In 1921, aged just 22, the artist Winifred Knights was hailed a genius. She had just become the first woman to win the prestigious and highly prized Prix de Rome scholarship, having already won a slew of prizes as well as the admiration of both her tutors and fellow students at the Slade School. This early burst of glory was to be short lived: despite her achievements, her name disappeared into obscurity following her premature death at the age of 48. As such, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s exhibition, part of its current modern British series celebrating the work of neglected artists, provides a welcome introduction to this long-forgotten fascinating artist.

Knights’ prodigious talent is clear in the early displays of draughtsmanship, completed at the Slade under the tutelage of Henry Tonks. Her classical figure drawings are exquisitely executed and demonstrate the painstaking attention to detail that slowed her output in later years. Knights’ style quickly matures into something distinct, a modernist reinterpretation of renaissance styles unlike any other early twentieth century artist. ‘The Deluge’, a centrepiece of the exhibition, is as remarkable today as it was to the panel of judges who, in 1920, unanimously awarded her the Prix de Rome scholarship after viewing it. The painting’s angular forms suggest Quattrocento art, yet the image’s sharp lines and sense of driving diagonal motion evoke Vorticism. The planes of solid colour and geometric shapes that underpin the composition almost gesture to abstraction. While the curiously dispassionate figures first catch the viewer’s attention, in the background the flat buildings, minimalist Noah’s arc, and natural landscape are realised in a startlingly vivid and dynamic manner.

This inimitable structure is also in evidence in ‘The Marriage at Cana’, the first painting that Knights completed whilst studying at the British School in Rome. The influence of Piero della Francesca is clear, and the modern, stylised figures of the wedding guests signal that this much more than a pastiche piece. The vibrant pink, sharply curved segments of watermelon on the plate of each guest add a slightly surreal touch – particularly in the centre of the image, where a furtive man caught in the act of nibbling a slice appears, on first glance, to be holding it up to affect a comic smile. Although superficially inspired by Biblical scenes, Knights’ paintings lack any sense of salvation or transcendence. Her work is marked by an eerie stillness, which conveys a disturbing, underlying sense of tension. In the ‘Santissima Trinita’, a work inspired by Knights’ participation in an Italian pilgrimage, this static quality again verges on the surreal. The muted, earthy colours radiate an ethereal glow, which transforms a naturalistic study of a landscape scene into something much more beguiling. In the lower half of the painting, the presence of the peasant women, who are shown either asleep or engaged in quiet ritual, adds to the strangeness of the piece.

The exhibition also provides a glimpse into a fascinating, idiosyncratic life. Inspired in part by her aunt Millicent Murby, a campaigner for women’s rights and Treasurer of the Fabian Women’s Group, Knights possessed ambition and refused to be limited by her gender. After receiving criticism from some of her male competitors, when she was awarded the Rome scholarship, Knights wrote to Murby that ‘people seem to be sorry for the other men…why should they be, they had just the same chances as I and more’. Her outward image reflected this bold, unconventional attitude: eschewing the fashion of the 1920s, Knights designed and made her own clothes, wore her dark hair up with a severe centre parting, and often sported a wide-brimmed black hat. Her appearance was as striking and distinctive as her art; indeed, there are clear parallels between the two. The impassive figures that people her paintings are clothed in the long, bohemian peasant dresses that Knights created for herself; the simple colours of the outfits (as depicted in the paintings and as worn by the artist) are in harmony with Knights’ characteristically muted palette. This is most notable in ‘The Deluge’ and ‘The Marriage at Cana’, two paintings in which Knights depicts herself as a central character, facing out towards the viewer but with her gaze averted. Indeed, Knights appears in all of her paintings – sometimes multiple times – in an act of intriguingly defiant, almost obsessive self-portraiture. It feels as if there is much more to be said on her presentation and exploration of the self, as well as the clothing and costume designs that, one assumes, form a significant part of her oeuvre. One hopes that this exhibition sparks further critical reassessment of Knights’ output and its context, as regards other modernist artists and designers.

The exhibition comes to a close with a range of portraits in which Knights acts as muse for other artists, such as Colin Gill, Arnold Mason, and her husband Thomas Monnington – all of whom were, arguably, in possession of an inferior talent. This seems sadly fitting for an artist who, for so long, has been remembered only as a footnote in the biography of her husband. Knights’ premature death and her years of inactivity due to motherhood and struggles with mental health foreshortened the development of her singular talent. Nevertheless, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s thoughtful, timely showcase of Knights’ small but stunning body of work goes some way to rectify the long years of critical neglect. It is unlikely that Winifred Knights’ name will be forgotten again.

About the author

Lottie Whalen is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Queen Mary, University of London, where she is working on an AHRC funded thesis provisionally titled ‘Mina Loy’s Designs for Modernism’. She can be found on Twitter at @LottieAW.