A Tale of Two Artists

A recent visit to the Dulwich Picture Gallery opened my eyes to a local artist of whom I had not previously heard. Winifred Knights was born in 1899 in Streatham, very close to our new neighbourhood, and she went to my old school James Allen’s Girls’ School. She was a British painter influenced by the Italian Quattrocento but it was her drawings that blew me away; delicate, almost microscopic feathered linework, which appeared to have been rendered by an assiduously graceful hand and yet seemed to me to pulse with life out of the page.

A few weeks later I went to the showstopping retrospective at Tate Modern on Georgia O’Keeffe and despite the thirteen rooms of expansive canvases and her reputation as one of the giants of modern American art, I left feeling decidedly underwhelmed. Having never seen a Georgia O’Keeffe painting in the flesh, I had been expecting a sumptuous, sensual delight for the senses, but every painting just seemed to me to be flat, uninspiring and – dare I say it? – a little amateurish. As we left the final room and walked past a shop display wall covered in posters of her popular flower paintings, I wondered why the monumental Tate show felt like a triumphant display of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and yet the comparatively minor Dulwich show felt like discovering a bright, shining little treasure.

The two women were born within twenty years of each other, and both showed early artistic promise. Born in 1879 in Wisconsin, the young Georgia decided by the age of ten that she was to become an artist. Winifred too had begun to draw at an early age and, according to the Streatham News of 1920, “Even before she could properly talk the young artist cried out for “Chalk, Chalk”, which her mother supplied, and she was happy.”

Both women had teachers who were influenced by the Impressionist movement. O’Keeffe attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then learnt under the tutelage of William Merrit Chase at art school in New York; Knights went to the Slade School of Fine Art in London where she studied under Henry Tonks. Both won the prize at their respective Art Schools as well as a subsequent scholarship which developed their careers and led each to meet her husband.

Georgia O’Keeffe started her career turning her back on her training in painting as felt she could not distinguish herself as an artist within the mimetic tradition, and instead she started work as a commercial artist and then spent several years teaching art, first as a teaching assistant and later as a head of department. Crucially in 1915 some of her charcoal drawings were shown by a friend to Alfred Steiglitz, the photographer and gallerist who was later to become her husband. Georgia was by nature a loner with a prickly personality, and her relationship with her husband has been described by her biographer as “a collusion … a system of deals and trade-offs, tacitly agreed to and carried out, for the most part, without the exchange of a word.” Yet it was this union which was ultimately to become the key to her success.

Steiglitz was 23 years her senior and as well as being a successful photographer he was an established art promoter, known for the New York galleries he ran in the early years of the 20th century. He 
made more than 350 photographs of her, some of which were nudes that created a public sensation in an exhibition of 1921. Through Steiglitz, O’Keeffe came to know many of his circle of artist and photographer friends by whose work she was inspired. It was he who first promoted her work, eventually organising annual exhibitions of her work which made her one of the most important American artists by the mid 1920s. And it was Steiglitz who first put forward the Freudian theory that her flower paintings – for which she is now best known – were in fact studies of the female vulva, an interpretation which was later to be picked up by the feminist artists of the 1970s, despite the fact that O’Keeffe herself denied its veracity. O’Keeffe outlived her older husband by 40 years, finally passing away at the age of 98 and leaving a legacy which included the Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 which sold for 44 million dollars in 2014, the highest price ever paid for a painting by a woman at auction. 

By contrast, when Winifred Knights passed away at the age of 47, she did not even receive an obituary. It was not until the 1980s, when one of her most lauded works The Deluge was rediscovered as part of a collection which had been consigned to auction, that her oeuvre of work began to be reassessed. The Deluge was the critically acclaimed entry which made her the first woman in England to win the prestigious Scholarship in Decorative Painting awarded by the British School at Rome. Winifred Knights moved to Italy to complete her scholarship. Her beauty and striking persona attracted attention from the moment she arrived and it was here that she first met her husband, the painter Thomas Monnington. On her return to England she was known for her distinctive dress, favouring the simple clothing style of the Italian peasant woman in contrast to the tubular silhouette fashionable in London circles. Knights worked slowly but steadily as an artist, exhibiting to critical success, and executing work for various patrons, including a commission on which she collaborated with her husband. They had a son together, after a previous pregnancy was tragically cut short by stillbirth, and she proved to be a devoted but over-anxious mother. An unsettled period with the onset of the Second World War mirrored the nervous breakdown she had suffered as a result of the First World War, and it brought her creative productivity to a standstill. Her marriage deteriorated as the war came to an end, and tragically the following year she suffered a brain tumour which killed her.

