ARCHIBALD KNOX: Silver Things and Pewter Clocks

Archibald Knox, Cymric coffee service, 1903, Silver, turquoise and ivorine - photo by Sotheby's
Tudric range, clock, c. 1905, Liberty & Co, London, by Archibald Knox – photo by National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Archibald Knox was a silver designer who was born on 9th April 1864, in Cronkbourne, near Tromode, in The Isle of Man and died in 22nd February 1933, in Douglas, Isle of Man. Archibald was a Manx designer of Scottish descent. He became best known as being Liberty’s primary designer at the height of their success and influence in the United Kingdom and Internationally in places such as Italy, where Art Nouveau was known as Stile Liberty.

Knox’s premier and prolific work acted as a bridge of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Celtic Revival, Art Nouveau and Modernism. Despite that his name was not Liberty, his hundreds of designs for Liberty made his works to be very popular and always be associated with it above other Liberty designers. His Liberty work was for the Tudric (Pewter) and Cymric (precious metals). One of his notable works is the epitaph or gravestone for the Liberty’s founder Arthur Lasenby Liberty.

Archibald’s design talent consisted of a wide range of objects, ornamental and utilitarian, and also included silver and pewter tea sets, jewellery, inkwells, boxes, gravestones, watercolours, graphic designs, calligraphy, house design, fonts and bank cheques.

Family background

Knox in about 1900 – photo by Wikipedia

Archibald Knox’s father was William Knox, who lived in Kilbirnie where he married Ann Carmichael from Lismore Island in 1853. After marriage, they migrated to the Isle of Man in 1856 with their firstborn, Robert. There, William, who was an exceptionally ingenious cabinet and machine-maker, worked for Moore’s Tromode Works, who were makers of high-quality herring nets and sailcloth. Earlier, William’s sister, Margaret, was the first Knox to move to Man when she married a Manx fisherman, William Callister, in 1856.

William Knox later started his own firm William Knox’s Engineering Works and was later joined in his business by four of his sons, without Archibald who was pursuing his own career in art. In addition to running a successful steamboat and ferry business, the Knox family mechanised the local fishing fleet and were also the pioneers in industrial electric lighting on Man Isle, where they introduced the first motor car to the island. Knox’s family engineering background somehow influenced Archibald’s design process for he used metalwork designs that were produced in the style of ready-to-engineer blueprints.

Archibald’s Education

Archibald, the Knoxs’ family 5th child and 5th son, started his schooling at St Barnabas Elementary School and later attended Douglas Grammar School. When he reached the age of 16 years in 1880, Knox joined the newly-opened and innovative Douglas School of Art where the students considered themselves as venturesome modernists. And in 1889, Knox has gained his Art Master’s Certificate. In his youth, Knox had developed a lifelong interest in Celtic art, especially the carved Celtic and Norse stone crosses on the Isle of Man which date from about 500AD to 1200AD. In 1893, his fame interested the ‘The Builder’ which published his article; Ancient Crosses in the Isle of Man.

Knox’s Art Career

A large and rare Archibald Knox Cymric silver stone set and enamelled tankard – photo by BADA

After joining Douglas School of Art for studies, Knox started teaching at Douglas School of Art in 1884 while still a student. And in 1896 and 1897, Knox was working and studying with the pioneering designer Christopher Dresser in London. In 1897, he started teaching at Redhill School of Art where his friend A. J. Collister was principal; they both later left for the Kingston School of Art in 1899. In 1897, Knox began designing for the Silver Studio. From 1900 to 1904, Knox returned to the Isle of Man where he produced over 400 designs directly for Liberty of London. He then returned to teach at Kingston Art School and Wimbledon Art School from 1906 to 1907; this was again following his friend A. J. Collister.

In 1912, Knox resigned from his post as Head of Design at Kingston School of Art following some uncalled for criticism of his teaching style. This consequently made about twenty of his students also to quit and set up the Knox Guild of Design and Crafts. Knox was made the Master of the Guild and they later returned to Kingston to exhibit. In 1913, he spent a year in the United States, and on his return to The Isle of Man, he acted as a censor of internees’ letters during World War I. In 1919, after the War, he returned to teaching art at some of the Isle of Man’s schools until his death in 1933. During his life, Knox produced a variety of many design works on the Island for publications, illuminations, and gravestones.

Knox’s great late work was an illuminated manuscript titled ‘The Deer’s Cry’. Each page is a complexly interlaced illumination of a line of the prayer known as ‘The Deer’s Cry’ or ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’, whose style, imagery, and colouring of every page reflects the content of each line of the prayer.

Knox’s Design principles and teaching methods

A rare Archibald Knox Cymric silver and enamelled vase – photo by The Peartree Collection

Knox always told his students a large number of maxims that gave an insight into his design principles. The primary one was “Aim at order, hope for beauty”. He used to write on the blackboard for all his new students, “Never be ordinary, better be nothing than that”. Another maxim was, “Art is in everything if we choose to put it there”. In 1912, Knox wrote to a student “Don’t slacken in your work; work and think – think and work; that is the royal road; there is no other way through the forest of art”.

Amazingly, Knox had an innovate method of teaching art; he collected a set of three thousand glass slides, examples of design work to show his students. While showing these slides, he encouraged the students to consider the design principles held by each, and assess whether the design met the functional requirements.

Knox’s Death and commemoration

In 1933, Knox died of heart failure and was buried in Braddan Cemetery. To date, his epitaph reads “Archibald Knox. Artist. A humble servant of God in the ministry of the beautiful”. In commemoration of Knox, Cadran Cottage, Ballanard Road in Douglas, that had been remodelled 1910; before his death, with design by Knox, was earmarked as a Registered Building of the Isle of Man in 1996. The word Cadran means ‘quadrant on a sundial’. Between 1996 and 1998, Knox work was commemorated with the first international touring exhibition.

A ‘Cymric’ Silver and Enamel Clock, 1903, Archibald Knox for Liberty & Co – photo by Bonhams

In 2006, The Archibald Knox Society was founded with the aim of the Society being the education of the public worldwide on all matters concerning the legacy of Knox. The Society has given lectures, published journals and helped to organise exhibitions.

In celebrating the 150th anniversary of Knox’s birth, in April 2004, the Isle of Man Post Office issued a set of 10 stamps featuring his designs. Still, in 2014, an exhibition showing the work of Knox and his Celtic contemporaries; Celtic Style was held at the House of Manannan, Peel, Isle of Man. A commemorative concert was held at Peel Cathedral featuring newly composed harp music and including Manx Gaelic choir music.

In 2014, an exhibition of Knox’s work was held at the 42nd Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair in London.