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Archibald Knox

Epithet: Art Nouveau artist and designer for Liberty & Co., London (1864-1933)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: Archibald Knox has been described as one of the most under-appreciated of British artists. His Times obituary described him as - `An artist of poetical sensibilities, who had a very healthy influence upon the decorative art of his time' He is noted for his work in many media: in metalwork, ceramics, fabric patterns and wallpaper designs, for landscape watercolours and for a very distinctive style of lettering. Knox's lettering, exemplified in his version of `St Patrick's Hymn', was based on the interlace patterns found on the Scandinavian memorial stones in the Isle of Man.

His parents had moved to the Island from Kilbirnie in Scotland on 2nd December 1856, probably because William's sister had married William Callister, a Peel fisherman, and possibly also for economic reasons. His father worked in the timber mill at Cronkbourne with tied housing until the late 1860s when, realising that there was a need of a metal-working and marine engineering repair service in Douglas, he set up shop there. The three eldest sons also worked in the business, which continued into the twentieth century. Causing his father some upset, Archibald preferred to draw and paint. However, the precision of his drawings indicates that he may have paid some attention to the designs used by his father and brothers; he may even have drawn some of them.

Archibald's talent did not go unnoticed. In 1882 he was appointed a pupil-teacher at Douglas School of Art in exchange for a free studentship. He became part of the artistic circle in Douglas and also taught at Douglas Grammar School, where he came under the influence of the headmaster Canon John Quine; Quine was an enthusiastic antiquarian and amateur archaeologist and Archibald joined the Island's Antiquarian Society. Here he met other enthusiasts, including the future curator of the Manx Museum, Philip Moore Callow Kermode, who was studying the Island's Celtic and Scandinavian (Viking) cross slabs. It is sometimes suggested that some of the illustrations in Kermode's Manx Crosses might have been done by Knox, but in fact in notes made in his own copy, he is disparaging of the drawings. Knox had also become a great collector of artefacts and geological specimens, an interest which would account for his compelling use of semi-precious stones in later metalwork designs.

From 1878-84, Knox studied under John Miller Nicholson at the Douglas School of Art and taught there 1884-88, passing examinations in art in 1887. In 1889, he was awarded his Art Master's Certificate and in 1892 was a prize medallist in historic ornament, having specialised in Celtic design. In the 1890s he worked at least part-time with the eminent architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, who had settled on the Island. Experience of architectural plans would increase his knowledge of design drawing, adding to that gained from his father's business.

In 1897 he left the Island to take up a teaching post at Redhill in Surrey, where fellow-Manxman Alfred James Collister was principal. The two became friends; Knox was best man at Collister's wedding and godfather to his daughter, Mona. They frequently painted landscapes together, both in England and the Isle of Man. Several of their paintings of subjects in common are exhibited in the Manx National Heritage Art Gallery. In 1899 Archibald was appointed head of design at Kingston-upon-Thames Art School. It was at this time that he came to be employed by Liberty & Co. of London. Liberty marketed items such as oriental carpets, curios, jewellery, furniture and fabrics. By this time Celtic style, revived in the 1850s, was again in fashion as part of Art Nouveau, and Liberty introduced a range of Cymric silver jewellery and silverware. Later came the Tudric range in pewter.

Knox's Liberty career probably began with his designing wallpapers and fabrics. However, during the next decade came the many, hundreds of beautiful designs for which he is best known. These range from cutlery, jugs, beakers, biscuit boxes and coffee pots to photograph frames, clocks and fine jewellery, much of the last being inlaid with semi-precious gems.

Archibald returned to the Isle of Man in August 1900, settling in a house in Sulby but still designing for Liberty. In 1904 he returned to Kingston, where A.J. Collister was head of Fine Arts. The years 1906 and 1907 saw Archibald involved with evening classes in art in Wimbledon, where Collister was now principal. All was not well, though; the South Kensington examiners complained about Archibald's so-called 'modern' teaching methods and a Board of Education inspectors' report which described them as 'unacceptable' led him to resign in 1912. His regular commissions for Liberty also stopped.

There was in addition a bitter parting of the ways between Knox and Collister, the latter an ambitious man constantly on the alert for promotion. According to a letter that Canon John Quine wrote to his son John Lindsay Quine when Collister applied for the job as Principal of the Cambridge School of Art in 1912, Knox accused Collister of submitting Knox's students' work as examples of his own. This seems to have been the final straw for Knox. He never spoke to Collister or his goddaughter again.

It was then that the Knox Guild of Design and Craft was founded by a group of his Wimbledon pupils, who withdrew from the school as an act of protest at his departure. The Guild put on exhibitions of their work in the Knox style in London from 1913 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Archibald returned to the Island for a few days, before heading off on an unsuccessful search for employment in the United States. He was back teaching in the Island by 1913.

The war years 1914-1918 saw Knox, now in his 50s, serving as a mail censor at the internment camp at Knockaloe, where some 30,000 Austrians, Germans and Turks were kept behind barbed wire for the duration. In 1917 came his final design for Liberty, a memorial for the grave of the firm's founder, Arthur Lazenby Liberty. This is at Lee Church in Buckinghamshire, but not surprisingly, most Knox-designed memorials are to be seen in the Isle of Man. They include those for his tutor J.M. Nicholson and his last commission - Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine's memorial - whose design was unfinished at the time of Archibald's death.

A return to teaching had come in February 1920 when Archibald joined the staff of the co-educational Douglas High School. After its division into two separate single-sex schools, he taught art part-time at Douglas High School for Girls and at Ramsey Grammar School. In the 1920s he visited Ravenna to study the frescoes and in 1926 a one-man exhibition of 80 of his paintings at London's Whitechapel Gallery was subsequently transferred to Ottawa.

Whilst teaching at Douglas High School for Girls, Archibald Knox lived at 70 Athol Street, a house now demolished. A commemorative plaque on the gable of the next-door building gives details of his birth and death and describes him as 'Designer, Artist, Teacher'. He died suddenly on 22nd February 1933, leaving a legacy of elegantly-designed silver and pewterware, jewellery, fabrics and evocative paintings, striking with their great washes of colour. His distinctive style of lettering is to be seen on memorials around the Island and in many publications. Knox artefacts and memorabilia are still being acquired by Manx National Heritage - in 1995, for instance, 26 of his letters written between 1912 - 1930, mainly to Denise Tuckfield, founder of the Knox Guild of Craft and Design, and some 60 designs for headstones obtained from the family of Douglas monumental mason Tim Quayle.

Archibald Knox's tombstone in Braddan Cemetery, based on one of his own designs, bears this inscription:
ARCHIBALD KNOX
ARTIST
A HUMBLE SERVANT OF GOD
IN THE MINISTRY OF THE BEAUTIFUL

Archibald's paintings are not usually signed, for he did not intend them to be sold; characteristically, when asked to name his price for the Ottawa collection, he closed the exhibition.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.277-9. www.culturevannin.im.)

Occupation / profession: artist

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 1864

Place of birth: Tromode, Isle of Man

Date of death: 1933

Place of death: Douglas, Isle of Man

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