I had seen reproductions of Edge of Abruzzi; Boat with three people on a lake many times and had even visited Piediluco, the small town near Rome from where my mother drew her inspiration for this picture. But I only got to see the original artwork in 2016 when it formed part of the Winifred Knights exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
I returned to view it on several occasions, its immense beauty having a very powerful effect on me. Even when surrounded by many, many visitors I always fell under its quiet spell as it revealed yet another intricate detail. I feel sad and joyful at the same time that I have, at last, seen the painting ‘in the flesh’ – sad that I will probably never get to view it again, but happy that I have had the opportunity to study and enjoy this most wonderful work at close hand.
When I was a schoolboy, I was slightly aware of there being something exceptional about my mother, but I was totally ignorant of her true abilities. Now, at the end of my life, I am delighted to have learnt of her tremendous talent and been able to appreciate so much of her work, from childhood sketches through to her major pictures. She had just begun to paint again – after a twelve-year hiatus – when she died so tragically young at the age of forty-seven.
Text by John Monnington, the artist’s son.
Winifred Knights was born in Streatham, London in 1899. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art (1915–17, 1918–20 and 1926–27). In 1919 she jointly won the prestigious Slade Summer Composition Competition with A Scene in a Village Street with Mill-Hands Conversing (UCL Art Museum). In 1920, she became the first woman to win the Scholarship in Decorative Painting awarded by the British School at Rome with her painting The Deluge (Tate). She remained in Italy until December 1925, marrying fellow Rome Scholar Thomas Monnington (1902–1976) in April 1924. On her return to England, Knights received a commission to paint an altarpiece for the Milner Memorial Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral. A major commission for the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, on which she had been working for five years, remained unconcluded at her early death, aged 47.
Throughout her life, Winifred Knights produced work through which she explored women’s autonomy. Presenting herself as the central protagonist, and selecting models from her inner circle, she rewrote and reinterpreted fairy tale and legend, biblical narrative and pagan mythology. She was the subject of a major retrospective at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2016, curated by Sacha Llewellyn.