The Sussex landscape painter, Charles Knight, channelled the tradition of English watercolour painting in order to produce his own original contribution. As a result, he became a pillar of the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours and received acclaim, from William Russell Flint, as the 'star turn' of the Recording Britain scheme. Charles Knight was born in Hove, Sussex, on 27 August 1901, the second of three children of Charles Knight, an accountant to a publishing company, and his wife, Evelyn (née Nash). His father came from a family that had long farmed in Sussex, and remained a keen naturalist and artist, taking the young Charles on walking and sketching trips, and so initiating his love of the county. He grew up in central Brighton, first at 78 Ditchling Road and later at 61 Stanford Road, and was educated at Stanford Road Junior and Vardean School. He was also an active member of the Anglican church of St Bartholomew’s, Ann Street, and sang in its choir.
Its vicar, Gilbert Elliott, encouraged his gift for drawing by taking him on four trips to France, in the years 1922-25.
Studying first at Brighton School of Art (1919-23), Knight won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools in 1923 and, though he commuted from the South Coast, he became exposed to many new influences. His discovery of the work of John Sell Cotman was particularly seminal, for it determined his concentration on watercolour, and directed his travels, as well as affecting his early style. As a student of the RA Schools, he won the Landseer Scholarship, and the Turner Medal for his oil of the Cotmanesque subject, Llangollen. Shown at the Royal Academy in 1926, it was soon bought for the Tate Gallery by Sir Joseph Duveen. The publicity led to the membership of both the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils (1933) and the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours (ARWS 1933, RWS 1936, VPRWS 1961).
From 1925, Knight taught at Brighton School of Art, first as a full-time lecturer, and later as a visitor. Following his marriage in 1934, to Leonora Vasey, he and his wife settled at Chettles, 34 Beacon Road, in Ditchling, in the heart of the Sussex countryside. Their son, Richard, was born in 1938. The forty drawings of Sussex that he produced for Recording Britain were dubbed the ‘star turn’ of the project by William Russell Flint.
During the Second World War, Knight was reserved by the teaching profession, and returned to full-time teaching at the college, but also worked as a night telephone operator for the Civil Defence and a member of the Home Guard. In 1944, he was asked by the Queen Mother to give Princess Margaret lessons in watercolour painting; his appointment lasted for three years. He continued to teach at Brighton School of Art, and in 1959 became both Vice-Principal and Head of the Drawing and Painting Department. Though he retired from teaching in 1967, he continued to paint and exhibit a wide variety of confident watercolours until the end of his life. He died on 15 May 1990, his wife having died 20 years earlier. In 1997, the Chris Beetles Gallery hosted ‘... More Than a Touch of Poetry’, an important retrospective exhibition of the work of Charles Knight, organised in conjunction with the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne and Hove Museum and Art Gallery. It was accompanied by an illustrated catalogue.
His work is represented in the collections of the Royal Watercolour Society, and numerous public collections, including the British Museum and the V&A; and the university of Brighton.
Further reading: Michael Brockway, Charles Knight RWS, ROI, Leigh-on-Sea: F Lewis, 1952