AN ENGLISH CUBIST




WILLIAM ROBERTS:

Vorticism and the Politics of

Belles-Lettres-ism


[Vortex Pamphlet No. 5]


For the context in which this pamphlet was published, see John David Roberts, 'A Brief Discussion of the Vortex Pamphlets'. The ellipses in the text are Roberts's own. Text and illustrations © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society.


A Reply

Readers

Cover and frontispiece for Vortex Pamphlet No. 5



Vorticism
and the
Politics of Belles-Lettres-ism



One afternoon in the summer of 1957 my wife and I were sitting in our dining-room enjoying the view of the sun-lit garden and the canal beyond, when the phone rang. Sarah picked up the receiver and after a pause said, 'A woman is speaking from the Times Literary Supplement office, and wants to know where copies of your pamphlets can be obtained, as they wished to review them.' I replied that I had no Pamphlets myself, nor did I know where any could be got. On another afternoon some months later, when the Plane tree in our garden had begun to cover the grass with its brown shrivelled leaves, the phone bell rang again. Once more over the line from the office of the Times Literary Supplement came a woman's 'Disembodied' voice. It said that they had managed to get copies of the Pamphlets, and a review of them would appear in about a week; she would also like to know their price, as it was customary to give the price when a book was reviewed. It was explained to the enquirer that the pamphlets had not been sold, but had been distributed free. On the 22nd November 1957 a review of my pamphlets with the heading 'Vorticism and the politics of art' was published in the Times Literary Supplement. Promptly, the following week, on the 27th November, a reply to this review from Sir John Rothenstein appeared in the correspondence columns of the 'Supplement'. His communication consisted in fact of two letters, for Sir John had seized with alacrity this opportunity to make public a long letter that he had, some months before, addressed to me, but to which I had not replied.

At first it seemed doubtful whether my letter of reply to Rothenstein would ever get into the columns of the T.L.S.; a good deal of excited argument took place, on the phone, between myself and someone at the T.L.S. editorial room end of the line; my interlocutor was of the opinion that, in the Chantrey dispute between the Tate and the Academy, it was not the Tate Director but the Gallery Trustees as a whole who were responsible for policy.

This objection, however, overlooked the fact that it was not the Trustees who wrote and signed the Daily Telegraph article, but, Sir John Rothenstein. After a time lapse of two weeks, on December 13th, the following letter from me was printed.


Mr. William Roberts, Sir John Rothenstein, and 'a vast tangle of falsehood'


Dear Sir,

In connection with a review of my pamphlets which appeared in your issue of November 22nd, Sir John Rothenstein has seen fit to communicate to you the copy of a letter he sent to me some months ago, and which deals chiefly with the pamphlet I produced in reply to his biographical essay upon myself in his recent book From Lewis to Moore. In this letter Rothenstein refers to 'A reply to my Biographer' as a 'Vast tangle of falsehood'; I would like to examine here some of the examples he has selected.

The exact amount of falsehood contained in my statement that 'Sir John succeeded in getting the Tate represented on the Chantrey Fund' can best be estimated by a consideration of the following facts.

In 1938 Rothenstein was appointed Director of the Tate, but before he could get properly going the war came and plans had to be left in abeyance 'for the Duration'. But by 1949 the Tate and the Academy were in open conflict over the Chantrey Fund. In an article From the Tate Cellars to the Academy Walls in the Daily Telegraph of 7th January, 1949 under the signature Peterborough Sir John complains that the 'Tate share in Chantrey decisions is largely illusory'. The reason for this being that on the two committees of the Fund, one for painting, the other for sculpture, the R.A. have three members each, whereas the Tate are represented by only two on each; this, to quote the Director, 'Puts the Tate in a position of responsibility without power, they have to accept pictures the Royal Academy buy'.

Again in the Daily Telegraph on 20th January, 1949 in his article 'Why the Tate does not show the Chantrey pictures' Sir John complains that the Director and Trustees of Tate 'Are able to exercise no effective control over the Chantrey Fund'.

