This apocalyptic painting was produced by Winifred Knights as a competition entry for the final of the 1920 Prix de Rome scholarship in Decorative Painting. From an initial selection of seventeen young artists, Knights was chosen to go forward to the final round, along with Leon Underwood (1890-1975), James Wilkie and Arthur Outlaw, all of whom were also students at the Slade School of Art in London, where Knights studied intermittently between October 1915 and July 1920. The theme of 'The Deluge' was designated for the final prize, with eight weeks allowed for the submission of 'a painting in oil or tempera and a cartoon' (quoted in Alan Powers, 'Decorative Painting in the early Twentieth Century - a Context for Winifred Knights, in Winifred Knights 1899-1947, p.17). The size of the painting, 5ft by 6ft, was also set in advance by the judges. Knights began working on the canvas on 5 July 1920. Despite suffering from tonsillitis and eye problems over the summer, and submitting her painting partly unfinished, she won the award, taking up the three-year scholarship at the British School at Rome in November.
While Knights initially conceived the Biblical Flood scene with a frieze of figures and animals calmly entering Noah's ark in the foreground and placid, horizontal tracts of landscape in the distance, the final design was altogether more dramatic. Frenzied figures flee from the engulfing waters towards high ground, while the ark, windowless and silent, glides away in the distance. Sharp diagonals create a sense of dynamic movement across the canvas reminiscent of the Vorticist experiments of David Bomberg (1890-1957) and Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949) before the First World War (1914-18). While the other finalists depicted classical, semi-nude figures (see Winifred Knights 1899-1947, p.16), Knights worked in a more clearly modernist idiom, preferring stylised, clothed figures and crisply defined shadows. Viewers were struck by the contemporary rendering of the subject. When the painting was displayed in an exhibition of the competition entries at London's Royal Academy in February 1921, one commentator for The Daily Graphic described how 'the ark suggests the modern concrete buildings, and the figures are those of present-day men and women. Critics declare the painter a genius' (The Daily Graphic, 8 February, quoted in Judith Collins, 'Winifred Knights 1899-1947', in Winifred Knights 1899-1947, p.9).
Among the 'present-day men and women' was Knights herself, who appears as the woman at centre right in the foreground. Her mother also modelled for the woman carrying a baby, while Knights's friend, the artist Arnold Mason (1885-1963), posed for the male figure beside her and the man running up the hill. Placing herself in the landscape was a practical solution by which Knights could save time and money, although it may have had wider significance. Knights had been deeply affected by witnessing the detonation of a TNT plant at Silvertown, East Ham on 19 January 1917. It was the largest explosion on British soil during the First World War, with 600 homes flattened and the loss of 73 lives. At the top of a tram car nearby, Knights viewed the scene of devastation first-hand, and her intense shock led her to postpone her studies at the Slade for a year to recuperate with relatives on a farm in Lineholt, Worcestershire. The sense of panic in The Deluge may have reflected this traumatic experience; certainly the scene of terrified people fleeing imminent danger would have had a wider resonance in the aftermath of the war.
Knights continued to work on Biblical and religious subjects for the rest of her career, drawing inspiration particularly from Italian quattrocento painting which she discovered during her studies in Rome. Like Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), she was one of a number of British artists who participated in a revival of religious imagery in the 1920s.
Winifred Knights 1899-1947, exhibition catalogue, The British School at Rome, Rome 1995, reproduced p.27 in colour
Sam Smiles and Stephanie Pratt, Two-Way Traffic: British and Italian Art 1880-1980, exhibition catalogue, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter 1996, pp.10-15