25 April 2014

Was Archibald Knox the finest Art Nouveau designer in Britain?

Art Nouveau in Britain evolved out of the already established Arts and Crafts movement. Founded in 1861 by English designer William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement emphasised the importance of handcrafted work. Morris’ commitment to handmade objects was a reaction against shoddy machine-made products that were flooding post-Industrial Britain. The Arts and Crafts movement also promoted a total plan in which every decorative object in the home was made according to a unified design. So even though some British designers of the 1890s became more interested in Art Nouveau, they were still committed to hand-crafted work and to integrated designs. Onto these old ideological commitments, they added the new forms and materials of Art Nouveau.

Archibald Knox, 1904
silver and enamel vase
 for Liberty

Now a few early names. One of the earliest examples of Art Nouveau in the UK was a chair designed in 1882 by British architect Arthur Mackmurdo, a chair that was proud of its organic forms and its curving, decorative patterns. In 1888 British designer Charles Ashbee established a workshop and school for artisans in London. Ashbee’s furniture and metalwork designs reflected the more rectilinear version of Art Nouveau style. In the graphic arts, Aubrey Beardsley drew illustrations for periodicals such as The Yellow Book (1894-5), and for Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé (1894), full of vigorous lines and distinctive double whiplash curves. In Glasgow, architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh also developed a rectilinear version of Art Nouveau, which he used in many buildings and their furnishings. In the Glasgow School of Art, the first part was completed in 1897-9.

In discussions with my students about French Art Nouveau and its impact on the rest of Europe, I discussed William Morris, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Mackmurdo, Charles Ashbee and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but not as much about Archibald Knox. I think that was because Knox’s most famous years were short (1900-04). He certainly worked on until WW1 and then after the war, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of documentation about his life in the later years. April 2014 is the right time to re-examine his art objects – the 150th year of Knox’s birth.

Archibald Knox clock 1903, 
polished pewter front set with blue abalone stones and blue and green enamelled panel.

Archibald Knox (1864-1933) was born on the Isle of Man to a Scottish father. He enrolled as a student in the Douglas School of Art, then after he graduated, he started teaching at Redhill School of Art in Surrey in 1897. The influence and friendship of A.J Collister, principal of Redhill, continued to be important to Knox, as were other relationships. In London Knox worked with the designer Hugh Mackay Baillie Scott, who also came from the Isle of Man (surely not a coincidence) and then with Christopher Dresser.

Arthur Liberty founded his first eponymous shop in Regent St in 1875. Mr Liberty wanted exotic Oriental and Moorish objects to sell, and in time he was delighted to welcome keen young designers who fulfilled Liberty’s passion for exotica. With Christopher Dresser, Knox designed metalware for the Silver Studio, which also supplied Liberty & Co. In 1899, Liberty & Co went into production. They soon showed two small collections of silver objects and silver jewellery bearing their own assay mark, first at the shop and then at the Arts and Crafts exhibition.

The Cymric range was born that year when designers were asked to create an Art Nouveau interpretation of the Celtic style, based around gorgeous enamelled plaques. This was not Arts and Crafts, however. Liberty wanted machine-created silver objects, although they were to be hand finished and decorated luxuriously with semi precious stones and enamels. It was three years before the less expensive and more accessible Tudric range was introduced. Tudric objects were created in pewter rather than silver, making them available to families who were not necessarily wealthy. In this range, Knox's designs centred on such Celtic motifs as interlaced patterns, crosses, and knots. In all the years Knox worked for Liberty, he produced 400+ designs for the shop.

Archibald Knox, Tudric pewter and abalone inkwell with glass liner  
by Liberty & Co. 
13cm diam., c1903 

The Textile Blog says that the Celtic knot was not particularly Celtic in origin, as the knot appeared internationally in a number of indigenous cultures in various forms. However it had become associated with the Celtic fringe regions of Western Europe, not least through the commercial aspects of companies such as Liberty & Co. In medieval times, the Celtic knot seemed to have spread from Ireland to Wales, Scotland, Northumbria and the Isle of Man, so Archibald’s father being born in Scotland need not have been the source of Celtic inspiration.

I was not sure how accepting of European Art Nouveau Britain had been by the turn of the century, but it seems that Knox both adopted and re-interpreted the newly arrived style as much as anyone in Britain. As we noted, the Celtic knot was intended as the primary example of British reinterpretation of a European style and a reaffirmation of Knox’s Isle of Man heritage.

Another factor introducing continental Art Nouveau to elegant English families was Liberty’s custom of buying products directly from Europe. Furniture was imported from France, ceramics were delivered from Hungary and WMF pewter from Germany arrived by the crate load. As long as the objects were well designed, would-be customers were happy with mass produced objects.

