Justin Knowles

Boldly inventive painter interrupted in his work for 24 years
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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 - Cézanne, 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 examinations.

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 expressionism".

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 collections.

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 work.

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