Then on the 27th January, 1949, in the Daily Telegraph the R.A.'s open up their batteries with an article by the President Sir Alfred Munnings 'Chantrey Pictures, Academy reply to a challenge' in it he writes 'The exhibition of the Chantrey pictures at the Academy is the result of a challenge thrown down by the Tate Board and accepted by the Academy Council'; he further states that 'In 1947 there was deadlock at the Tate, Chairman and his Board on one side of the table, myself and Academy Council on the other.' Eventually from this struggle around the conference table the Tate secure equal representation with the Academy on both committees of the Chantrey Fund, thereby obtaining power in addition to responsibility. So in 1956 Sir John is able to write in his 'Brief History of the Tate Gallery': 'Happily, recent efforts to settle the vexed question of the Chantrey Bequest have had a satisfactory outcome.'

The Director of the Tate asserts that Gilman's painting was not put forward by the Tate when my picture 'The Rape of the Sabines' was recommended for purchase, but on a different occasion. However this is not supported by the letter sent to my wife by Vivian Pitchforth R.A., who represented the Academy on the Chantrey painting committee at that date; in it he wrote, 'Among the highly recommended . . . usually the highly recommended go through . . . but there was an early Gilman the Tate were keen about . . . Roberts isn't unknown at the Tate!'

Rothenstein talks airily of Boards, Committees, and Councils as though they were entities apart, that do not partake of the admirations and enthusiasms, the envies and jealousies of the persons that comprise them. In his Duncan Grant essay Rothenstein says that because of his father's refusal to join the 'Moderns' at the Grafton Gallery Roger Fry made 'Most Venomous Attacks' upon him in the pages of the New Statesman and Nation, (at that date it was the Nation only, by the way) these attacks it seems took place in 1912. A study of the pages of the Nation from October 1911 to March 1913 reveals that Fry did indeed make an attack, but upon Alma-Tadema not Will Rothenstein.

Sir John's friendliness towards me and my art is well shown in his essay William Roberts. To my art – 'Human beings, the subjects of almost all his works, are represented by animated figures of an unmistakable character studiedly clumsy, tubular-limbed, fishmouthed, staring eyed puppets, stuffed with something heavier than saw-dust – lead-shot perhaps – which makes their movements ponderous and ineffective.' To me, – 'But Hulme's and Lewis's influence was not a tyranny but an illumination that revealed to young Roberts, who was temperamentally tough, rigid, unsubtle, sardonic, joyless and unresponsive, precisely how tough, rigid, unsubtle, sardonic and joyless he was.' My friendly biographer objects that I lift my quotations out of their context, but in my view, a brick thrown can damage a target no matter how decorative the wrapping that surrounds it.

Mr. Ernest Cooper is a business man, he is also a collector of my pictures. I doubt if in all his business experience, he has handled quite such a prolonged and intricate piece of negotiation as that of lending the Tate a sizeable example of my work. Only after much hesitation did the Director eventually decide to send an assistant Keeper to reconnoitre and report back. The report being favourable, it was possible to arrange for Mr. Cooper to receive a visit from the Director. It was in this way that the Tate 'Eagerly availed' itself of the loan of 'The Revolt in the Desert' for twelve months.

In your Preface, Sir John, you speak of a 'Distinguished painter of your acquaintance', yet in your letter it is only, 'A painter of your acquaintance' is this a slip of the pen merely? It is possible of course that William Townsend – a name new to me – should be more interested in the composition of a book with which he is in no way connected, than Wyndham Lewis, placed at the head of the column of artists that form its subject matter. Townsend I have never met, but Lewis I knew personally, and knew to be a 'Distinguished Painter'.

To believe that Lewis could be indifferent to the choice of the other artists to appear with him in print, is to fail to understand his character and his career, besides carrying Gobe-Moucherie a little too far. Were I to dwell longer on this subject I should become involved in another pamphlet, but fortunately for us all, my time and the Supplement's space prevents this.

