The Dulwich Picture Gallery celebrates the work of Winifred Knights by reuniting all of her completed paintings for the first time since their creation – but it can leave you feeling slightly cold. 

Winifred Knights, A view to the east from the British School at Rome, 1921
A View to the East from the British School at Rome, Winifred Knights, 1921. (C) The Estate of Winifred Knights. 

For the majority of this new exhibition which celebrates Knights as one of the most original female artists during the first half of the 20th century, much of the focus is on her training in places such as Slade School of Fine Art and becoming the first woman to win the highly prestigious Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting.

This alone should give visitors some indication of the extraordinary amount of talent and skill that Knights possessed in her lifetime. But to see the extraordinary variety of work that she created really enhances the message.

On entering the exhibition, the visitor is automatically aware of the delicate but strong lines of her work – that showed the confidence of her abilities even as a student. The first room of the display features a number of delightful sketches of portraits of herself and others wiling to sit for her.

The Self-Portrait Sketching at a Table (1916), created just as she was starting to study at the Slade School of Fine Art is modest, detailed and able to charm in its own quiet way – as many of the other works on display also reveal.

It is a theme that seems to resonate throughout the exhibition, which is respectful but can come across as quite cold and almost too focused on her training at Slade – bringing a sense of repetitiveness about it, until you reach the room devoted to the work she created in Italy.

Although on reflection, the artist’s strongest work is her sketches and the early development of pieces such as The Deluge, the work that she created in Italy is mesmerising in terms of its vibrancy and creativity that is in complete contrast to anything seen so far in the exhibition. In particular The Santissima Trinita (1924-1930) lifts the whole display with its vibrancy and celebration of nature that seems to be reflected in it.

However, the exhibition is so focused on how Knights created work such as The Deluge , featuring early compositions and so forth that it doesn’t allow the visitor to use their imagination and explore the works in their own way, no matter how fascinating the insights that we are given and no matter how much it deepens the insight into her working practise.

What emerges is an artist who was precise and gave her work an awful lot of thought and does deserve to be remembered for what she achieved – just less emphasis on her training and more on her natural talent which does shine through from the beginning.

Winifred Knights is open to the public from the 8th June and runs until the 18th September. For more information and to book tickets visit: http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/2016/june/winifred-knights/

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