John Bellany

Death Knell for John Knox


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
John Bellany 1942–2013
Etching on paper
Image: 473 × 500 mm
Purchased 1983

Catalogue entry

P07901 Death Knell for John Knox 1972

Etching 18 5/8 × 19 3/4 (473 × 500) on paper watermarked ‘Arches France’ 37 3/8 × 29 1/2 (955 × 750) printed by Jack Shirreff, Westbury and published by the artist
Inscribed ‘John Bellany 72’ b.r. and ‘Death Knell for John Knox’ bottom centre and ‘3/23’
Purchased from Monika Kinley (Grant-in-Aid) 1983

The following entry is based on information supplied by the artist in a letter dated 20 April 1986. It has been approved by the artist.

The subject of ‘Death Knell for John Knox’, according to the artist, is ‘John Knox... expiring’. In this work, two themes which recur in Bellany's iconography are fused into a single image. Both derive from the nature of Bellany's upbringing in Port Seton, Scotland. Bellany has identified the major influence in his childhood:

John Knox dominated the thoughts of my formative years as a child brought up in a Calvinist dominated home and a Knox dominated fishing village in Scotland. Knox's ‘bible thumping’ and that of his followers runs through every strain of one's life in this situation. From education to physical and emotional outlets - SIN IS ALWAYS IN THE AIR with Knox looking over your shoulder.

During his early life in Port Seton, Bellany also gained a heightened awareness of human vulnerability and mortality. This was the result of first hand acquaintance with fishermen who earned their daily living by embarking on dangerous voyages and, consequently, from the recurrent tragedy of losses in the village community.

‘Death Knell for John Knox’ was directly inspired by Bellany's revelatory discovery in a biography of Knox that ‘he was not as white as the driven snow’. He has explained that

Knox's death was melodramatic to the point that Strindberg or Ibsen looked like Walt Disney in comparison. Knox's passion for his sixteen year old step daughter was at its highest peak, his wife, her mother turned a blind eye to the iniquities. Then Knox had a nightmare that he was in Hell and woke from his vision a distraught and terrorised man and his death scene was hardly filled with singing of angelic choirs, but remorse and soul searching and extreme anguish of spirit and soul until the life left him.

In this work, Bellany depicts not simply the moment of Knox's death but also its nature and, in particular, ‘the terror in Knox's tortured mind’. His stated aim is to communicate Knox's ‘frenetic fear of fire and brimstone in everlasting damnation’. He achieves this through the cumulative effect of the image's constituent elements. Knox is seen in the foreground being literally overwhelmed by his ‘various obsessions’ which tax him with the knowledge that ‘retribution will soon be at hand’. The black cat is ‘Mephistophelian’ and ‘symbolises evil and the inner conflict Knox was fighting against. Good and Evil dominated the man's existence.’ The female figure in the background is emaciated and resembles a Nazi concentration camp victim. Bellany visited Buchenwald in 1967 and its effect was traumatic. The presence of this image here links the scene with evil in modern times.

The work evolved from ‘many many drawings - pencil - ink and wash and watercolour and several smaller etchings’ most of which are in the artist's private collection. These were begun in 1971 and the etching was completed in 1972. Bellany felt that etching was the appropriate medium for this image because

The clarity of the line was perfect for the ‘carrion-pocked images’ smothered in the death ridden rich heavy black of the atmosphere of the death scene with heavy heavy aquatint. One feels one can almost touch the air which is soot-sodden and stagnant awaiting the last gasp. This against the pristine clarity and light besmirched figures in the drama leaves one with the feeling - ‘THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE’ however minimal.

Bellany also executed two related oil paintings: ‘Homage to John Knox’ 1972 (repr. John Bellany Paintings 1972–1982, exhibition catalogue, AC tour, February 1983–September 1984, no.1) and ‘John Knox on his Death Bed’ 1972, which was accidentally destroyed while being moved.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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