December 1st, 1957
WILLIAM ROBERTS


This deals with the chief objections of the Tate Director's letter. But there is still my phrase, that, 'He succeeded in re-instating Stanley Spencer at the Royal Academy'. With the exclamation, that, 'He who would believe that would believe anything,' Rothenstein challenges me to bring one shred of evidence to support this opinion.

Stanley Spencer was elected to the Academy in 1932. It is no secret that, from the start, there was a very active section among the Members opposed to Spencer's work and modernity in Art, as was evidenced in 1935, when the rejection of several of his pictures, caused him to resign.

In 1938 took place an event which was to be of considerable value to Spencer in his future relations with the Royal Academy: his friend, admirer and supporter John Rothenstein was appointed Director of the Tate Gallery.

But if Spencer was eventually to profit from this appointment, the Anti-Moderns at the Academy were destined to be considerably disturbed by it. The year 1944 is a significant date too in this piece of Art history, for in that year Sir Alfred Munnings, an eminent anti-modern, was elected President of the Royal Academy. These two events, seemingly unconnected, had nevertheless a common link – The Chantrey Fund. The Tate's tussle for equal representation on this Fund ended in a victory for Sir John's side of the conference table, and Sir Alfred's retirement from the Presidency of the R.A. The rout of the 'anti-modern' opposition – the strength of this opposition can be judged by the Munnings–Spencer drawings Police incident – enabled Spencer to put an end to his fifteen years exile. And to leave no doubt that a new era had begun, to bring his brother also to join the immortals at Burlington House.

In spite of his scornful rejection of the suggestion that he had anything to do with his friend's re-election, it will be evident from the foregoing, that Sir John's Chantrey campaign, did nevertheless, facilitate Spencer's return to the R.A.

To conclude: in his long reproachful tirade, Rothenstein's intention has been, by the introduction of irrelevant matter, mis-quotes, and accusations of falsity, to discredit my 'Reply' to his biased 'Biography'. For instance the reference to his uncle's 'Not ungenerous patronage'. A patron 'not ungenerous' seems to signify a generous one. These are misleading terms to use with regard to three small drawings, and one small painting 24 ins. x 20 ins. in size whose total cost could hardly have exceeded £50 at my 1920 price levels. And it is a mis-quotation to say that 'I stated that I was deliberately mislead over the question of Lewis's Address.' Sir John would do well to read this passage again.

After my letter of the 13th December, there was no further mention of Vorticism or pamphlets on the correspondence page of the T.L.S. until on the 3rd January, 1958 Mr. Michael Ayrton crashed its columns, also with two letters.

In his main letter, which deals with the review of my pamphlets, he notes that his name has not been mentioned by the reviewer; for like Rothenstein, Ayrton courts publicity. But while Sir John sees in Lewis the originator of English abstract painting, and the leader of a group of Vorticist Disciples, Ayrton on the other hand, has discovered that Lewis was not the least interested in leadership, or any kind of Vorticism, not even his own. The foundation for this theory is a letter he received from Lewis in August 1956; in it Lewis wrote, 'Have you seen the booklet written by Roberts, entitled Vorticism? . . . He apparently did not read my bit of the catalogue otherwise he would have seen that he attaches more importance to Vorticism than I do.' This was written shortly before his death, and is said to be Lewis's last word on the subject of Vorticism. Ayrton developes this theme very prettily to show that my case against Lewis is for UNDERRATING Vorticism. It is evident from this, that Mr. Ayrton has not read my pamphlets. However, it will not be by any 'Last Word', but by his actions and the many other words he has written upon the subject during his lifetime, that posterity will judge what value Lewis attached to Vorticism.


To Mr. Ayrton's double letter I sent this reply, which was not printed.

Sir,

Of the two issues treated by Mr. Michael Ayrton in his long letter – or double letter – it is the first only that interests me; the issue that has to do with Lewis's opinion of Vorticism, both his own and that of his colleagues. Ayrton starts the proceedings by complimenting Sir John Rothenstein for having shown me to what extent I am divorced from reality, and for the way he has dealt with, what Ayrton calls, my personal attacks upon Rothenstein.

