The ancient Roman concept of genius loci, or “spirit of place” – the subtle elemental energy beyond culture, contemporary events or even art historical influences that can be felt by and inspire those who inhabit a place – is often portrayed symbolically as supernatural forces and landscapes of magical beauty in myth and fairytale. It was from such a “place” that Archibald Knox emerged, a master designer whose work epitomized the “less is more” elegance of the modern but who, more than anything else, was the artistic incarnation of the Manx spirit, born on and of the Isle of Man.
The Isle of Man – Ellan Vannin, as it is called in Gaelic – is a tiny Celtic outpost of 220 square miles in the Irish Sea. Settled since Neolithic times, it counts among its historical inhabitants the Celts, Vikings and early Christians, all of which were spared the homogenizing influence of Rome’s legions. For them the island was a universe in miniature, small in scale but immense in natural diversity, with ever-changing skies, jagged coastlines, heather cloaked mountains and leafy glens encircled by a mercurial, many hued sea.
The remains of its dwellers reflect these diverse influences: tombs and stone circles from prehistoric times share space with carved crosses and ancient stone churches that bore witness to the Celts conjoining with the Vikings, and over the centuries as they became Christians. The preeminent decorative motif of these peoples is the entrelac or Celtic knot, symbolizing their own spiritual entwinement and perhaps eternal life.
Knox channeled the Isle of Man’s genius loci by artistically synthesizing its human history with its natural beauty. He came to know the prehistoric Manx people as an ardent field walker, collecting tools and stones used by his predecessors. From the very start of his artistic training, he was captivated by all that was Celtic-Christian, by the crosses and stele, the ornamentation, the calligraphy and the syncretic mytho-folkloric tradition that were its fruits. Winning medals and prizes for his research into these areas, Knox provided illustrations for PMC Kermode’s authoritative 1892 text on the ancient island crosses. Although he began as a copyist, by the time of his artistic maturity Knox had integrated the spirit of entrelac-inspired ornamentation to the point that it became his signature stylistic motif and an essential component of his greatest silverwork, important examples of which will be offered in this fine Manx collection in Important Design (24 May, New York).
One such object is the large, mysterious silver vessel of 1902 with peaked hat that stands proudly with looped struts upon its base, like a being from an ancient Celtic folktale. Another is a vase from 1900 with vertical shafts of ascending entrelac and complemented by rich enameled fields that stands on an entrelac-chased base. Knox also assimilated the shape of the Isle of Man’s Celtic crosses and applied their strong silhouette and powerful sense of volume to his pewter cross clock of 1902, one of his greatest designs.
In addition to these formal design elements, Knox used lustrous enamel work and semi-precious stones that are redolent of the colors of the Manx landscape: blue and green for its mutable skies and seas, and shades of mauve, purple, yellow and red for its flower-carpeted fields and mountains. Yet what most deeply affirms the influence of the “spirit of Man” on Knox’s creativity is the fact that the vast majority of his masterworks were conceived in Sulby Glen, in the north central heart of the island; Knox retreated to this bucolic and quintessentially Manx haven in 1900 in order to create in seclusion, only returning to the mainland in 1905 as his peak creative time began to wane.
In Knox’s skilled hands, decoration and form come together in works that are not only modern but also exemplify the Isle of Man as an artistic and spiritual “place.” Sotheby’s is proud to present this superb collection from the Isle of Man, formed under the auspices of the same “spirit of place” from which was born the enchanting genius of its most gifted artistic son, Archibald Knox.
LEAD IMAGE: ARCHIBALD KNOX, AN EARLY “CYMRIC” VASE, MODEL NO. 244 (DETAIL), 1901. ESTIMATE $20,000–30,000.