How art lover swapped law for gallery greatness
Natalie Knight Gallery founder tells of spark that ignited passion and how finding valuable works came naturally
The Big Picture: An Art-O-Biography
Natalie Knight and Lana Jacobson
Her mother was a lawyer. Zamie Liknaitzky, whom she married at the age of 19, was also a lawyer. She studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand and, after passing her board exams, was admitted as an attorney. It seemed inevitable that Natalie Knight was set for a legal career.
That was not to happen though, as another calling beckoned — the world of the arts. Her change in focus was sparked by her second date with her husband-to-be.
"Zamie cancelled a date with someone else and took me to see Margot Fonteyn at the Johannesburg Arts Festival. I was bowled over by the ballet and the opportunity to watch a great star like Fonteyn," Knight recalls in her memoir, The Big Picture: an "Art-O-Biography" that she co-wrote with veteran journalist Lana Jacobson.
"Until meeting Zamie, I had never been to a live theatrical show or stepped into an art gallery. Zamie opened a new cultural world. He encouraged my creativity and independence and enabled me to find my own voice and opinions.
"I realised that this was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with."
The book, which also features photographs of leading magnates who did business with Knight at the height of her art-dealing career, does not only recall her personal life, but also the history of South African art.
She became a playwright, a freelance arts journalist writing for several South African publications — including The Star, the Jewish Times and Habitat — an art historian, curator and art dealer who commanded respect among buyers. She assumed a new identity, changing Liknaitzky to Knight (to make it easier for people to pronounce and spell).
Knight published academic papers, especially on Ndebele and Tsonga art, based on research she undertook. She has also written plays that have been performed in the country’s major theatres.
The performance of her first play, Barmy Days, written in 1966, attracted sizeable audiences at the Jewish Guild in Johannesburg and the Labia Theatre in Cape Town. It made a profit of R600 — a handsome amount at the time.
Knight and her husband used the profit to buy art from a dealer in Cape Town.
"We chose six works for a total cost of R1,200, including two paintings by Maurice van Essche and a drawing by Jean Welz. We handed over the first R600 — the profits from Barmy Days — and paid off the balance at R200 a month," she writes.
"I didn’t realise that I was preparing myself for a career as an art dealer." Knight has since charted an extensive journey in the art world, including going to New York for the first time in 1968, when musicals such as Hair, Man of la Mancha and Fiddler on the Roof were on Broadway," she says.
"I loved every moment. I was so excited by the plays that I wrote a long article which I took to The Star newspaper, and to my delight, arts editor Olga Price accepted it and featured the piece over two pages. It was my first published article," she says.
More commissions followed from other publications and the Jewish Times regularly assigned her to cover cultural events, one of which was to change the direction of Knight’s career.
She was sent to interview art historian Esme Berman in the 1970s, when the first edition of her book Art and Artists of SA was published.
"This major publication has been referred to as the ‘bible’ on the topic," Knight writes.
"It was a daunting assignment as I was still very shy and Esme’s reputation preceded her — art historian, critic, lecturer, broadcaster and forerunner in the research and documentation of South African art of the 20th century," Knight writes. "I was met by a perfectly groomed Esme, with superb diction. She quickly assessed my lack of experience and at the end of the interview, imperiously insisted that I send her the completed article before publication."
Berman provides reasons in the book for the uncomfortable encounter between interviewer and interviewee.
"Natalie was an attorney and wanted to write about art and theatre. I told her she couldn’t write articles about art that aficionados read if she hadn’t studied the subject," Berman wrote.
"To my amazement, Natalie later registered at the University of the Witwatersrand. She majored in history of art and drama, obtaining a BA degree."
That was the start of Berman and Knight’s friendship.
They went to New York together in 1973 and explored its art offerings, including spending "hours and days in the Museum of Modern Art. And what a way to get basic art education," Knight writes.
"We both remember the defining moment of our trip in New York vividly. I liked a set of 10 Vasarely prints. ‘Surely, you aren’t thinking of buying them all?’ asked Esme. ‘Well, it is much cheaper if I buy the set. If I then sell eight, I can keep the two I like best as my profit’."
Knight told Berman she was going to open an art gallery one day. And, in 1981, the Natalie Knight Gallery opened, first in the garage of Knight’s family home in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, before moving to Rosebank and, eventually, the upmarket Hyde Park Corner.
From selling pop art posters in Bedfordview, the Natalie Knight Gallery grew to become a formidable institution.
Some top foreign artists who were mainly sourced by well-connected, then London art dealer David Krut exhibited in the space alongside emerging local artists, especially Tsonga and Ndebele artists. Big names including Nelson Mandela, Sun International founder Sol Kerzner, Altron founder Bill Venter and businesswoman Joan Joffe have passed through the gallery’s entrance designed by Gerard Kokt. Artists such as Thomas Kgope, Tommy Motswai, Collen Maswanganyi, Alfred Thoba as well as Velaphi Khumalo have shared the space with the likes of British painter John Piper and sculptor Henry Moore.
Knight eventually closed her successful gallery.
"I have turned a new chapter in my personal life. I have turned religious and, therefore, as an observant Jew, my priorities have changed," she says.
"I devote most of my time now to writing and curating and am busy with a lot of other activities related to art.
"In March, I am putting together an exhibition by Alfred Thoba at Wits Art Museum. One of the reasons I wrote this book was also to let people know what is happening with regards to my personal and business life," says the 75-year-old grandmother of "several children".