From the shadows of the Victorian era, Winifred Knights appears like a nymph out of William Waterhouse’s mythical canvases. With those wide eyes, rebellious style and astonishing beauty, Knights captivated critics during the first half of the 20th century with her reimagining of Renaissance frescoes into a contemporary era scarred by the wounds of the First and Second World Wars.
Knights feels like the natural link between Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’s and fierce Bloomsbury set both in her style and independent spirit. On display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery you’ll even find an illustration to match Christina Rossetti’s (the sister of that rascal Dante Gabriel) heroic poem ‘The Goblin Market’ filled with sisterly love and courageous female leads. With an elegant line and life drawing ability, Knights won accolades during her time at the Slade and British School in Rome that established her alongside the greats of the day. Her breathtaking beauty was also the subject of several artists’ work.
With love affairs, miscarriages and the pressures of war, Knights also had a fascinating personal life – with a breakdown in 1917 that nearly overturned her creative path. Following in the footsteps of her aunt Milicent Murphy, Knights was an avid admirer of Edward Carpenter and his concept of returning to nature. In that way Knights inherited William Morris’ fanatical belief in socialism and the craft movement. Knights even pictured her characters with no shoes as a liberation and way of communing with nature.
But it’s Knights’ spectacular masterpiece ‘The Deluge’ which won her the Prix de Rome in 1920 and the respect of the establishment. In an astonishing apocalyptic interpretation of the biblical tale, Knights depicts a scene riddled with frenzied panic with sharp angular forms and scenery that responds to the contemporary Vorticist movement in Britain. Originally Knights had planned on something far more conventional and still, but this remarkable work feels entirely of its time. In the foreground, Knights shows herself turning back in horror towards the flood as it engulfs the men and women behind as she hurries up the hill towards salvation.