It is ironic that these two exhibitions were shown simultaneously in London, as they served only to underline to me how much success or failure can turn on a penny – how a fortuitous collaboration with the right person can ramp up a career to the superstellar levels or how fate can turn talent to nothing. It made me sad that Winifred Knights was clearly an artist with so much talent and yet was forgotten for so many years and I applaud the Dulwich Picture Gallery for putting on this, her first major retrospective (until 18th September).

Dulwich Surprise

Being between houses, this is the first time in eight years that I have not had a house to open in order to participate in the Dulwich Open House! I thought (briefly) about finding someone else’s house to show my work, but then decided that I would instead enjoy the freedom of spending entire weekends go off and looking at other open houses.

It’s a wonderful experience to be able to mooch in and out of random houses in Dulwich and see how other people live (as well as the art, of course!). It is such a quirk of the Open House that you can be standing in an empty room looking at some prints and then you look up to find the room is suddenly packed with a crowd!

I love that you can walk into a room that literally looks and feels like a nightclub with a glitterball and neon artwork adorning three walls and then you turn around to the fourth wall and realise it’s just an ordinary Dulwich kitchen!

And where else would you stumble upon a headless mannequin in a 9 foot display case in a beautiful garden without questioning it?!


Goodbye Home

Without even so much as a chance to unload my car after my October shows, I was back at home packing up my house and studio. We had spent the last month living among towers of boxes but I had ten days to fully pack up and move out. Then the day arrived when Pickfords turned up with a huge pantechnicon lorry, ready to take all the boxes away. Rarely do I consider new orders coming in to the Glass Studio as an unwelcome irritation, but unfortunately the post show orders were flowing in by telephone and email while I was trying to pack up the studio. I had the extraordinary situation of printing out my last batch of dispatch labels for the courier and turning my back for a moment only to discover that my printer, my computer and the desk that they had been standing on had been spirited away by the removal men!

The final thing into the lorry was the heaviest and the most difficult to transport – my large kiln – which was forced grudgingly up the ramp with the last of the muscle power. After two days of high pressure, and a scramble of Pickfords men scurrying up and down the stairs, I found myself in an empty house. Nothing was left and the home in which I’ve spent the last decade felt strangely smaller. Before dropping the keys off with my estate agent at midday, I had twenty minutes of solitude, walking from room to room, and allowing ten years of memories to come flooding back.

A forgotten memory returned of the first time I came into the house in 2005. I had been looking for a house on the market with a space that could be used as a studio as I was just on the verge of graduating from college and starting full time as a glass artist, but none quite fitted the bill. However as I walked in through the front door of of 47 Pymers Mead – literally as I crossed the threshold into the garage space which was to become the studio – my mobile phone rang, and it was a call from the Worshipful Company of Glaziers telling me I had won the Stevens Competition. Knowing that the prize money would allow me to buy enough equipment to set up a studio, I took this as a sign that this was the house for me.

Walking around the empty space I reflected on how much this house has been about work. My work has been woven in and out of my family life until it is impossible to separate the two. And strangest was seeing the studio walls, which were formerly groaning under the weight of shelves covering every spare inch of space. The industry of this studio had literally imprinted itself on the bare walls in the grubby silhouettes of shelves, folders, jars and tools, like the dusty ghosts of a decade of toil.

The White Road


As a birthday treat for myself I got tickets for a talk by Edmund de Waal on his new book about porcelain, entitled ‘The White Road’. He was talking at my son’s school, so I dragged my son along for a rare injection of culture in his teenage world. He was superbly disinterested at the prospect of going, but perked up slightly when he realised that de Waal was the dad of one of his fellow pupils.

I didn’t know quite what to expect. I had enjoyed ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, de Waal’s first book which traced the history of a cabinet of Japanese ‘netsuke’ back through its ownership by various members of his family. However, where that book was cleverly woven through with an intriguing family history and insights into de Waal’s own obsession with collecting, I worried that a history of porcelain might be a bit heavy going and niche for a disinterested teenager!


