Knights of Dulwich

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I’m not sure what we expected when we started Deserter – we were quite drunk at the time – but one thing we certainly didn’t expect was press invitations. Really, the only invitations we were expecting were those that involve ‘stepping outside’ to settle it like men, and even that was mainly down to the loud and never-ending opinions of one Half-life.

But arrive they did. As born outsiders, we reserve the right to take the piss out of anything and everything so it hasn’t felt right to accept freebies to various plays, pop-ups and ‘food fayres’. As fast as Heather-in-Marketing could get us on various invitation lists, we turned them all down and went to the boozer instead. And what’s more, it felt good, like bunking off work.

Then, a little while ago we received an invitation to attend an exhibition preview at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Two things struck me about it: Firstly, the opportunity for a dreamy wander round the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery, on a Tuesday afternoon, gratis. And secondly, the word ‘Refreshments’.

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Dulwich Picture Gallery

Mmm. Lovely refreshments.

It might be morally iffy to pitch up to press events, load up on the vol-au-vents and then churn out glowing reviews; equally, accepting such invitations and then slagging everything off could be construed as biting the hand that feeds you. But what if I were to simply drink the hand that fed me? That would almost definitely be OK.

Half-life, a seasoned art lover as well as a boisterous, boozy layabout, was keen to join me and so I contacted the gallery to enquire about a ‘plus one’.

‘I’m afraid we don’t do plus ones for press events,’ came the reply from Louisa. Of course not. I felt a fool for asking.

‘Twat,’ said Half-life, upping the ante, when I told him the bad news. ‘Why are they inviting you anyway?’

‘Because of the blog.’

‘Oh,’ he said, with a curl of the lip. Half-life is still firmly of the opinion that the Internet will soon fizzle out. ‘What’s it called again?’

‘Google.’

‘That’s it.’

Winifred Knights

The preview in question was for an exhibition of the work of Winifred Knights, a South Londoner, born in Streatham in 1899, who attended James Alleyn’s Girls School in Dulwich and then the Slade School, before becoming the first woman to win the coveted Rome Scholarship, with her anti-war masterpiece, The Deluge (see below). Despite being feted as a genius in her lifetime, she is little-known today and the exhibition is, incredibly, her first retrospective.

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The Deluge

I alighted from the P4 bus as the skies above Dulwich Village began to darken with storm clouds. Let it rain, I thought to myself, as I padded up the path to the main entrance, I’m in with the Art Crowd.

The Art Crowd turned out to be a smart, mostly elderly bunch who as far as I could tell were all from proper publications and not at all charlatan freeloaders. Put it this way, I was the only one wearing shorts, sandals and a four day stubble.

As Sacha Llewellyn, the curator, began her guided tour of the exhibition – lots of drawings and cartoons as well as the major works – it quickly became apparent that Knights’ art, much of it with a nod towards early Renaissance style, was rare and exquisite. By the time we’d all walk-shuffled into the second hushed room behind Sacha, I was enraptured, and I was only on strong tea.

Themes of sisterly love, female independence and emancipation were combined with atheism and a burgeoning love of nature and a simple pastoral life. The latter was expedited by Knights’ traumatic first-hand experience of a zeppelin bombing Streatham in 1916 and the explosion of a munitions factory in Silvertown the following year, which caused her to have a nervous breakdown and a subsequent period of convalescence in the country.

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Sacha and the Art Crowd

The work of this delicate, sensitive woman, inadvertently caught up in war, was very moving. I was reminded of those butterflies that got embroiled in the frankly rude Industrial Revolution, that were forced to adapt or die. Being white, they were easily picked off sooty backgrounds by the birds and only a genetic mutation to a blacker hue saved the species. Or was it a moth? I don’t know. Honestly, my memory.

My reverie was interrupted by the sound of someone behind me blowing their nose. Perhaps they had been similarly moved. I looked round only to see Half-life, wearing a boater, cravat and what looked like nasturtiums in the buttonhole of his linen jacket. What the hell?

‘What the f-?’ I said.

‘Hello,’ he said, interrupting me and shaking me by the mitt. ‘Simon, from Google. Pleased to meet you. Wonderful.’

‘But -’

‘Quite, quite wonderful,’ he said, crushing my lovely hand to prevent further interrogation.

An overhead crack of thunder sent a ripple of excitement through the crowd as we made our way into the final room where we learned that after many happy years in Italy, the Second World War once again plunged Knights into despair and although she began working again, slowly, after 1945, she then died suddenly of a brain tumour in her 40s.

Half-life flicked me a look that said, ‘What did I tell you?’, in reference to his avowed position that life is there to be maxxed out, along with my credit card, before there is none of it left. He doesn’t just live every day as if it’s his last, he often seems actively determined to make it so.

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‘Where are the drinks?’

Now rain was hammering down on the roof, as if in lament for Winifred and unfulfilled promise.

‘Does anybody have any questions?’ asked Sacha, as she brought her excellent talk to a close.

‘Yes, love,’ said Half-life, ‘Where are the drinks?’

‘There’s tea and coffee by the cafe, I think,’ she said, deflated at the mundanity of the query. Perhaps she expected more from Google. Half-life caught my eye again, looking worried now and mouthing ‘Coffee?’ at me.

He was right to be concerned. I’d hoped for a table piled high with Champagne flutes and ice buckets, but it was all cups, cafetieres and mini-muffins.

‘This is bullshit,’ said Half-life, throwing a blueberry muffin into his gob and putting two in his pocket. ‘Where’s the booze? You said bubbles.’

‘No chance,’ said a woman next to us. ‘They haven’t had alcohol at press reviews here since the Age of Enchantment.’

‘That sounds like a long time ago,’ I said.

‘2008,’ she replied. ‘The man from the Mail was sick into the umbrella stand.’

‘Good lad,’ said Half-life.

Disappointed, Half-life and I took our coffee into the long glazed corridor and gazed mournfully at the rain.

‘We’re trapped,’ I said. ‘What are we going to do?’

‘It’s time for you to put on your big boy pants and buy some bubbles,’ said Half-life, nodding towards the cafe-restaurant.

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Winifred Knights in Rome

We were on our second glass of Prosecco when the sun came out and we were able to take our bottle to the terrace that looks out over three acres of manicured lawns. A cabbage white butterfly fluttered over our table and landed on Half-life’s buttonhole, lured to him, as many of us are, by his colourful appearance and the promise of a good time. 

‘Get off, you little flappy bastard,’ said Dr Doolittle, ‘That’s for me salad.’

I told Half-life my Winifred Knights/butterfly analogy and he indulged me.

‘I might use that, now I’ve thought of it,’ he said. ‘Christ, this wine is giving me wind, and not in a good way,’ he went on, finishing his third glass in a gulp and holding his belly. ‘I couldn’t half go a pint.’

‘Come on then,’ I said, getting up. It was only a matter of time, after all. ‘The Fox? Phoenix? Hermit’s Cave?’

‘Yeah. Let’s not fuck about. Let’s do it for butterflies. Do you know they only live for 24 hours?’

‘I thought that was a myth.’

‘No,’ said Half-life, ‘It’s definitely a butterfly.’

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Winifred Knights 1899-1947 is at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 18th September, 2016

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Image credit: Main image by Edward Sanderson used under this license

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