Figure Study, Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours, circa 1929
9 x 4 1/2 in. (23 x 11.5 cm)
Provenance: the artist’s estate; private collection.
Provenance: the artist’s estate Literature: Winifred Knights, exh. cat.,The Fine Art Society, London, 1995, pp. 56‚Äì7 (similar work repr. p. 43)
In 1928, Knights received a prestigious commission to paint a reredos for the Milner Memorial Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, which the architect Sir Herbert Baker was designing. The painting took several years to complete, and it was difficult for Knights to maintain the clarity of her original conception, presented in numerous preparatory studies, while respecting the preconceptions of the architect.
Taking inspiration from Sulpicius Severus’ fourth-century Vita Martini, Knights records three scenes from the life of St. Martin of Tours: St Martin gives half his cloak to a beggar; St Martin restores a child to life; St. Martin’s vision of Christ.
The central scene, St. Martin restores a child to life, clearly held a deep significance for Knights, who had recently given birth to a stillborn son. Knights includes herself among the onlookers as well as members of her family, including her mother Mabel and Thomas Monnington; her sister Eileen and nephew Martin provided the model for the mother and child. It is likely that the elder St. Martin, wearing a bishop’s cloak, is a portrait of the architect Sir Herbert Baker.
Bishop Bell, who was involved with commissions for religious works from
numerous artists including Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Augustus Lunn
and Hans Feibusch, described the St Martin Altarpiece as one of the
most lovely, delicate and deeply felt modern religious paintings that I
know’ (G.K.A. Bell,The Church and the Artist’, The Studio, September
1942, vol. 124, no. 594, p. 81).
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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 Slade Summer Composition Competition with A Scene in a Village Street with Mill-Hands Conversing. In 1920, she became the first woman to win the Scholarship in Decorative Painting awarded by the British School at Rome. 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 in Canterbury. 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 retrospective exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2016.