- Museum number
Theatre at the Palace of the Prince at Palestrina; view of stage from back of auditorium with balustraded galleries to left and right and rows of benches in centre foreground, stage with proscenium arch with medallion held by putti in centre
Pen and grey ink with brown wash
- Production date
- 1783-1799 (worked)
Height: 221 millimetres
Width: 285 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- K Sloan, Noble Art 2000
The daughter of Admiral Sir Joseph Knight, Cornelia was well educated in the classics and several modern languages at a school in London. Most academies provided the services of a drawing master by this date and she probably received her first lessons there. Her mother was a friend of the sister of Joshua Reynolds and their circle was therefore his, and included Johnson, Goldsmith, Burke, and the young Angelica Kauffman. When the admiral died, Lady Knight, his second wife, did not receive a pension and hearing that Rome was 'the cheapest city in the world and the most beautiful' she arrived there with her nineteen-year-old daughter in 1778. They remained in Italy, residing in various cities, until the French invaded Rome and then pushed them from Naples to Sicily in 1799, where Lady Knight died. Under the protection of Sir William and Lady Hamilton, Cornelia travelled with them and Nelson back to England in 1800. Five years later she was appointed companion to Queen Charlotte, which she exchanged for the same position with Princess Charlotte in 1809. From 1816, through the connections she had made at court and the grand tourists she and her mother had encountered in Italy, she was able to spend the remainder of her life visiting various courts throughout Europe.
During their twenty years in Italy, with brief sojourns in France, Cornelia seems to have spent her time paying and receiving visits, reading, writing and drawing. Her Autobiography was in fact compiled long after death from her journals and other papers, and describes all of the events and people they encountered but contains very little personal information and does not mention her own writing, drawings or published work. Her mother's letters are more informative. They indicate that Cornelia was an accomplished linguist (in 1790 she was learning Swedish as a tenth language), classicist and poet, writing sonnets and verses to celebrate important events. She published Dinarbus, a continuation of Johnson's Rasselas, in 1793, but the year previously she had published Marcus Flaminius, a View of the Military, Social and Political Life of the Romans, a didactic romance in the form of letters. Fanny Burney regarded it as a work of great merit and 'to Italian travellers, who are classical readers, I imagine it must be extremely welcome, in reviving images of all they have seen, well combined and contrasted with former times of which they have read.'(quoted in Knight, p. 100).
Her principle work however was A description of Latium, or La Campagna di Roma (1805) which she illustrated with etchings after her own work. Many of them were drawn while she and her mother were residing in the palace of the Prince of Palestrina, near the city built on the site of a great Roman Temple dedicated to Fortune, in Latium to the east of Rome. The area was dense with antiquities that provided evidence of a people to whose arms and arts 'this Island in particular are indebted for the chief advantages and blessings of their social and political existence' (p. xi). In her discussion of Palestrina, she quoted Pliny's description of an antique mosaic still to be seen. Only one of her etchings in the volume depicted Palestrina, but she wrote that 'Near the armory is a theatre, capable of holding two hundred spectators, and there is a wardrobe and scenery belonging to it.'(p. 198). Like most antiquarians, she took pains to describe the contemporary way of life and customs in the hope that they would also provide clues to the past.
Her mother recorded that her daughter had made 550 drawings and paintings by 1781, which had risen to 1,800 nine years later - some in pen, drawn from the imagination, but mostly in wash, drawn from nature, some with colour. The drawings that survive are scattered, but seem mainly to depict views and especially ruins and buildings of the Romans, with an attempt at accurate perspective and remarks on the versos that indicate she paid particular attention to the original function of the buildings and sites. Her manner of depicting landscape is very close to Mary Mitford's (cat.130), probably the result of early lessons in London rather than any serious study undertaken with drawing masters in Rome, and although they are often attractively coloured, their focus is always the historical content rather the creation of a picturesque or romantic image. Her portrait by Angelica Kauffman (1791, Manchester Art Gallery) was painted out of friendship and depicts her holding a pen, her elbow resting on a table bearing a roll of papers, a drawing of a naval rostrum and several books including Flaminius, indicating her reputation was as much as an author as an amateur artist.
Literature: E.C. Knight, Autobiography of Miss Cornelia Knight, 2 vols, 1861; Lady Eliott-Drake, Lady Knight's Letters from France an italy 1776-1795, 1805; DBVI.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2000 May-Sep, BM P&D, 'A Noble Art', no.132
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- This item has an uncertain or incomplete provenance for the years 1933-45. The British Museum welcomes information and assistance in the investigation and clarification of the provenance of all works during that era.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number