Portrait study, circa 1919
Framed (ref: 3123)
Pencil on paper, 7 3/16 x 5 3/4 in. (18.2 x 14.5cm.)
(8 3/4 x 7 1/4 in. (22.2 x 18.5cm.) framed)
Provenance: The Artists Family
This is likely to be a study for one of the figures in the Deluge, Knights winner entry for the 1920 Rome Scholarship. Her sketch books of the period contain numerous studies based on quattrocento works of art, particularly by Donatello and Verrocchio.
Candidates for the Rome Scholarship entered a two-stage competition, the criteria of which, according to the rules, were established to demonstrate ‘a fair understanding of the problems to be dealt with in the execution of any painting, the main purpose of which is the permanent decoration of a wall surface, in relation to its architectural setting’. In June 1920, along with three other finalists (Leon Underwood, James Wilkie and Arthur Outlaw), Knights was selected to take part in the Final Competition, for which she had to produce a painting and a cartoon (measuring 6x5feet) within an 8-week time limit, on the set subject of ‘The Deluge’.
During the competition, Knights fell ill for a period of ten days, but her request for a time-extension was blocked by the other finalists. In spite of submitting her painting partly unfinished, and the fact that she was nine-years younger than her opponents, The British School at Rome’s Painting Faculty - whose members included John Singer Sargent and Philip Wilson Steer - unanimously awarded her the Scholarship.
The frequent citation of the Biblical Flood as a metaphor for the Great War is likely to have influenced Knights’ interpretation of the set-subject. Among the panic-stricken figures is Knights herself, her mother Mabel (cradling her infant son who died in 1915), Eileen Knights, Arnold Mason, Anna Fryer and Millicent Murby. Taking inspiration from James Thomson’s poem, ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ (1874), Knights depicts a fleeing cleric as a symbol of the Church’s impotence during the war; his flight is in vain and he cannot lead the other protagonists to salvation; the ark has already departed.
The Deluge combines Italian Renaissance compositional devices (such as the frieze-like arrangement of figures within a shallow picture plane) , with the sideways dynamism characteristic of the Vorticist Group. When the picture was exhibited in 1921, it was precisely this synthesis of traditional and modern that was hailed by the critics.