Silver and turquoise belt buckle, 1903, designed by Archibald Knox for Liberty

From 1904 Knox taught at various art schools, and eventually students acknowledged his influence by creating the Knox Guild of Design and Craft to promote the master’s art theories, with Knox’s active support and participation. But his relationship with Liberty had ended and in 1912 Knox spent a year in the USA. In 1913 Knox returned to the Isle of Man, where he continued designing and painting water colours. From WW1 on, I have seen few of his art objects.

A silver table lamp designed in 1905 by Archibald Knox was recently sold in Paris for £69,000. At the same Paris auction in 2012, a Knox-designed mirror sold for £94,000. These staggering amounts suggest that Knox designs are still very highly valued today, both financially and aesthetically.

The city of Douglas on the Isle of Man is celebrating the Knox anniversary throughout 2014, with a Knox Trail, concerts and garden-namings. London will be displaying Knox’s metalwork at the London Olympia International Art and Antiques Fair in June 2014. A blue plaque is being placed at the site of Knox's family home at the end of Athol St, Douglas.

Readers may enjoy The Geniusof Archibald Knox by Stephen Martin.

Archibald Knox silver & glass claret jug
Marks for Liberty & Co & 'Cymric'
31 cm in height, 1902


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen,

This is such a rich period fo art and design and is one that holds a special interest for us. These items by Archibald Knox are simply delightful. Elegant and stylish, how could one fail to enjoy using them?

Intriguing that you mention AB's illustrations of Wilde's Salome. We have a book from the 1930s of the play Salome which is illustrated by the graphic designer John Vassos. Interestingly, many of the drawings which are incredibly bold and fluid do resemble Art Nouveau designs of earlier days.

Liberty is still a favourite store of ours and still, we feel, supports the work of talented young artists and designers. If only more stores would follow suit.

Student of history said...

Knox used glass for some truly gorgeous claret jugs and vases. Coloured glass when combined with silver or pewter looks so sharp. I hope you can find some examples.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, These Knox pieces are very beautiful, my favorite being the vase at the top. They display a sensitive use of color--Knox understood the balance of blue/green against silver.

(Coincidentally, the photos are enhanced by the color scheme of your blog, light blue outline against a green background.)

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I am so glad you mentioned Liberty in particular. Arthur Liberty had a great eye for beauty, a passion for interesting new designs and a keen willingness to support young artists. Of course he wanted to make money for his shops, but it is amazing to me that a commercial enterprise would be the one who helped develop British Art Nouveau. Liberty was an amazing man.

Hels said...


WMF in Baden-Württemberg Germany was making gorgeous Art Nouveau carafes during the late 1890s where the collar, handle and base were made from silver or silver plate and the body was a slim, tall sheath of coloured or plain glass. Many were shipped to Britain.. and Knox thought they were gorgeous.

I will add a Knox-designed silver & glass claret jug from 1902. Thanks for the suggestion.

Hels said...


Knox really did have a great eye for material and colour. The silver was so sharp and clean that his contrasting decorative materials always looked interesting – citrines, abalone, mother of pearl or whatever he could find. Stephen Martin said Knox’s objects were “symphonies of elegant form and dancing knot work, punctuated by rich enamelwork and semi-precious stones”.

Occasionally Knox’s designs had no added decorative materials and relied totally on sinuous Art Nouveau forms, raised in low relief from the silver or pewter. I wonder if these objects were as popular.

Mandy Southgate said...

Ha ha! I'd begun to suspect that the Celtic knot wasn't very Celtic at all. It is a silly, over-commercialized concept. I did see some different designs in a shop in Scotland that was accompanied by a bit of history and explanation. I'm not sure whether or not it was authentic or simply a bit of a gimmick.

I first heard of the Arts and Crafts movement on the Art Deco walk I went on. It was interesting as it was a new concept to me. I admire the aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts movement but ultimately prefer the dreamy sensualism of Art Nouveau. Having said that, I love the jug pictured in your last photo.

Hels said...


It is easy to pick Art Nouveau from its from its flowing organic structure, dreamy feminine themes and assymetry.

But it is much harder to pick Arts and Crafts which was based on 1. medieval guild organisation, 2. hand made production and 3. functionality. I mean who can tell if an art object was designed and made according to medieval guild principles?

Mandy Southgate said...

True and the quality was not always a given, with the Arts and Crafts movement preferring a badly made handmade object to a mass produced but quality item.

Hels said...


Arts and Crafts practitioners were very committed ideologues, agreed. I wonder if they loathed the next generation of designers who would do anything to sell their products, including *sudden intake of breath* using machinery.

Mandy Southgate said...

Oh, the horror! :)