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Archibald Knox Designs

Archibald Knox Textile and Fabric Designs

A set of original designs by the renowned Manx Art Nouveau designer, Archibald Knox. Each design is available as a high quality linen cotton blend ideal for upholstery, blinds, and general furnishings, as well as a soft traditional slub cotton perfect for curtains.. Both fabrics are also available with flame retardant treatment.

Archibald Knox's designs, especially his designs in silver and pewter, are very well known in Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau circles, but Knox's textile designs have received less attention. These beautiful fabric designs which show Knox's subtle and beautiful work at its best, and his unique celtic style, will look splendid in any period property.



An address given at a Service of Thanksgiving for his life and work in Saint Matthew's Church, Douglas, Isle of Man on Tuesday 22 February 1983 by the Reverend Canon Paul Taggart on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Archie's death

Some words from Archie Knox's grave stone in Braddan Cemetery -

"A humble servant of God in the ministry of the beautiful".

I am no expert in the matters of art, nor am I one who has made a close and detailed study of the life and work of Archie Knox - and I must call him that, since that is the way we spoke of him and always will - ARCHIE Knox. I have however been one of his admirers since I was a very small boy, and treasure his memory as of one who has enriched my life, and I am glad to pay my hunble tribute to his memory.

Archie Knox was of Scottish descent, but Manx-born. He was born on April 9th 1864 at Cronkbourne, and died (of a heart attack) in his sleep on February 22nd 1933 at his home in Athol Street just fifty years ago to-day. A plaque has recently been placed on a wall where his house stood.

His father, William, was an engineer and had a flourishing business in Douglas, designing and making maritime machinery. Archie had three elder brothers - Robert, William and John - all of whom became engineers - two sisters, Christina and Ann - one older than he and one younger. His youngest brother, Carmichael, was tragically drowned in Douglas harbour when he was only 26 years old.

Like his elder brothers, Archie was expected to follow in his father's footsteps and enter the family business - but he had other ideas. All his spare time, as a small boy, was spent in sketching. This made him something of a loner, and something of a loner he remained. Sometime between the age of 8 and 9 he lost the top joint of his right hand index finger, as a result of an accident at Trornode Mill, but this did not lessen his love of sketching.

Some years later, his father, concerned about his devotion to sketching, and worried about his future, remarked - "why, he doesn't know how to hold a hammer ! " His Mother, Ann, however encourad Archie's artistic endeavours. He was educated at S. Barnabas' Elementary School, Douglas, (where he was later a pupil teacher) and at Douglas Grammar School where he was first introduced to the beauty of Celtic design and Runic Crosses.

From the age of 14 and for 5 years, he studied at the Douglas School of Art, where later he taught. For 4 years he worked part-time at the office in Athol Street of Baillie Scott the architect and designer (who incidentally supervised the laying of the mosaic floor in the Sanctuary here at S. Matthew's).

At 33 years of age Archie left the Island to teach at three Art Schools in Surrey - at Kingston-upon-Thames, Wimbledon and Redhill.

For the benefit of those here who didn't know him and never met him, Archie Knox, the man, was of slight stature - a little less than average height, and a trifle bowed at the shoulders. He had sensitive features, grey twinkling eyes, and 'crows' feet'. He wore his hair long and had a Van Dyke beard.

During his time in England, Archie began to work on his interlacing patterns and designs, inspired by his study and contemplation of Celtic design and Runic crosses and their intricate patterns (which I gather were themselves inspired by old-time Scandinavian sailors playing around with lengths of rope). These intricate and interlacing patterns had long been a matter of absorbing interest to him and became part of him, and he made them his own, adding grace, elegance and delicacy to them in the process.

I first saw Archie Knox here in S. Matthew's Church where he used to worship. He used a chair in the North Aisle towards the back - two or three rows in front of the seats in the main block in front of the Font which we used - so I could see him clearly. I used to think he looked like Jesus - kneeling there with his long hair and beard, eyes closed and hands to-gether; Years later my Mother told me that for some reason or another Archie had-missed church for a few Sundays, and when she next met him she told him that he had been missed, especially by one small boy who thought he looked like our Lord - at which he was very touched.

Later on, I was one of Archie's pupils at the School of Art, along with John Nicholson. Sometimes the behaviour of some of us exasperated him. The various nude plaster statues which graced the walls of the School of Art in those days were modestly draped and inevitably became the subject of the immodest attentions of some members of the class. Before administering swift justice - if the offender wore spectacles Archie would say "take your glasses off" and then he would administer a resounding smack on the offender's cheek .... But he was no stern disciplinarian - most misdemeaners were ignored by him - it was not unknown for girls in his class to go for a bike ride during class time .... Well! if they weren't interested, then he wasn't.

"Let me sit" he would say as he moved round the large circle in which his class was seated. We never sat in rows but always in a large circle - Archie never taught from the front - "he sat where we sat" and saw things from where we saw them.

