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Winifred Knights (1899 - 1947)

Leaving the Munitions Works, 1919

Catalogue essay by Blanche Llewellyn

During 1919 Knights began to excel in the imaginative composition exercises for the Slade School of Art’s weekly Sketch Club, writing to her aunt, Florence Murby: “You will be interested to hear that another Sketch Club criticism is being held next week. Last Sketch Club I had a very good criticism from Tonks. I have sent in two compositions this time. Such a lot of people want to buy them.”

Leaving the Munitions Works (a later Sketch Club submission) features a diagonal road dividing a walled allotment from a factory building, with houses and a patterned landscape behind, placed high on the horizon. A stylistic development from her earlier compositions is apparent, with figures no longer portrayed in isolated groups but interacting convincingly. The three female workers, who walk arm in arm, form a sticking motif, as do a well-dressed couple walking out of the foreground towards the viewer. Strong shadows foreshortened into geometric patterns complete the picture’s underlying rhythm.

This artwork most likely evoked memories of the Blackpole Munitions Works, a significant site just eight miles from Lineholt Farmhouse, where Knights spent time during the war, recuperating from a nervous breakdown. By 1918, this factory, Worcestershire’s largest munitions producer, was dispatching nearly three million cartridges weekly. Its predominantly female workforce, known as the ‘munitionettes’ (approximately 950,000 women WERE employed by the Ministry of Munitions by Armistice Day), became emblematic of female labor during the war.

In this composition, the ‘munitionettes’ (portrayed wearing the ‘national shell overall’ and drawstring cap – clothes that challenged traditional gender stereotyping) are portrayed reuniting with their families after a day at work. Despite the dangers of munitions production, the relatively well-paid roles offered women independence -which allowed economic emancipation- a progress which Knights celebrates in her painting.

Alan Gwynne-Jones, a fellow slide student, acquired this painting, leading to its publication in Londoners, Then and Now (1920). Like other Sketch Club submissions (An allotment, Hayling Island, 1919; A Bank Holiday Fair, 1919) , Knights drew on her memories of wartime experiences. Knights’ engagement with contemporary subjects also reflected her enduring concerns, including war, tradition, gender roles, and societal change.

Leaving the Munitions Works
x W32cm
Signed and dated. Watercolour.
Knights, Winifred

Winifred Knights (1899 - 1947)

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.