John William Buxton Knight

1842–1908

Biography

John William Buxton Knight RBA (1843 – 2 January 1908), English landscape painter, was born in Sevenoaks, Kent.

He started as a schoolmaster, but painting was his hobby, and he subsequently devoted himself to it. In 1861 he had his first picture hung at the Royal Academy. He was essentially an open-air painter, constantly going on sketching tours in the most picturesque spots of England, and all his pictures were painted out of doors. He died at Dover on 2 January 1908.

The Chantrey trustees bought Knight's "December's Bareness Everywhere" for the nation in February 1908. Most of his best pictures had passed into the collection of Mr Iceton of Putney (including "White Walls of Old England" and "Hereford Cathedral"), Mr Walter Briggs of Burley in Wharfedale (especially "Pinner"), and Mr SM Phillips of Wrotham (especially two watercolours of Richmond Bridge).

John William Buxton Knight was an English landscape painter who was true to nature and never weakened his conviction to become fashionable. “To speak of him as the successor of Constable would not be without justification, not because he consciously or purposefully based himself upon that master, but because he had much of his predecessor’s spirit and unconventionality of method, and, as well, a full share of his artistic intelligence.”

Born in Sevenoaks, Kent to William Knight (1810 – 1878; accomplished artist and teacher of art), ‘Buxton Knight’ began his art studies at an early age, although not in any formal and systematic manner, but by working in the open air and observing nature. Knole Park in Sevenoaks was popular with many notable artists, who Buxton Knight made acquaintance with, helping inform his future path that included: “a high position amongst the great exponents of English landscape…. which Constable and Crome would have been the first to recognise.”

At the age of 22 Buxton Knight went as a student into the Academy schools on the advice of Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, and was there for just two years. Prior to these formal studies he was already an exhibiting painter, having contributed his first canvas to the Academy at the age of 18 in 1861. He continued to exhibit at the Academy throughout his career and until the end of his life, with a total of 72 paintings. His last exhibition was in 1907 and subsequent to his death the following year, one of his two paintings exhibited in 1907, Old December Bareness Everywhere, was acquired by the Chantrey Bequest and bequeathed to the Tate for the benefit of the Nation.

Despite exhibiting such a large number of paintings at the Royal Academy throughout his lifetime, Buxton Knight was never admitted as an Associate or an Academician, despite having been put forward numerous times. A year after his death, E Barrington Nash wrote: “I am informed that Mr Knight’s name has lately been placed upon the list of candidates for the Royal Academy Associateship, but surely, with such great masterly works as ‘Dover’, ‘White Walls’, ‘Littlehampton’, ‘Hop-picking’, ‘Poole’, ‘Richmond Park’, (White Lodge), and many others en evidence before us, it is a matter of national disgrace that he has not been admitted a full-fledged R.A. long ago.”

“There are few types of landscape that he has not painted: coast subjects, river scenery, mountains, moorland, and quiet stretches of pastoral meadow-land; all have been recorded by him at some time or other. As he wishes to associate only with her [Nature], he has to be ever out and about. And for the greater part of the year he lived in the open, painting industriously through spring, summer, and autumn, returning only when the winter winds make the nomad existence impossible even to the greatest art enthusiast…. Few modern landscape painters can affirm the same absolute self-sacrifice, or can plead that they have to such an extent subordinated the not unnatural inclination to assert individuality at the expense of fidelity to nature. That he should have done so all his life speaks well for his consistency, and implies a rare quality of belief in the soundest principals of art.”

“While we have painters like John Buxton Knight to keep alive the best traditions of the English landscape school, there is certainly no fear that we shall lose our pre-eminent position among the nations which have produced the greater masters in this form of pictorial practice…. It is because Mr Buxton Knight has attacked and mastered the intricacies of British landscape and has made himself a typical exponent of all that is most characteristic in our insular atmosphere that it is possible to claim for him a place among the chief living leaders of our native art. For he represents more adequately than most of our present-day landscape painters what may be called legitimate school. He follows closely the old-established tradition, the sound and logical tradition, adopted by such masters as Constable, De Wint, and David Cox, which imposes upon all students of nature the obligation to observe shrewdly and to set down what they have observed with unhesitating individuality. He does not imitate his predecessors or formulate his practice in any unwise effort to reproduce their personal mannerisms and tricks of style; but he seeks, as they did, to see absolutely with his own eyes and by the frankest use of his own personality to give vitality and authority to his productions.”

“Mr Knight in his nomadic existence is a living protest against convention. The ordinary confinement of a studio would become impossible to a man so devotedly attached to his mistress – Nature. Whatever he does is on the spot and there only. He lives and paints in the open nine months out of the twelve, in all weathers, sunshine or storm, seeing and studying Nature in every visible mood.”

Within Sir Alfred Munnings’ autobiography there is a story of a bet that he had with the Director of Leeds City Art Gallery (which has 31 Buxton Knight paintings), whether Buxton Knight had painted ‘Ingleborough Hall, Yorkshire’ in the open air, which the Director did not think could be done. It transpired with Munnings tracking down a retired postman in the neighbouring village of Clapham, Yorkshire, who confirmed that he passed Buxton Knight daily, sat off the footpath working on the big painting. One day the postman took Buxton Knight a letter, which he opened there, saying it brought him bad news as the Royal Academy had not elected him as Associate. Munnings comments that it was “a story of the dashed hopes of one of our finest landscape-painters; a story reflecting little credit upon members of the Academy.”

Within Ann Galbally's book “A Remarkable Friendship – Vincent Van Gogh and John Peter Russell”, there is mention that “…Buxton Knight another friend of Russell and [Tom] Roberts, and known to Edward Combes, became something of a mentor to Roberts, Russell and other visiting Australian students, including E Phillips Fox. An interpreter of the cool, tonal landscape, tranquil and slightly melancholy at times, with a preference for autumnal scenes and twilight tones.... he became a foundation member of the New English Art Club in 1888. Combes nominated him for membership of the Art Society of New South Wales, where he exhibited in 1882 and 1883, years that Combes was president. One of his March 1883 exhibits, ‘Halcyon Days by Murmuring Stream’ was acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, along with another, ‘Deserted’, when Combes was President of Trustees. Knight returned the compliment by painting and exhibiting at the Royal Academy ‘La Peruse, Botany Bay. After Edward Combes’. Knight kept in touch with Russell during his Paris years and with Roberts when he returned to Melbourne, even becoming the subject of a request for an introduction from Roberts by the young Charles Conder in 1890.”

An obituary in the Examiner on 15th February 1908 remarked of Buxton Knight’s passing as follows: “Death of a great artist. One of the greatest modern British landscape painters passed away recently, though his death and the loss caused by it to the art of his country have remained practically unnoticed. There are many connoisseurs who hold the late Mr Buxton Knight to be the equal, if not the superior, of the very leaders of modern landscape painting in Great Britain, though his work, like that of Arthur Melville or J Charles, was not very well known to the large public while the artist himself was still among the living. Mr Buxton Knight, who first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1861, excelled chiefly in his strong virile oil paintings of the English countryside, which were always remarkable for their firmness of handling and the sense of structure, of the solidity, of all objects."

Within a review of an “Art Exhibition of English Paintings” on 2ndJanuary 1928, the quality of Buxton Knight was pronounced when describing an exhibited painting of his: “The character of ‘Near Chertsey’, by the late J Buxton Knight, is best described by saying that we should like to see it hung between a Constable and a Sisley – with a Monet to complete the sequence – as marking a definite stage in the logical development of Impressionism.”

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