I don't think he could really have enjoyed teaching us to draw from the large grey cubes, cones and pyramids which were placed on a dais in the middle of the class - but that was the way to learn the rudiments of shape, grouping, perspective and shadow.      It was a necessary discipline' so that was what had to be done. I once brought my autograph album to school and asked him if he would draw something in it for me, which he did there and then, as though it were, a relief to get away from those cubes, cones and pyramids - he drew a picture of a small dog, I remember - a trivial incident maybe, but indicative of the kind of man he was.

Teaching at the School of Art was his 'bread and butter' job, but it wasn't his only job as I later learned. He worked for Liberty's of London for whom I believe he made over 400 designs for silver, pewterware and jewellery (tudric cymric). He also designed fabrics, wallpapers and textiles for them.

In 1976 a beautifully produced book was published devoted entirely to Archie's designs for Liberty's, and in fact with that title - "The Designs of Archibald Knox for Liberty & Co." by Adrian Tilbrook. We have never had anyone to work for us like Knox" one of Liberty's directors said of him, and there is no doubt that Archie's influence did much to make the firm famous in that field. "Knox's style was so distinctive that Victoria and Albert experts can attribute his work with some degree of accuracy". (Libertys' "Autobiography of a Shop" by Alison Adborgham).

But it was not the policy of Liberty's to publicise the names of the designers who worked for them "all credit having been assumed by Liberty and Co"        This didn't trouble the self-effacing Archie Knox, but it didn't win him the fame which would and should have been his. "What he lacked was a desire for his own publicity" says the writer of that book on Archie's designs for Liberty's - a back-handed way of saying that he was a 'humble man of heart' I suppose.

I understand that Archie left Liberty's because they used his designs for some other purpose than that for which he made them.

His designs never ignored or forgot the purpose and function of the thing in hand. If, for example, it was a jug he designed, it had to be beautiful, but it had to pour - or, as the late Wilfred Quayle once put it, "each piece is fit for its purpose: he never sacrificied function for effect".

Archie Knox could often be seen on his way to some remote, obscure place to paint a picture of a scene which had caught his attention on a previous expedition, clad in Manx tweed with his slouch hat pulled round his head; a satchel over his shoulder containing his equipment - his 'colours' (as he called them) and his brushes - and a supply of the best water-colour paper available. He seldom used a small brush, since he made liberal use of washes. He would often sit for half an hour or more contemplating a scene - absorbing the atmosphere, then complete a picture in five minutes, and then perhaps another of the same scene. Archie's paintings were never photographic - they seldom contained much detail - be he could paint the wind !

With eyes partially closed in order to filter out the detail from the essential, he concentrated on the essential, leaving the details for the beholder's imagination to supply.

He was once asked why he didn't put any details into the windows of a house of which he was painting a picture - "you are like many artists" he replied,"who want to paint the window cords as well, even though they cannot be seen

His paintings show no sign or indication of laborious striving after effect - they are fluent, as everything he did was fluent.

Many people didn't like his paintings, and still don't - they prefer 'picture post-cards'. To unlock the beauty of Archie's paintings the beholder has to share in some small measure Archie's mystic nature, and he undoubtedly was a mystic. His scriptures were the sea and sky, the birds and the trees. They were the subject of his meditations.

In one of the Epiphany hymns (As with Gladness Men of Old) it tells of "where they need no star to guide, where no clouds thy glory hide". For Archie Knox clouds did not hid the glory, they revealed it!

Clouds awed and fascinated him - of them he once wrote "clouds of the morning, clouds of the evening, clouds of the sea, Manx clouds, low, broken, torn - fragments of vaster skies, of vastnesses revealed here hardly once".

Archie Knox seldom signed a painting - he didn't have to! You can always tell if 'that is one of Archie's! And he never sold a picture, though he was far from being a rich man (that is, as far as money is concerned).

After a serious operation at S. Luke's Hospital for the Clergy in London, my father wanted to give the honorary surgeon some gift, but what could you give to someone who had everything? - Why, - one of Archie Knox's pictures. So he asked Archie about it and was told to choose whichever he fancied - which he did - but Archie would accept nothing but thanks by way of payment.

Before we left Lincolnshire where I spent all my working life, I wanted to go and see the little parish of Horkstowè in the extreme north of the county where my grandfather went to be Rector after leaving S. Matthew's, so one day we went and looked round the Church - and in the vestry, in an old register we saw my grandfather's signature, that of my father too (who must have preached there on a visit). I poked about in the belfry and there, in a corner, was an old board with a rather faded list of rectors from the distant past up to my grandfather. But what surprised me, and riveted my attention was the lettering it was Archie's - unmistakably Archie's.

And that was another branch of his artistic work, another branch of design in which he excelled - his lettering and illuminated parchments - some of them incorporating those beautiful swallows of his, either perched on a letter or flying across the page.

One illuminated parchment he was asked to do was for presentation to my grandfather (Thomas Arthur) on leaving this parish which he had served so long and so faithfully (for over 30 years in fact). On one of the pages is my grandfather's illuminated name in Archie's inimitable style, the letters inextricably interwoven among the delicate interlacing of the design. Along with so many other treasures of Archie's work, it is in safe keeping at the Manx Museum. This evening, however, it is on view in the Church Hall, together with other samples of Archie's work which have kindly been lent.

