Gwen Knight (1888-1974) was born in Wellington and lived on The Terrace above Woodward Street, before moving at the age of four to Hunters Hill in Sydney. Knight studied music at the Sydney Conservatorium and went to Europe in 1913 to further her career as a pianist.
It is no exaggeration to say that meeting Frances Hodgkins changed Gwen Knight’s life. She joined Hodgkins, along with fellow New Zealand artist Flora Scales, in St Tropez in 1931. Painting had always been a second love for Knight and through the encouragement of Hodgkins, she decided to pursue her career as a practicing artist.
Knight remained in Hodgkins’ company for the next six years. She accompanied her to Ibiza and Tossa de Mar in 1933, locations suggested to Hodgkins by Karl Hagedorn and his wife, who had stayed there. Hodgkins gifted Knight the watercolour Ibiza, Balearic Islands 1933, inscribing the work ‘to Gwen from Frances Hodgkins 1933’. She also painted two portraits of Knight, Under the Pines 1931 (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki), completed in St Tropez, and Gwen 1934 (Private Collection), both works illustrating Hodgkins’ tendency to use close associates and friends as subject matter for her works.
Hodgkins introduced Knight to Hans Hofmann in Munich, who after seeing her work took her on as a pupil. A highly perceptive and sympathetic teacher, Hofmann emphasised the essential discipline of drawing and it is this that Knight always referred to as one of her most important influences. The artistic atmosphere of Europe in the twenties and thirties, enhanced by the long and happy friendship with Hodgkins, had a profound effect on Knight’s work. Her chief interest became landscape painting, informed not only by Hodgkins’ example (in the use of gouache), but also by the teachings of Parisian artists André Lhote and Roger Bissière under whom she studied.
Knight returned to New Zealand in 1948, where she became a key member of the Wellington art scene. She developed her own individual style; quiet and meditative, with restrained rhythmic colours and closely knit toning.
Knight’s gouaches brim with the spirit of the Mediterranean setting of her friendship with Hodgkins. In The Goldfish Pond, a refined joie de vivre is evoked by the celebration of sunlight, nature, and the magical moments which everyday life can offer the observant eye. Lhote’s training is also reflected in Knight’s quiet and meditative style. The point of view within the composition allows the picture plane to spread out before the viewer. The playful inclusion of as many pots of flowers as the design can accommodate and the lyrical play of sunlight bringing out the reflection in the pool, all evoke Knight’s skill as an artist.
Written by Jonathan Gooderham & Grace Alty
We are grateful to Dr Pamela Gerrish Nunn for her assistance in compiling the catalogue entries.