Justin Knowles, painter, 68

Justin Knowles
Boldly inventive painter interrupted in his work for 24 years

03 April 2004

Justin Denys Ingram Knowles, artist and teacher: born Exeter, Devon 19
November 1935; married 1961 Anthea Fear (one daughter, and one son
deceased; marriage dissolved 1983), 1991 Sarah Stott (marriage
dissolved 1994); died Bovey Tracey, Devon 24 February 2004.

Justin Knowles was one of the most innovative artists of his
generation. Writing in Studio International in 1972 Patrick Heron
contended that Knowles's work was "eloquent, fertile, and commands a
sheerness of image that is abolutely masterly". This was praise indeed
from a leading practitioner and critic, especially as Knowles was
essentially self-taught and always self-directed.

But within a year or so of Heron writing, a studio fire would stop
Knowles exhibiting for many years. The intervening period showed him at
his most resourceful, able to surmount huge emotional and economic
setbacks. His re-emergence as a public artist in the early 1990s showed
that he had lost none of his power and inventiveness.

Knowles was born in Exeter in 1935. His early life was largely unhappy
and unsettled. While his father, Peter, was absent during the Second
World War, his mother, Iris, began an affair and his parents divorced
when Justin was four. Aged five, he was at the subject of a custody
battle, and in the ensuing years he was shuttled between the two.

Some of Justin's happiest days were spent with his paternal
grandparents and aunt at Trebartha, a lush Cornish paradise on the edge
of Bodmin Moor. It was a welcome escape from Belmont, a Sussex
preparatory school which he entered aged six. The headmaster gave him a
lifelong hatred of authority figures.

Kelly College, near Tavistock, which his father had attended, was a
contrast. The headmaster, R.V. Westall, ran a liberal regime, allowing
Justin to concentrate on favoured subjects. Westall encouraged walks on
Dartmoor, and the art master, Michael Green, fostered Justin's talent
and introduced him to the work of several artists who would remain
lifelong favourites - CÚzanne, Braque and Matisse. Self-taught as a
trombonist, he played in a local jazz group, also taking singing
lessons. Justin developed a catholic love of music, which ranged over
folk and reggae, his classical tastes ranging from Mozart to Webern.

Although Westall wanted Justin to go to university and Green already
saw him as "developing into an interesting and promising artist", his
father and stepmother disagreed. His father's attempt to turn Justin
Knowles into a chartered surveyor proved a disaster, however. Peter
Knowles was an agricultural estate agent based in Farnham, Surrey,
where Justin attended evening life drawing classes at the School of
Art. On the principle that "I refuse to do things when I'm burned into
them," as he later put it to the writer Mary Flanagan, Justin disrupted
his father's office and deliberately failed his professional

>From 1955-57, he carried a similarly Bolshy attitude with him as a
National Serviceman. "The most indolent officer we've ever had in the
regiment," was his colonel's summing up. After National Service, Justin
Knowles tried advertising, was seconded to a soap company, and was a
sufficiently successful salesman to be sent to Africa to set up
subsidiaries. An incidental benefit was his discovery of tribal art,
which would influence his own work. He loved what he called its "formal

Back in London, Knowles joined the Royal Anthropological Society and
began seriously collecting African art, guided by the dealer Herbert
Reiser. It was just one of many collections he assembled, others being
the pictures of the Cornish primitive painter Alfred Wallis, penny toys
and, when he was hard up, 1950s glass.

In 1965, Knowles visited New York. This was the year that he decided to
paint full-time, even though he was aged 30 and lacked formal training.
His was no tentative beginning. From the outset, he seemed well aware
of trends in abstract painting on both sides of the Atlantic. He began
teaching at one of the most exciting art schools in the country, Bath
Academy of Art, at Corsham. In Devon, he and his wife Anthea, whom he
had married in 1961, settled in an old dame school at Chudleigh and he
set up a studio.

>From the outset of his artistic career, Knowles established an
impressive reputation as a boldly inventive painter. In 1965, he was
included in the English Eye exhibition at Marlborough-Gerson Gallery,
New York. In 1966, he won a Major Prize in the Arts Council of Northern
Ireland Open Painting Competition, was included in the key New
Generation exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery and had solo shows at
Camden Arts Centre and at the Galleria Cadario, Milan.

In 1967, he was again at Camden Arts Centre in its Survey '67 Abstract
Painters, was included in the Bath Academy of Art team Travel d'Equipe
International Section First Prize at the Paris Biennale, had four solo
shows in Britain and abroad and was even then in a string of important

Using a limited range of acrylic colours straight from the pot, he was
producing lyrical works employing shaped canvases and free-standing
shapes. These were not painted sculptures; they remained paintings, the
paint working across the physical form rather than following it.

Knowles' future as a major modern British abstract artist seemed
assured. Then, in 1973, his uninsured studio caught fire in mysterious
circumstances. It cost him most of his finished work, his work in
progress and all his materials. What Knowles called "the silent time"
began. After his 1973 show at Waddington Galleries, it would be 24
years before he exhibited again.

The Devon home had eventually to be sold and Knowles returned to
Islington. He began teaching in Exeter, commuting twice a week, and
turned his attention to publishing and other businesses, such as
property. He launched the publishing house Denys Ingram, which focused
on collectible antique toys; became a book packager, including working
with the Walt Disney Company, which eventually bought his business; and
eventually, returned to Devon, launching the Flyfishers' Classic
Library. Knowles had begun flyfishing at Trebartha as a boy. Settled in
Devon he began again and eventually pursued big game-fishing abroad and
fished for the English team in the 1994 Marlin World Cup in Mauritius.

A chance visit in 1991 by Patrick Heron, accompanied by the Canadian
businessman and art collector David Thomson, helped spark Knowles'
return to art production. Thomson bought some of Knowles' works and
offered to pay for new materials and studio rent in exchange for more.
Almost simultaneously, John Butler of the fine art department at
Plymouth University showed interest in compiling an archive of his

The university's researches uncovered almost 4,000 drawings that
Knowles had secretly made during the "silent period". From the late
1980s, Knowles had found visits to Thailand and Cambodia inspirational,
and in 1996 the first show of his drawings was staged in Bangkok under
the auspices of the British Council.

Knowles began producing sculpture again, spare and beautiful works
superbly finished in a range of materials. He gained a series of awards
and there was a string of high-profile shows, including ones at the
National Technical Museum in Prague, at Austin / Desmond Fine Art in
London and at Lemon Street Gallery in Truro, all in 2002; and at the
Museum and Art Gallery, Plymouth, and Michael Wood Fine Art there, both
in 2003.

There were major commissions, including work for Winchester Cathedral
(2001), and Exeter Cathedral (2002). Knowles' work is held by the Tate
Gallery, the Arts Council, and other public collections in the
provinces and abroad.

David Buckman