But perhaps the most beautiful parchment Archie Knox ever did was "The Deers Cry" or St. Patrick's Breastplate, preserved at the Museum separately in a glass-topped case and with a cloth cover to preserve the beautiful colouring from the light. This. parchment was given by the donor in memory of his wife, formerly Miss Winifred Tuckfield, one time disciple of Archie's in the Knox Guild, to which I will refer briefly later.

The parchment was begun during the First World War when Archie was a censor on the staff of the Knockaloe Internment camp and never finished. But to me it is much more than a beautiful illuminated manuscript. It carries a message - that hidden away in the complex patterns of life there is a meaning and a purpose. And the fact that it was never actually finished says that there are some things the meaning and purpose of which will not be revealed in this life but the next. One would wish that copies could be made available in book form so that more people could see its beauty without fingering the original as in fact was done with the Book of Kells.

But things didn't always work out well.

The beautiful Calvary War Memorial outside St. Matthew's Church was designed by Archie Knox, but alas, the names of the fallen in Archie's beautiful lettering were quite unreadable for most of the folk whose husbands and sons were there commemorated, and a list had to be prepared for them to read, in less artistic but more legible letters. Just as Archie's paintings require some small measure of his mysticism in the eye of the beholder before they can be appreciated, so Archie's lettering requires some small measure of his love of Celtic art and Runic crosses before it reveals its beauty to the beholder. The beholder is required to make some contribution before the letters reveal their secret. Sometimes you have to look and look, and look again, before you see - but the effect involved is amply rewarded.

Archie Knox was invited to design a suitable 'surround' for the font here in S. Matthew's. His design was based appropriate] enough on the bollards along the quayside with their oblique holes for rope and chain to pass through. It was a marvellous idea, and they were eventually made in wood - 4 bollards, one for each corner. But alas ! they were far too big, quite dwarfing the font, so they were never permanently placed in position for that reason, but remained stored away somewhere under the hall staircase where they remained, for a long time and I don't know what eventually became of them.

"A prophet is not without honour save in his own country and among his own people" said Jesus. So, Archie Knox had to win recognition abroad before his work was appreciated at home, and his work was not always appreciated abroad. In 1912 he made an abbortive visit to America. Writing from Philidelphia he tells of one firm (to whom he submitted Liberty's Catalogues for them to see some of his designs) as having described it as "the art of the drug-store"!!

In another letter he writes "Here I cannot find suitable work - so I am trying afresh in New York. I may have to travel about, but travelling is costly and I cannot last very long". Presuma he was no more successful in New York than he had been in Philadelphia, for by 1913 he was back home again in the Island. He acquired a cottage in Sulby and of some of his paintings of this period he wrote "the places painted are within a short walk of my hOme, passed often, one day something never seen before, some new appearance of colour and the sky. It may not be seen again and in one hour is forgotten. Such sights are they, as men over unimaginable centuries have looked at and learned to know their land is beautiful".

Until he went to London he was regarded simply as a local artist who painted water-colours which not everyone liked - and who taught boys and girls who, for the most part, were not particularly interested in the subject.

He began to be recognised only when he went to London, where th Knox Guild of Design and Crafts was eventually formed to study and spread the teaching and principles of one whom they regarded as a Master of water-colour painting and design, and treated him as such.

One of his pupils, Miss Winifred Tuckfield, who became secretary: of the Knox Guild, wrote of "the perfect contour of the form, the strong spiritual curves of the interlacing, showing the depth of thought that must have been given before objects so complete could have been evolved". And again - "to you who possess work by Mr. Knox, I say, treasure it, and leave it to your Island, that your childrens' children may learn from it

Archie Knox wasn't all that keen on exhibiting his work but several exhibitions of his work were organised by the Knox Gull in Kingston Public Art Gallery and Whitechapel Art Gallery, and at one of these exhibitions held in 1926 the Director of the Canadian National Art Gallery saw 80 of Archie's paintings and admired them so much that he made arrangements for the whole collection to be shipped to Canada where they were shown in the National Gallery in Ottowa where art critics acclaimed him to be "one of the greatest ever water-colourists". - A wealthy Canadian wanted to buy the lot, and Archie Knox could doubtless have done with the money (as we have already observed) - but he declined the offer

Archie Knox was a man of artistic integrity. "On rare occasions when he spoke of his faith", wrote my cousin, the late Wilfrid Quayle, "he showed a splendid integrity of purpose and deep sincerity and it was these qualities which were transferred to and are evident in his work when one takes the trouble to analyse it ".

What T.E. Brown did for Manx literature Archie Knox did for Manx art.

I understand that a few weeks before he died Archie had a burning and threw on the fire such pictures as he didn't think good enough.to leave behind. I wonder what treasures went up in smoke. What costly incense !

On this fiftieth anniversary of his death, we give thanks to God for the life and work of a genius; a man full of a 'divine discontent ' - always striving to do better. But as another genius in another field of human endeavour once said, "A man's reach must ever exceed his grasp - or what is heaven for ?"


Archie Knox - truly .....



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