Artist, Designer, and teacher
Manx artist, designer and teacher who left behind a remarkable legacy that continues to inspire designers and collectors to this day.
Archibald Knox was born at Cronkbourne, Tromode on 9th April 1864. Son of master cabinet and machine-maker William Knox from Kilbirnie, Ayrshire, and his wife Ann from Lismore Island, Knox was one of seven children.
In 1873 Archibald attended St Barnabas Elementary school and it was here he first came in contacted with the Headteacher Rev. John Quine, an antiquarian and amateur archaeologist. He fuelled Archibald’s searches for Celtic lore and design. In 1880 he commenced study at the newly opened Douglas School of Art and also began teaching.
In 1880 Knox joined the newly created Douglas School of Art and by 1884 he had become a pupil teacher. In 1890 he received a First Class Certificate in the Principals of Ornament and Design from Ornament. He was awarded an Art Masters Certificate Group 1. From 1892 to 1896 Archibald had various articles published including his silver medal article in a national competition on ‘Historic styles of Ornament Relating to the Manx Runic Crosses’.
In 1897 Knox left the Island and moved to London to undertake a teaching role at Redhill School of Art, Surrey. In 1899 he was appointed head of design at Kingston School of Art and it was in this year he also began to design for Liberty & Co. Exactly how he came to be associated with Liberty & Co. is uncertain; however, it is believed that Baillie Scott was responsible for the initial introduction. Regardless of how they came to meet, it was to be a very fortuitous relationship for them both.
During his time working for Liberty’s, Knox created over 5,000 stunning designs ranging from wallpaper, cutlery, rugs, beakers, coffee pots, mirrors, photograph frames and curtains. Each was created in his unique style that came to define the Art Nouveau movement to such an extent that in Italy it was known as Stile Liberty. Knox was the perfect designer for Liberty for many reasons but not least because Liberty preferred his designers to remain anonymous and Knox was an exceptionally private man who appeared to be indifferent to fame. However, Knox’s work was so distinctive because of his reinterpretation / unravelling of the Celtic knot and blending this with Norse functionality that his hand can be seen in most of Liberty & Co’s produce in the early 1900’s. Notably the ‘Cymric’ and ‘Tudric’ Celtic range of metalwork.
In 1900 Knox left London to move back to the Island but continued his work designing for Liberty & Co. He eventually returned to Kingston in 1904 resuming his teaching position. This was to be his most prolific period with Liberty & Co. until his regular commissions for Liberty & Co. stopped in 1912. It was this year that he resigned from Kingston School of Art after the Kensington examiners complained about his ‘modern’ teaching methods which were described in an inspection report as unacceptable.
Such was his popularity with his students that when he resigned a number of his students quit to form the Knox Guild of Design and Craft. The Knox Guild operated until 1937 from a residence in market place, Kingston-on-Thames. It was one his students that rescued several drawings including an early draft of his illustrated manuscript ‘The Deer’s Cry’ from a waste paper basket. These now reside in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In 1912 he spent a year in the United States but in 1913 he returned to the Isle of Man where he continued to teach and paint watercolours.
Knox died at the age of 68 on 22nd February 1933 at his family home of 70 Athol Street, Douglas, and is buried in Kirk Braddan Cemetery. His epitaph reads, “A humble servant of God in the ministry of the beautiful”.
He left behind a remarkable legacy that continues to inspire designers and collectors to this day. He took the Isle of Man’s Celtic and Norse art history and brought it back to life, revamping and reinvigorating it almost a millennium after the original artists had passed. His designs were not only pleasing to the eye but were simple, functional and, crucially for the industrial era, easily reproducible by machine. He created new teaching methods that, whilst they proved to be too controversial for some, inspired his students to set up their own teaching guild in his name. His distinctive lettering is still to be seen in many places around the Island, not least on memorials. He was a man who could easily have but did not seek fame, instead preferring a quiet life inspiring others through his designs, drawings and his teachings.
A humble servant of God in the ministry of the beautiful