Winifred Knights : The Deluge - by Sacha Llewellyn

It is 100 years to the day since Winifred Knights learned that she had won the British School at Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting for 1920. To mark this momentous date, author of 'Winifred Knights (1899-1947)', Sacha Llewellyn, reflects on this great success...
2020 marks the centenary of Winifred Knights becoming the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome with her epic The Deluge (Tate). Winning the prize against three much older male artists was a transformative experience for the 21-year old Knights, who gained instant fame for the breathtaking originality of her style. ‘Girl Artist Remodels the Flood!’ blasted the front-page headline of the Daily Graphic, who described the painting ‘as an example of anarchy in art, original, tragic, and inspiring and something distinctly new and compelling in its treatment of a great theme’. 
Below follows an extract from Sacha Llewellyn's 'Winifred Knights (1899-1947)':
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... Through the Deluge narrative, Knights expressed the pain that she had personally experienced as a result of the events of 1914–18.  She also expressed a communal trauma, evident in the shared sense of humanity that characterises all of the paintings’ participants. Her distress, with no outlet for relief, had remained fragmented and unresolved. Her father’s insensibility to her mental collapse in 1917 and his subsequent incomprehension of Mabel’s ‘anxieties’ – ‘for she has been spared the additional stress which would have been involved if [her children] had been of the other sex’ – was part of a wider culture that tended to routinely devalue women’s war experience. Allan Gwynne-Jones described to Knights how the suffering he lived through in the trenches was a life-changing experience, rendering him ‘unbelievably wise and benevolent, with each glance of one’s eyes a blessing’. He added complacently, ‘God bless you dear, you could not understand for the war was in your childhood.’

The expression of female experience was also largely muted by the dominant male artistic culture that existed during the war. Of the 925 exhibits at the ‘War Paintings’ exhibition, only 15 paintings and a small number of sculptural models were by female artists, a reflection of the fact that, partly due to their non-combatant status, women were largely excluded from the government’s war artist schemes. At the Slade, the momentary period of pre-eminence that women artists had enjoyed during the war was rapidly curtailed as soldiers returned from the trenches. The Union Magazine commented on the ‘increasing cynicism’ shown towards female students since the war’s end: ‘the other day a trill of feminine laughter from the passage provoked from one of our younger members only the stern comment “Silly Creatures!”’ Through their active participation in the war effort, both in the civilian workforce and as nurses, ambulance drivers and doctors, and having taken a step towards universal suffrage with the Representation of the People Act (1918), women had undoubtedly made some progress, yet in many ways the war had only served to reinforce masculine values and ideals.

During the final stage of the Rome Scholarship competition, Knights was subjected to unscrupulous behaviour by two of the finalists, G. C. L. Underwood and Arthur Outlaw. According to Gwynne-Jones, they had colluded to prevent the granting of extra time to Knights, who had been in bed with a ‘septic sore throat’ from 22 July until 2 August, an act which elicited his fury: ‘What swine those other two are, it makes me hot every time I think of it.’ Knights confided to Millicent Murby, however, that ‘while their treatment did not do me any good … it made me feel rather hard’. The Architectural Review considered that if ‘the painter was strong enough to flout convention, and yet win the scholarship, there must be in her picture merits which far outweigh flatness and angularity’. The determination and sense of purpose that Knights felt throughout the competition resulted in a painting that critics described as ‘vigorous’ and ‘bold’, qualities usually only deemed appropriate for male artists’ work. In 1924, Henry Tonks contended, in what The Times described as ‘a pleasant little “feminist” note’,  that women artists ‘had something peculiar to them, a faint indication of romance differing from that of man’.



On 21 September 1920, while on holiday in Ludlow with Arnold Mason, Mary Attenborough and her father, Knights learned that she had won the British School at Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting for 1920. Henry Tonks wrote to congratulate her on her picture: ‘It was by far the best illustration of the subject, and a very interesting composition.’ According to one newspaper report, ‘it was John Singer Sargent himself who insisted that the prize should be given to Miss Knights’. It is not difficult to see why the Painting faculty awarded Knights the scholarship, for the integrity of her design allied to its emotional content made the other three entries seem ‘very vague and piecemeal’ in comparison. Gwynne-Jones felt that the other finalists had not done justice to the theme, writing, ‘I have such faith in your design … & it appears to me that the others had been too warily satisfied with their designs in their anxiety to “get something done”.’ A humorous sketch by fellow Slade student Charles Wilkinson (1897–1986) shows a determined Knights putting the final touches to her composition, with her three adversaries diminished in her presence (1920).

Image: Winifred Knights, The Deluge, 1920, Oil on canvas, 152.9 x 183.5 cm, Tate. Reproduced in 'Winifred Knights (1899-1947)', Lund Humphries 2016.

Press reports focused on Knights’ success in the context of her female status. The Manchester Guardian additionally considered her achievement all the greater for the fact that she was nine years younger than her opponents, ‘who had already made their reputations in public exhibitions’. Such a positive attitude to her success was not universal. Knights related 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.’ One explanation for this commentary may have been the underlying prejudice that because Knights was a woman, and was therefore not under a necessity to make a living from her work, the prize should have gone to a man. This was a common sentiment of the times; the  feminist author Irene Clephane recalled how, after the return of ex-servicemen, ‘women were degraded in the public press to the position of ruthless self- seekers depriving men and their dependents of a livelihood,’ a theme already examined by Knights in her painting Leaving the Munitions Works (1919).

Knights felt ‘a little bewildered’ by her success: ‘I came home from Ludlow on Monday as Mother seemed rather anxious about newspapers and such things and I found her in an over-excited state and we have both had a rather trying time.’ Mabel could hardly contain her pride, writing to Evelyn Shaw: ‘I should like you to know that Winifred is the Grand-daughter of the late Mr. Thomas Murby, Educational Publisher and Composer of Children’s music. I mention this because I feel so sure it would be of interest to so many people in the musical as well as the art world.’ She took Knights to the society photographer Paul Laib (1869–1958) to have her picture taken to send to the papers. This photograph was published in the Daily Sketch, which confused Knights’ name with her mother’s middle name in its caption: ‘We take our hat off to Miss Gertrude Knights for looking the part as winner of the Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting’.


-- Sacha Llewellyn. Extract taken from 'Winifred Knights (1899-1947)', Lund Humphries 2016.


You can order your copy of the book HERE.


Hardback • 208 Pages • Size: 270 × 228 mm
11 B&W illustrations and 165 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848221772 • Publication: May 16, 2016



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