However de Waal spoke engagingly, and his obvious enthusiasm for his subject infected the audience, who were entrusted to pass around a few pieces of 12th century porcelain that he had picked up at Kao-ling (after which Kaolin clay is named) in China without pocketing them (de Waal said he trusted an audience from Dulwich!)

He started the slideshow with a photograph of his studio wall, upon which he had written a list of locations around the world where he thought his journey might take him in researching the origins of porcelain. A flurry of images over the next hour traced that pilgrimage from the Jiangxi province in China, to Versailles, to Dresden, to Cornwall, to the South Appalachians, where he took his own teenage son to see the diminished kaolin deposits in the Cherokee National Forest, and to the porcelain works at Dachau.

It was a breathless journey that took in various curious stories of eccentrics, innovators, craftsmen and collectors, and we all just about stayed on board for the ride. There was a book-signing at the end, but when I saw the enormous size of the tome on sale to those who hadn’t already obtained a copy, I reconsidered the purchase. In that critical moment, I’m afraid I reverted to my own form of teenagerism, and thought: enough porcelain for one evening!


Launch of The Dulwich Notebook

I was invited to attend a book launch at the Old College building of the Dulwich Estate. The whole notion of the self-appointed fiefdom that the Dulwich Estate holds over its residents does not sit well with me and, frankly, I will be glad to escape its bureaucratic clutches when I move my house and studio out of West Dulwich next month. However none of this resident’s acerbity applied when attending the launch of The Dulwich Notebook by Mireille Gallinou, as it is a delightful celebration of all the good things about Dulwich, centring around its history, its topography and its local businesses.

Best of all – for me at least – was that I am featured in the book! Mireille brought her photographer Torla Evans to my studio months ago, so I knew I would be in the book in some form. However I’d forgotten that they also took pictures in the rest of my house and garden as the author was particularly interested in the 1960s architecture of my estate, and as I flicked through the pages I was excited to see lots of pictures of me, my work, my studio and my house! I was also thrilled for Mireille that what I had understood was to be a brief Book-of-Days-style notebook had actually turned into quite a weighty well-researched tome that will hold much interest for anyone living in or around the area.

Artists’ Open House

In less than three weeks 200 artists’ houses in and around Dulwich will be opening their doors to a stream of visitors as part of the Dulwich Festival. The Artists’ Open House is now an established event in the calendar and people come from far and wide to visit the artists and see (and buy) their work in the context of their own homes. Local businesses are now involved and so you will find art installations popping up in estate agents or local cafes, as well as a handful of markets and fairs which centre around the Dulwich Festival.

Over the last couple of years there has been a coordinated effort by the Dulwich Picture Gallery to invite twenty of the world’s leading street artists to study their Baroque paintings and reinterpret them in their own style on walls and pavements around Dulwich, and during the Festival there will be a guided walk with the organiser to take in this Dulwich Outdoor Gallery. There are also numerous talks, walks, recitals and demonstrations happening all around the area which draw thousands of visitors to the Dulwich Festival.

Charlotte Kessler | Alex R
I am celebrating my tenth year in business and so I thought it would be nice to open up my space to some other work. Charlotte Kessler of Lemonstone Art paints mesmerising images in oils and acrylics, drawing on themes of love, nature, dreams and freedom of spirit. I fell in love with her work just before Christmas when I bought two of her prints for my family, and as they sat so well with my own work I have invited her to co-exhibit with me during the Artists’ Open House. Together we are showing a captivating collection of work across three storeys of the house and studio which will explore the magical interplay between glass and paintings in a space bursting with poetical imagery and wonder.

Five Houses
We warmly invite you to come and visit, and as further encouragement we have joined forces with four other artists’ houses in the immediate vicinity to create our own cluster of exciting work within the larger event. Open across two weekends, our ‘Five Houses in Five Minutes’ is a mini trail which will take in jewellery, print and collage, upcycled craft and mixed media, and fine art as well as my glass. We hope you can come and bring your family and friends to enjoy a day out in Dulwich.

Artists’ Open House: 9th-10th May and 16th-17th May, 11am-6pm.

 The Glass Studio | 47 Pymers Mead, London SE21 8NH