Knight, Vivien Margaret (19532009), art historian and gallery director, was born at Solihull Hospital, Solihull, Birmingham, on 9 November 1953, the only daughter and elder child of Donald Frank Knight and his wife, Valerie, née Hanson. At the time of her birth registration her parents lived at 60 Church Road, Moseley, Birmingham. They were both teachersher father an art teacherand encouraged her early interest in painting. She attended King Edward VI High School for Girls, Edgbaston, and went on to study under Lawrence Gowing on the combined fine art and art history course at Leeds College of Art. She graduated in 1976, having written her BA thesis on the paintings of Patrick Heron. His work was to remain an abiding interest throughout her career, and she co-curated (with John Hoole) an impressive retrospective exhibition of his work for the Barbican Art Gallery in 1985, and followed this three years later with the first monograph on the artist.
Knight joined Birmingham City Art Gallery as an assistant in the prints and drawings department in 1978. She made an immediate impression on all who met her, with her infectious enthusiasm and her head of flaming red corkscrew curlsso like the angels in the work of Burne-Jones that she was cataloguing. She went on to become a research assistant at the Whitworth Art Gallery in 1980, where she met James Edward Bruce Faure Walker (b. 1948), painter and founding editor of Artscribe, one of the most significant magazines on contemporary art in Britain. He was the son of Roderick Edward Faure Walker, solicitor, and former husband of Caryn Lois Becker. He and Vivien Knight married on 25 April 1981, only three weeks after first meeting, but were to enjoy an enormously happy partnership for nearly thirty years, and had three children: Josephine (b. 1986), Edward (b. 1989), and Dulcie (b. 1991).
Following a brief stint as administrator at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Knight's lifelong work began in earnest in 1983, when she was appointed by the corporation of London to run the Guildhall Art Gallery. With energy and determination she set about cataloguing the 4500 works in the collection, and bringing them out for public view (most having sat in storage since 1941). Under the title The City's Pictures, she curated the first exhibition of the corporation's works at the Barbican Art Gallery (1987). Sensing the need for a permanent home for the works she led the drive to build a new art gallery. Twelve years later, having dealt with an enormous number of logistical difficulties, from finding Roman remains on the site to recruiting and developing a professional staff, she oversaw the inauguration of the new Guildhall Art Gallery, opened by the queen in 1999a significant new cultural landmark for the City of London but also a fitting testimony to Knight's drive and passionate advocacy for the arts.
As head of the Guildhall Art Gallery, Knight championed several Victorian painters whose work had fallen from fashion, bringing her exhaustive knowledge of the paintings in her care to wider public attention. With Mark Bills she brought out a definitive study of W. P. Frith in 2006, and with Barbara Bryant co-curated an exhibition of G. F. Watts's work in 2008 for the Guildhall Art Gallery. But she also found time to proselytize on behalf of the restorative powers of art, exhorting City workers to spend their lunch-hours looking at paintings rather than eating sandwiches at their desks, citing scientific evidence for art's stress-relieving powers; and encouraging not just city folk but local groups, amateurs, and children to take advantage of the galleries which she had played so significant a part in creating. She worked at the Guildhall until illness prevented her carrying on. She died at St Joseph's Hospice, Hackney, of pancreatic cancer on 18 December 2009, and was survived by her husband, James, and their three children.
Daily Mail (6 Jan 2006) [online] · The Guardian (9 Jan 2006); (28 Jan 2010) · The Independent (29 May 2008) · The Times (22 Jan 2010) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.
A. Lentati, photographs, 1999, Rex Features, London · J. Johnson, photograph (in the Guildhall Art Gallery with William Wyllie's Scene on the Lower Thames), repro. in The Guardian (28 Jan 2010) · obituary photographs
Wealth at death
£178,657: administration, 3 March 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales