Guestblog by Chris Hobdell, managing director of The Archibald Knox Forum.
Archibald Knox (1864-1933) may be described as one of the most under-appreciated of British artists. But for many, Archibald Knox’s decorative art in metalware is what Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Frank Lloyd Wright are in furniture and architecture. He was a pioneer of modern 20th century design, and art in general. His work bridges the Arts & Crafts Movement, Celtic Revival, Art Nouveau and Modernism. He did not reject the past and could look backwards easily, yet he defined the modernist sensibility of “less is more”.
Archibald Knox, a humble servant of God in the ministry of the beautiful
It is very difficult to put down a definitive picture of Knox the person. Born of Scottish parents in Cronkbourne Village, on the Isle of Man in 1864, there seems to be little known about him until his teenage years. He attended St. Barnabas Elementary School in Douglas from about the age of 7, by which time the Knox family lived on South Quay in Douglas. He attended the newly created Douglas School of Art at age 16 when it opened in 1880, and soon gained awards for his work. His love of art, design and teaching, plus his spirituality seem to have been the essence of his life. He did not seek fame and fortune and he did not look for praise. Always a teacher at heart, he believed in drawing out the artist in his students rather than making them draw the same things over and over again. He believed passionately that students should have their own thoughts and encouraged them to have confidence in themselves and their abilities.
Three of his quotes sum up his feelings on art design and teaching in a nutshell:
- Aim for Order, Hope for Beauty
- Never be Ordinary, Better be Nothing than that
- Art is in Everything if we Choose to Put it there
In 1913, looking back at his time at the Douglas School of Art in the 1890s, he described himself and his friends as “Venturesome Modernists”. They wanted to bring order and beauty in a new way and not just follow on what others had done before them. He had wonderful God given gifts but knew one had to work hard to build upon and improve such talents. Once he wrote to a student “Don’t slacken in your work: work and think – think and work. That is the royal road: there is no other through the forest of art”.
To show how much he valued his art and the Isle of Man, he wrote the following in 1926 regarding a Canadian exhibition of his watercolours: “What do you think of my news? My pictures are being trundled to Winnipeg …. But the blighters want to buy them.” He had the 80 watercolours sent back to the Island.
To appreciate his spirituality one can look at his incredible illuminated watercolours which illustrate and interpret St. Patrick’s hymn, The Deer’s Cry. The illuminated illustrations by Knox were not commissioned but were a personal and spiritual exercise which he worked on for over 20 years. All 56 pages can be seen under the relevant section of the archibaldknoxforum.com website. The original bound volume is located at the Manx Museum.
– Images courtesy of Manx National Heritage
Are we describing a perfect saint here? No. He was as human, with all that entails, as everybody else. He could have a short fuse, saw many things in stark black and white. Could not abide injustice. Stood up for what he believed in and would not back down if he thought he was right. Overall, he was a human being with faults like all of us, but worked on always improving the God-given gifts he had. His epitaph is the best short summation of this much undervalued and underappreciated Manxman: Here lies Archibald Knox, Artist, …. A humble servant of God in The ministry of the Beautiful.
Knox and the Silver Studio
The Silver Studio was founded in 1880 as a commercial design studio providing fabric, wallpaper and other designs to major manufacturers and retailers. It was named after its founder Arthur Silver (1853–1896).
By the late 1890s Liberty was a major client of the Silver Studio. Liberty was buying wallpaper and fabric designs from the Silver Studio by its leading designers, including the likes of the famous architect Charles Voysey (1857-1941). At around this time Knox joined the Studio and several wallpaper and fabric designs from the late 1890’s by him are known. How Knox came to be hired by the Silver Studio is unclear. It is possible Knox was hired from Christopher Dresser’s (1834-1904) studio as it ran down. Knox was also a close friend of fellow Manx artist A.J. Collister who was well established and connected with the London design and art scene. What is certain is that Knox, either prior to joining or soon after, formed a close relationship with the Silver Studio’s then Senior Manager, Harry Napper (1860-1930). Watercolours by the two painting together are known and in 1897 the record book of the Chicken Rock lighthouse (Manx: Carrick ny Kirkey) shows Knox visiting this Manx tourist attraction with Napper and his wife.
In 1898, Liberty turned to the Silver Studio to undertake silver designs for its new artistic Cymric silver range. Whether by chance, or design, Knox was asked to help design items for this range and we know he did many of the earliest pieces for the original exhibition launch of the range in May 1899. Original drawings for this exhibition still survive in the Silver Studio archive held at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA) at Middlesex University.
Knox continued to work for the Silver Studio until around 1900, producing many of Liberty’s most important silver designs. Attribution is sometimes difficult but on the whole Knox’s design drawings at MoDA are named after obscure Manx places or history and/or have Knox’s tell-tale stylised Celtic or organic design features. At some point in 1900 he chose to leave London and move back to the Isle of Man. However, such was his reputation with Liberty they retained him to design for them, and he continued to be a prolific producer of silver, pewter and other designs for Liberty until around 1906.
Knox and Liberty & Co.
Liberty & Co. (Liberty) was first set up in London in 1875. Between 1896 – 1900 Knox worked for Liberty indirectly as a designer for the Silver Studio. From 1900, such was his reputation, he worked directly for Liberty. First from the Isle of Man, and then once back in London, from 1904 when employed as a teacher. Knox worked on all areas of design for Liberty but most notably as the main designer for silver and jewellery for the “Cymric” range (1898-1906) and pewter for the “Tudric” range (1902-1906).
In the first 1899 “Cymric” catalogue the “Cymric” range was envisaged as an artistic range of silver drawing on the ancient history of Britain for its design inspiration. There is no reference to its Celtic influence at all. Such was Knox’ influence on the range, and domination of its design style, that it later became associated with Celtic design.
Knox’s body of work for Liberty can be seen at Westminster Archive in the Liberty silver, jewellery and pewter sketch books. These three bound ledgers contain pages of small drawings of nearly all Liberty’s items at this time, with model numbers but no named designer. They allow us to attribute about 80 per cent of the output, prior to 1906, to Knox.
Knox’s work for Liberty probably peaked in 1903. His work was part of a special exhibition “Celtic Art” at the Grafton Gallery and he was Liberty’s major contributor to the 1903 Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. Most of his greatest, most radical, designs carry assay marks for 1900-1903. After this period the popularity of the range started to decline and, correspondingly, Liberty started to remove some of the cost and quality of the range. After 1903 it is more common to see lighter, more mass produced pieces of Liberty silver. Perhaps carrying Knox motifs, but not wholly by Knox.
Other Liberty items designed by Knox included a range of terracotta garden pottery, textile and wallpaper designs and a very few items of furniture. Around 1906 Knox ceased to design for Liberty and the whole “Cymric” and “Tudric” ranges were in major decline. The former ultimately demised around 1908, the pewter some years later. Liberty continued to sell silver and items to Knox’s design up to around 1912, and cutlery to his design was reissued from around 1925 to 1939.
Why was Knox much less known than for instace Tiffany, Hoffman, Behrens and Mackintosh? He was by nature a humble and spiritual man and, coupled with the contemporary practice that studios and stores did not name their individual designers, this meant that his name did not appear regularly in catalogues and periodicals. It has been said that he was a “ghost” designer as his work and style were greatly admired while it was known as Liberty Style. Knox’ main design achievements were associated with Liberty & Co. in London, as he was their main designer during the pivotal first decade of the 20th century. Besides metalwork Knox designed wallpaper, fabrics, jewellery, furniture and ceramics for Liberty as “art is in everything if we choose to put it there”.
The Archibald Knox Forum is a grass-roots charity dedicated to disseminating the work and legacy of Archibald Knox as he was not just as a great designer, but also as an inspirational teacher and artist. People who get to know more about him, are dazzled by the sheer genius and immense variety of his work: graphic design, applied arts, jewellery, watercolours, oil paintings, gravestones, memorials, plaques, sketches etc. Knox mastered it all.
The Archibald Knox Forum is a Manx charity with one objective: “the advancement of the education of the public, both in the Isle of Man and world-wide, in relation to the work and legacy of Archibald Knox, namely the Manx artist/designer of that name born in the Isle of Man in 1864 and who died there in 1933.” They produce a free quarterly newsletter, hold talks and exhibitions and arrange visits to places of Knox interest on the Isle of Man. They also post a different Knox piece to Facebook and Instagram every day!
But the most exciting thing is probably that they are still finding “new” rediscovered works by Knox, 88 years after his death. And they are planning to hold the largest Knox event in the world ever, which will run from 2024 to 2025. So keep en eye on The Archibald Knox Forum!
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