Time for Knox

Photographic portrait of Archibald Knox by E.T. Holding, c.1907-1914
Photographic portrait of Archibald Knox by E.T. Holding, c.1907-1914

In February I gave a paper via zoom as part of the Surrey Arts & Humanities Research Group Spring Seminar Series on the theme of Time. You can read a summary of the paper on the SAHRG site.

One of the seminal figures in Denise Wren’s life was Archibald Knox, the Design Master at Kingston School of Art, which she attended from 1907-1912. Historian of education Stuart MacDonald describes this role as that of ‘the most important teacher… who supervised many of the general classes and all the craft classes.’ (1). Winifred Tuckfield, Denise’s elder sister was another student of Knox and recalled these classes:

‘Mr. Knox’s system of teaching was essentially his own. Instead of insisting on the English method of art education by making laborious copies of scraps of museum specimens of ‘styles’ he made at his own expense three thousand lantern slides, illustrating works of art from prehistoric times down to the gipsy caravans of to-day, showing how Art was produced by the workman in the joy of using his chisel or hammer.’ (2)

While Knox created up-to-date visuals, Rosemary Wren recounts a contrasting story Denise told about the teaching given by the Modelling Master at Kingston School of Art. This was Mr. Pike, an ex-pupil of Rodin: ‘…

‘…he belonged to the old academic school. Each of the students was given a different plaster shape to copy in clay…At the end of term Denise suggested that they should all fit their separate models together….To their amazement the combined models made a vast, magnificent head: in fact that of Michelangelo’s David, though Mr. Pike had not seen fit to mention this…’ (3).

This dryly humorous story illustrates the traditional approach to teaching art and design, setting the students to somewhat mindlessly copy classical sculpture. Knox gave the students art history lectures and would have covered classical and Renaissance sculpture, but it seems that Mr. Pike did not make the connection obvious. Students were presumably supposed to absorb skills and knowledge solely from proximity to and emulation of such exemplars.

At the same time as Knox was acting as inspirational mentor to his students at Kingston School of Art, he was also designing fashionable metal homeware items and ceramic garden ornaments for department store Liberty’s of London. One day when the aforementioned Mr. Pike was ill, Knox took the modelling class. He ‘taught the students the technique by which the prototypes were made (for Liberty’s), first building up large pots with thick coils of clay, with designs in relief modelled onto the smooth surfaces. The whole shape was then cast in plaster of Paris, a process in which the students became skilled, and reproductions of the original were made once again by pressing them very firmly into the moulds.’ (4). This class was what convinced Denise to specialise in pottery. 

However, she was hampered by a lack of equipment and facilities. A report written by the Board of Education on Kingston-Upon-Thames School of Art in 1912, notes that ‘there is no room for a muffle furnace for firing pottery, and pots decorated in the School are fired at a local pottery not very suitable for the purpose…A potter’s wheel has been procured, but lack of space prevents its use by the students at present…’. The local pottery mentioned is probably Norbiton Potteries, where Knox suggested that Denise should learn how to throw on the wheel from a Mr. Mercer whose chief occupation was making flowerpots. He also fired the ceramics she made in the pottery’s kiln.

Having read so much praise for Knox’s skill and originality as a teacher from both Tuckfield sisters made me interested to look at the commercial designs he produced for Liberty’s department store in Regent Street. The idea for the paper I gave at the SAHRG seminar was inspired by Knox’s intriguing clocks, which are frequently decorated with time-related messages. Some of these are fairly conventional, such as Tempus Fugit. There is also the paradoxical Festina Lente, which translates as ‘Make haste slowly’.

The more relaxed phrase Time Enough appears on a clock case held by the Manx Museum, perhaps reflecting the slower pace of time on the Isle of Man, still following nature-based cycles. These contrasted with the fast paced deadlines of London, to which Knox returned in 1904, the year he designed this clock case, to take his place as a prolific designer of Liberty’s bestselling Tudric and Cymric ranges of Celtic Revival metalwork, and as Design Master at Kingston. My favourite is the lapidary Never = Forever = able to be cited in an eternal loop, since it replaces the figures on the clockface.

The timepieces are impressive for their varying styles, employing Arts and Crafts motifs, as shown in the image of a clock held by the V&A. Or elegant and minimal proto modernist forms. And there are some whose numerals are remarkably Art Deco in appearance.

The concept of clocks was an obvious link with the theme of time, hence ‘Knox’s Clocks’, and it allowed me to look at themes of nostalgia linked to the Celtic Revival and 2oth century retro sensibilities.

(1) MacDonald, S. (1970) The History and Philosophy of Art Education London: University of London Press Ltd., p.301
(2) Tuckfield, W. (1916) ‘Archibald Knox’ Mannin Issue 7, May, p.381
(3) Wren. R. (1997) The Knox Guild and Its Background: A Scrapbook of Recollections and Pictures with an Archival Index Unpublished but deposited in several archives including Kingston Museum, p.28.
(4) Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: