at the Slade under Henry Tonks in 1915, but, after she witnessed a Zeppelin attack on a munitions factory from the top of a tramcar, she had a breakdown and spent the academic year 1917-18 recuperating at a cousin’s farm in rural Worcestershire. She returned to her studies in 1918, where she developed a style dictated by ‘Decorative Painting’, which had the effect of reducing form and colour, flattening perspective and the employment of meticulous compositional disciplines. She won the prestigious Summer Composition Prize in 1919 with A Scene in a Village Street with Mill-hands Conversing. She then won the coveted Prix de Rome scholarship at the British School in Rome, ahead of her male colleagues, and she arrived in Rome, for the start of her three-year stint in October 1920.
Her style was resonant of the Italian Renaissance painters, like Masaccio, Giotto and Piero della Francesca, using the frieze-like arrangement of figures with a thrusting dynanism borrowed from Wyndham Lewis and Edward Wadsworth of the Vorticist movement, which was fashionable at the time. Although she was not taken with Rome, she loved the surrounding countryside, and particularly Tuscan and Umbrian towns and villages, where she was inspired to paint a number of compositions. She spent her summers at the enchanted hilltop village of Anticoli Corrado, an artists’ community, and she devoted her last two years working on a complicated large-scale painting of the Marriage at Cana, which, although submitted unfinished, satisfied the Painting Faculty that she had fulfilled her duties as a scholar. While in Rome, she had a relationship with Arnold Mason, and then a fellow Rome scholar, Thomas Monnington, winner in 1922, who she married at the British Consulate in March 1924. In the company of a group of peasants from Anticoli Corrado, the couple took a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Santissima Trinità at Vallepietra in Lazio, which inspired her to produce a most ambitious painting featuring a group of female pilgrims resting, which combined the landscape, particularly the mountains, and the religious rituals. Whilst holidaying at Lake Piediluco in Umbria she produced a delightful composition, Edge of Abruzzi, which has a boat with three people in it against a mountainous backdrop.
She returned to England, where the critics were enthusiastic about the works she produced in Italy, with the French Government awarding her with a silver medal when The Marriage at Cana was exhibited at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art in Paris in 1928. She received a commission to paint a reredos for a chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, which took several years to complete, working closely with the architect Sir Herbert Baker, and then she received another commission to paint The Flight into Egypt for the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres. She was obviously a sensitive soul, as she was deeply affected by the Second World War as well, while at the same time struggling to reconcile motherhood with the life of a painter. After the war, she began to paint again, but her short life life came to an end as a result of a brain tumour in 1947. Her Stanley Spenceresish angular style, drab colours and humourless biblical scenes lacking in warmth or compassion, make her a difficult artist to fully appreciate, so hats off to Dulwich for going out on a limb in putting together this absorbing show, although I think the Daily Graphic may have slightly over-stated her status.