Decanter

Ref: 1749
  • Designer/Retailer

    Designed by Archibald Knox (1864-1933)

    Glass manufactured by James Powell & Sons, Whitefriars Glass Works (1834–1980)

    Retailed by Liberty & Co. (1875-present)

  • Detail

    Silver, glass and ‘green’ stone

    Height: 34.5 cm

    English (Birmingham), 1901

  • Marked

    Hallmarks for Liberty & Co.

  • Literature

    Stephen A. Martin, Archibald Knox, London: Artmedia Press, 2001, p.188 (illustrated, top left)

  • Provenance

    […]; probably Dan Klein; John Scott (1935-2020); the Executors of John Scott

  • Exhibited

    Fine Art Society, Art Nouveau Continental Design & Sculpture: The John Scott Collection, 7 (2015), no. 35

  • Note

    The design for the present decanter is in the ‘Liberty Silver Sketch Book’, no. 286 (Westminster Archive Centre, see below)

    For the only other recorded example of this model, see Adrian Tillbrook, The Designs of Archibald Knox for Liberty & C0, London: Ornament Press, 1976, p. 151, fig. 138.

    We are grateful to Dr Stephen A. Martin for the following note:

    Archibald Knox (1864-1933) was the creative genius behind the Celtic Revival style that became synonymous with British Art Nouveau.  Marketed by Liberty & Co of London, Knox’s sinuous adaptations of iconic Celtic knotting inspired acquisitional desire making Liberty’s the premier source of contemporary British home décor in the later part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.  It could be said that the compelling lyricism of Knox’s designs enabled a more cautious, if not traditional, British design sensibility to embrace a home-grown variant of Continental Art Nouveau.  So successful was Knox’s interpretation of Art Nouveau, that his work was instrumental in elevating Liberty’s to eponymous status in Italy, where Art Nouveau was designated ‘Stile Liberty’, or Liberty Style.

    Concurrent with Knox’s preternatural ability to adapt Celtic knotting to form and surface, he was exploring allied but quite different design possibilities catalyzed by the Arts and Crafts Movement.  Knox was deeply influenced by Christopher Dresser, and it is widely believed that he worked in Dresser’s design studio when he first arrived in London from his home on the Isle of Man in the late 1890s.   There he was exposed to the energies of proto-modernism that espoused ‘less is more’ as well as to the importance of the ‘honest’ construction of an object central to Arts and Crafts style.  Moreover, Knox would have kept aesthetic company with the vestiges of Japonisme that flourished in the preceding decades and of which Dresser was a principal proponent.  It could be said that in Knox, the Celtic met the Continental, the modernist met craft, and the West met the Japan-inspired East.

    As a result of Knox’s artistic polymorphism, his work can be divided into categories. The best known might be classified as his ‘classical’ style, characterized by his magnanimous use of Celtic inspired decorative elements coupled with a focus on integrating those elements into the fundamental structure of the object.  Yet amidst the multitude of his design output (it is probable that they number in the several thousand for Liberty & Co), there is a grouping of rare and magnificent objects that originate from another domain of Knox’s many-sided genius.

    One such object is this decanter from 1901.  Standing 34.5 centimetres tall, this monumental decanter is a tour de force of Modernism blended with elements of Japonisme.  Its compelling beauty is derived from Knox’s focus on the primacy of form while embellishing with subtle decorative flourishes.  Different from the dozen or so other decanters by Knox that are ‘classical’ in spirit and employ his iconic lyrical Celtic rhythms, this decanter is a wholly modern object, embodying a simplicity and restraint that achieves elegance and a visual richness.  Its cylindrical green glass body is crowned by an inventive lid that combines a pagoda-like central element traced by horizontal decorative circles that is redolent of one of Knox’s earliest, greatest, and most sought-after designs, the covered cup that first appeared in Liberty’s inaugural Cymric Silver catalogue in 1899; see Martin (op. cit., p. 179, top left)

    Ever the aesthetic syncretist, Knox compliments the lid with a gently shaped flaring thumbpiece that delicately cradles a lapis sphere.  Such inventive wirework can be found on some of his most successful designs, including this chalice from 1903; Martin, loc.cit, bottom right.

    In this deceptively simple gesture, Knox marries modernism with Japonisme flavored with a hint of sinuous Art Nouveau.  The decanter’s predominate modernism is, however, further enhanced by its simple banded handle.  Favouring the linear over the lyrical, and abstract over the Celtic, Knox reinforces the modernist dictum of ‘less is more.’  Offset by the transparency of the green glass, the handle does not so much embrace as hold, elevating the integrity of the material and making a declarative statement that this is a utilitarian object however magnificent in conception.  That this decanter is full and complete as it is may be the symbolic message of the spherical shape of the lapis, when it is remembered that the sphere is an ancient symbol of perfection and completeness.

    Seldom does Knox rise to this level of grand simplicity.  One of two known examples, this decanter is a singular creation, conjoining diverse stylistic elements effortlessly.  From the standpoint of Knox connoisseurship, it is very special indeed.

    Dr. Stephen A. Martin, June 2022