Messums celebrate Eardley Knollys - an artist and dealer of taste and charm with the ability to spot talent

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Messums celebrate Eardley Knollys - an artist and dealer of taste and charm with the ability to spot talent
Blue Poplars, oil on canvas.

LONDON.- On April 27, Messum’s cast the spotlight on (Edward) Eardley Knollys (1901-92), art dealer and friend of the Bloomsbury set, who did not discover his own artistic talent until he was well into his fifties.

However, his passion for watercolours and art came a lot earlier, and his excellent eye helped him spot artists like Ivon Hitchens and Matthew Smith who, decades later, would gain prominence. Add to that his charm and ability to open doors wherever he went and you have an extraordinary life.

“Despite all my interest in other people’s pictures, I never knew I could paint. It was after the war, when I was going abroad with Edward Le Bas…“Of course, you’re going to paint too”, he said... although I said I couldn’t. Ten days later, when he left me to go to Lucca to meet Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, I was unable even to sleep for thinking about painting pictures. [But] I never looked back.”

Inspired by Gauguin and Fauvism, by the time he picked a paintbrush in earnest, Knollys had already enjoyed several careers and mixed with many of England’s leading literary and artistic names of the early 20th century.

A scion of minor aristocracy, after studying at Christ Church, Oxford, where he befriended the likes of David Cecil and Edward Sackville-West, he inherited estates whose income freed him to pursue a love of watercolour.

Before he took up art in earnest, both as a dealer and as a painter, Knollys worked in advertising, went to Hollywood to dabble in film, travelled throughout Europe and even worked for Viscount Hambledon, owner of W.H. Smith.

In 1936, he joined Austrian dealer Ala Story at her eclectic Storran Gallery in Knightsbridge where they showed works by Pavel Tchelitchew, Ivon Hitchens, Frances Hodgkins, Christopher Wood and Victor Pasmore. Story’s assistant, Frank Coombs, a young member of the London Group of artists that also included Matthew Smith, went on to become the great love of Knollys’ life.

When Story sold her share in the business to Knollys he developed it in partnership with Coombs. Dealing on a sale-or-return basis, they were able to show works by Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Picasso, Vlaminck, Derain, Picasso and Modigliani, befriending clients such as Lady Ottoline Morrell and artists including Duncan Grant and Graham Sutherland.

Everyone Knollys met adored him, and collectors trusted him.

In 1937, the gallery moved to Albany Court Yard off Piccadilly, where it continued to trade after the war broke out. However, Coombs joined the Royal Navy and his death in a Belfast air raid in 1941 proved a devastating blow for Knollys who eventually closed the gallery.

The next chapter in his life lay with the National Trust, where he became assistant to Donald MacLeod, the Trust’s secretary and met James Lees-Milne, who became a firm friend and arguably the leading figure in preserving British national heritage.

Knollys played a significant part in this too, taking responsibility for advising the owners of properties in Wales and Wessex as they turned to the National Trust in the face of dwindling resources or even ruin. Avebury Manor, whose Neolithic stone circle he championed to the Trust and which is now considered second only to Stonehenge in archaeological importance, was one property that came under his wing.

Another extraordinary chapter began after the War, when Knollys joined Eddy Sackville-West, Desmond Shawe-Taylor and later, Raymond Mortimer at Crichel House, a Georgia rectory near Wimborne in Dorset. There they created one of the last great post-war salons, hosting guests including Sybil Colefax, Anthony Asquith, Graham Sutherland, Lord Berners, Nancy Mitford, Benjamin Britten, Laurie Lee, Ben Nicolson, Cecil Day-Lewis and Graham Greene.

Having discovered his talent with a brush, Knollys quit the National Trust in the late 1950s to devote himself to painting, moving to Slade Hill House, near Petersfield in Hampshire, a modest former hunting lodge he shared with Mattei Radev, a Bulgarian picture framer.

His works, often featuring Hampshire rural landscapes, as well as still lives and other themes, projected a joie de vivre and boldness of colour redolent of his personality and approach to life.

Painting from the studio he built there, his sense of composition nevertheless remained framed by London windowpanes, and he later said: “I tend to see things framed in a rectangle, and once struck by a composition I have to make a drawing of it and take it to the studio. I do like a ‘workshop’. [But] I can’t paint in my flat, there are too many memories.”

Knollys spent his later life in Hampshire painting, cooking and giving dinner parties – that were as likely to include one of the Sitwells as his cleaning lady – in rooms hung with paintings by Grant, Hitchens, Sutherland, Alfred Wallis, Winifred Nicholson, Lucien Pissarro and Sir Matthew Smith, whose works strongly influenced Knollys’ decorative Fauvism.

On his death in 1991, Radev sold the house and moved the collection to London, where he effectively preserved it intact until his own death in 2008. That year, the collection was exhibited for the first time in a dedicated exhibition at Pallant House in Chichester.

Earlier Duncan Grant had written: “It has been about twenty years since I first saw a canvas by Eardley Knollys. What I felt then was the integrity of his courageous enthusiasm – courageous because it seemed to me relatively late in life, like Gauguin, he was burning all the boats in his dedication to painting.”

Knollys said of his own work: “I have always loved bright strong colours – muddy ones seem to me symbols of gloom. This led me to the Pont Aven and Fauve painters, and they remain my favourites. But I soon discovered – as they did – that youth and exceptional genius are needed to apply blazing colours so recklessly... I try to drive along the splendid roads they opened – in my own car of course and with some personal diversions.”

“The mixture of salon culture, country-house parties, old school and Charvet ties that colour Knollys’ life might have been lifted straight out of P.G. Wodehouse (although it’s doubtful he would have found this comparison flattering),” says Andrea Gates, Director at Messum’s. “Nevertheless, the enduring point of Knollys’ life was pleasure: the joy he took in painting, and the joy he took in sharing it with such a supportive, stimulating circle of friends.”

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