OBITUARY : Alan Knight

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Alan Knight was one of the great artist-blacksmiths of the post- war period, and one of the last of a generation of makers who upheld the values of the most traditional practice and technique in their craft. He maintained high artistic standards, and these were born out of his love of the material, and, as he often said, that continued thrill in seeing iron white-hot from the forge. He was at heart a romantic who hardly belonged in this century, but his poetic insight into his craft was based on self-discipline and practicality, and his mastery of the techniques of forging and firewelding were an inspiration to many younger makers.

Alan Knight was born in 1911 in Birmingham, the son of a gifted cabinet- maker, who died when Alan was three. From an early age he seemed clear about his vocation, and his mother encouraged him to apprentice to the master smith George Bossum, of Blackgate forge, in north Devon. This course of study lasted several years, both blacksmithing and silversmithing, a more intricate discipline that he pursued with equal passion. He worked largely on church work - making crosses, candlesticks and screens - but also on fittings for the local yachts. The sails of these boats punctuated the sea view from the forge doors, a sight he was never to forget, and the close affinity between the craft, the countryside and the cycle of the seasons remained important to him. After leaving Bossum's workshop (and having qualified as a blacksmith), Knight spent two years as a journeyman, picking up work where he could. Much of this period was spent in Berlin, working with the great German smith Fritz Kuhn, where he was able to learn more from the European traditions of metalwork (Knight always felt the craft was more appreciated on the continent). In 1936 he married the artist and glass engraver Alice Barnwell, and settled in Lickey, near Rednal, on the edge of Birmingham. After working in a Birmingham forge, he was able to establish the first of two workshops in nearby Bromsgrove, returning to the town after war service in 1946.

In 1955 he moved his forge to Hampton Lovett, near Droitwich, realising an ambition to have a rural workshop, and with more space to work on larger commissions. As well as making his own designs - screens, candlesticks and crosses for churches as well as many private orders - he became much sought after for restoration projects. His work can be seen in many English cathedrals: Chelmsford, Worcester, Hereford, Gloucester and Truro among them. Quite late in life he undertook the large-scale restoration of gates for Tewkesbury Abbey, and, for the National Trust, he renovated ironwork at Powis Castle and Erddig Park. The chapel at the Benedictine nunnery of Stanbrook Abbey, near Worcester, is full of Knight's craftsmanship. What impressed many people was the rich variety of his output - an extensive range of firescreens, firedogs, wall lights, weathercocks, jewellery and individual sculptures were produced as he worked on larger schemes.

Knight talked with passion about the inspiration of great smiths like the 17th-century French master Jean Tijou, and described the sensation of running his hands over Tijou's magnificent screens in St Paul's Cathedral and feeling their "life". His knowledge of art and its history came less from formal art education (which he always viewed with certain reservations), and more from travelling and looking. He admired the Celtic and Etruscan civilisations, with their advanced visual cultures and thriving craft traditions. Among modern exem- plars, Knight owed a debt to William Morris, and to the truth to materials advocated by Ernest Gimson, W.R. Lethaby and Edward Barnsley. Knight's commitment required the making of all his own tools, "not because I'm a sentimentalist", he once said, "but because they are perfect for the job".

Knight gave generously of his time, encouraging makers in other fields, for instance the potter Geoffrey Whiting, my father, who took the neighbouring workshop at Hampton Lovett. He was a founder-member and in later life President of the Worcestershire Guild of Designer Craftsmen and a fellow and sometime Chairman of the Red Rose Guild. He lectured extensively and made radio and television broadcasts, but perhaps, most important of all, he promoted his craft through the time and energy he gave to those who were apprenticed in his forge, and who came both from England and abroad. His own profession awarded its honours; fellowship and the bronze and silver medals of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths, fellowship of the Society of Designer Craftsmen, and membership of the Art Workers' Guild. Despite such attention, Knight preferred the anonymity and quiet idealism of Seitsu Yanagi's The Unknown Craftsman, a text he knew well, one which proposes the idea of the artist as anonymous, not seeking fame.

When most would think of retirement, Knight established a new workshop in Hanbury, also near Droitwich. There he was able to concentrate on silversmithing, but also continued to take on alarmingly heavy work into advanced age, spurred on by the support of his second wife, Olive (the widow of a Herefordshire farmer), and the students who shared his workshop and tools right up to the end.

To watch Alan Knight was a moving experience. Working to his own design and with his own tools, he gave a sense of craft as an intensely integrated and rounded activity. To see him forging a piece of white-hot iron into the shape of a leaf with a full-face hammer, then "veining it" out on to a branch before being incorporated into one of his exquisite screens, was to begin to understand what he was about: a craftsman who loved and understood metal, and gave that material a life.

Alan Vernon Knight, blacksmith: born Birmingham 31 October 1911; married 1936 Alice Barnwell (deceased), 1983 Olive Jones; died 8 February 1995.

Comments