Archibald Knox (1864 – 1933) was one of the chief creative forces behind the highly successful Celtic Revival style in silver, pewter, textiles, ceramics and jewellery at the beginning of the 20th century. His striking designs were marketed by the luxury London retailers, Liberty & Co., and several stunning examples are now in our collection.
Knox was a remarkable designer who played a pivotal role in the Arts and Crafts, British Art Nouveau, and Celtic Revival movements in Britain at the turn of the 20th century. He was born to Scottish parents on the Isle of Man in 1864 and spent his early years roaming the island and drawing from nature. He was greatly influenced by his headmaster at Douglas Grammar School, the Reverend John Quine, who introduced him to Celtic lore and design – an interest which later fuelled his artistic career.
Celtic design is a broad movement attributable to several places and people. It typically involves non-linear geometric design, inspired by natural forms with symbolism, stylised motifs, or interlacing elements. A pewter clock in our collection designed by Knox shows Celtic design influences through its swirling ornament and stylised leaves framing the enamel face.
Whilst at school Knox joined the local archaeological society, gathering finds and searching for Celtic remains on the island, and at the age of 14 he began attending the Douglas School of Art. He later travelled to Ireland to study Celtic ornament, worked part time for the architect M.H. Bailie Scott on the Isle of Man, and was associated with the Barnes studio of the celebrated designer, Christopher Dresser (1834 – 1904).
A wider commercial interest in Celtic decoration and themes began in the 1880s in Ireland following the discovery of two masterpieces of ancient Celtic art: the Tara Brooch and Ardagh Chalice, both in the National Museum of Ireland today. By the late 1890s, the Irish craft associations and guilds were largely inspired by Celtic ornament in their production of furniture, metalwork, ceramic, and textiles. The 'Irish Exhibition' in London in 1888 at Olympia and the 'World's Fair' in Chicago, USA in 1893 increased public awareness and encouraged a demand for Celtic inspired wares.
London department store Liberty & Co. capitalised on the demand for Celtic designs by selling reproductions of Irish wares. They developed their own metalwork ranges by purchasing designs from freelance designers and adapting them to make them commercially viable, but usually without attributing the designer's name. Some of the earliest designs produced for Liberty by Birmingham firm W.H. Haseler have since been identified as being designed by Knox. His involvement with W.H. Haseler lasted for over ten years, during which time he produced hundreds of designs for Liberty. One example is a tea and coffee service which uses a repeating decorative interlaced design with embossed knotted forms. The base of each object has been pierced to create an openwork decorative border and the design also features in the rim of the tray. The handle of each item is set with lapis lazuli (a precious blue stone) and ivory. Knox's work is characteristically simple, with the pattern effectively incorporated into the structure of each piece.
Knox also designed many of Liberty's metalwares through his role at the Silver Studio, a commercial design company established in London by Arthur Silver (1853 – 96). Between 1880 and 1963, Silver Studio produced over 20,000 designs for furniture, wallpaper, textiles, and metalwork, including many designs that were retailed at Liberty's. Recently, much research has been done to attribute objects to individual designers. Many of the metalwork designs sold to Liberty's bore Isle of Man place names, supporting their attribution to Archibald Knox. This cigarette box is an example of Knox's work at the Silver Studio. The front half of the hinged lid is embossed with an interlacing design which runs down over the front and sides. The lid is set with a large opal in a heart shaped mount, with smaller cabochon opals on each side.
Knox designed a wide range of objects for the 'Cymric' range of gold and silver wares, and for the 'Tudric' pewter range (an alloy of tin, antimony, and copper), including designs for jugs, decanters, clocks, belt buckles, jewellery, clasps, cigarette cases, inkwells, napkin rings and brooches. This pewter vase is decorated with a repeating pattern of three stylised, knotted plant forms which sit neatly between the spur handles supporting the curved shape of the vase. Again we can see Knox's lifelong interest in archaeology and Celtic design, incorporating elements such as coloured enamel, interlacing linear patterns, and motifs composed of 'knots', as well as his use of rivets and visible hinges.
Early versions of Cymric silver were made by hand, but soon most of Liberty's metalwork designs were intended for machine production and could be hand finished if necessary. Most of the pewter items were cast in moulds as the metal's soft properties make it well suited to the casting process. Pewter is much cheaper than silver, however it is likely that pewter was used as much as for aesthetic reasons as for economy, as it was well suited to Knox's flowing ornamental style. Much of the work in silver was stamped with the decoration when flat, allowing for quick and easy assembly. The flat silver would then be shaped and polished, with the seams positioned in unobtrusive places. Many designs were available for sale either polished smooth or with a 'hammered' surface, or with a variety of different finishes such as with or without enamel, with cabochon stones such as turquoise, chalcedony or moonstone, or set with shell, mother of pearl or abalone shell.
Knox returned to the Isle of Man in 1900 and continued to supply Liberty's with new designs. He moved back to London in 1904 to teach but ended his association with Liberty's in 1912 following a disagreement about his teaching methods. His students resigned en-masse in protest and established the 'Knox Guild of Design and Craft' which operated until 1937. As well as metalwork objects designed by Knox, the V&A has a large collection of Knox's designs on paper, including 134 drawings that were rescued from Knox's wastepaper basket by a student at the end of the summer term in 1912, and gifted to the V&A in 1969. These designs were probably intended for Liberty's, but were never accepted for manufacture. The drawings give us a great insight into his design process, and show how he skilfully adapted and incorporated Celtic-inspired ornament across a wide range of object types.
See more works by Archibald Knox in Explore the Collections.