As to reality, anyone who catalogues David Bomberg as a Vorticist, and exhibits Nevinson's pictures in order to show Lewis's impact upon this artist's work, has got to learn reality himself first, before he can teach it to other people. Concerning my 'Personal Attacks' – which by the way I regard as my 'Personal Defences' – Mr. Ayrton seems to forget, that my pamphlet was a reply to attacks made upon me in the first place by Sir John Rothenstein in his book 'Lewis to Moore'.

To suggest that Lewis had a part in the planning of his Tate show, is taken in some quarters as a vicious attack upon a blind man. Although he was not able to see the paintings that were to fill the annex, yet nevertheless he could be informed of their arrangement. It is on this assumption that one attributes to Lewis a share – if indirect – in the organisation of 'Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism'.

The author of 'The Stone Guest' and 'Obsequy with Teeth' tells us that 'The truth is Lewis thought very little of his own Vorticism, let alone the Vorticism of his colleagues.' This will be realised if one knows how to read the facts. 'It is a matter of how to read the "facts".' Such categorical statements coming from Mr. Ayrton have convinced me that the only way to reach the truth, is by the Ayrtonian method of 'Fact'-reading. Let us consider this extract from Lewis's Introduction to his Tate show.

'Vorticism, in fact, was what I, personally, did, and said, at a certain period. This may be expanded into a certain theory regarding visual art; . . . As regards Visual Vorticism, it was dogmatically anti-real. It was my ultimate aim to exclude from painting the everyday visual real altogether. The idea was to build up a visual language as abstract as music.'

One feels here how unimportant this subject is to Lewis, and that he is saying quite plainly; 'What Vorticism, why I couldn't care less.'

Besides the last words upon vorticism contained in the letter to Ayrton of the 28th August, 1956; in Vogue Magazine, in that same month of August, Lewis had in addition these words to say.

'The "Great London Vortex", as it was vociferously described at the time, was one of those catchwords invented (not by me). It described a movement springing in the brain of one man (in the present instance mine) – for I was the "Great London Vortex". An ingenious critic noticed that my position was offensively central, that I was at once calm and whirling, that I was at once magnetic and incandescent, and drew his own conclusions. I have referred to only one Vorticist, namely myself. But there is a tendency to speak as though Vorticism were a doctrine adopted by a considerable company. I am afraid that this is an illusion. I say this regretfully, because in the past I expended a good deal of energy in order to create the impression that a multitude existed where there was in fact not much more than a vigorous One. It was essential that people should believe that there was a kind of army beneath the banner of the Vortex. In fact there were only a couple of women and one or two not very reliable men.'

Before reading Mr. Ayrton's instructive letter, we might have been inclined to put a false interpretation upon this passage. But now we know that what Lewis plainly says here is, 'Roberts attaches more importance to Vorticism than I do.'

What importance I attach to Vorticism can be judged by this extract from my Introduction 'William Roberts and Vorticism's Year' taken from the book on my early abstract work, published recently. There I wrote 'What was Vorticism? The answer could only be – a slogan. For as far as the character of the work of each artist forming the Group was concerned, this continued to be the same during Vorticism, as after it, the varying development according to each talent of Cubist and Futurist influences.'

No Mr. Ayrton, 'My Case' is not one against Lewis for 'Underrating' Vorticism, but against the Tate and Lewis for presenting a deceptive record of Vorticism.

10th January, 1958
WILLIAM ROBERTS


On the 10th January, the day this letter was sent to the editor, the T.L.S. published two letters, one from my Reviewer, the other from Rothenstein.

The Tate Director's note, detached, dignified, Director-ish in tone, pooh-poohed any suggestion that the Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism exhibition had not been a fair deal to Vorticism, and in support of this contention cited the Edward Wadsworth memorial exhibition held at the Tate in the Spring of 1951. But this does not help his argument in the least, for in that exhibition Wadsworth was presented as an individual, independent artist – in T. E. Earp's introduction to the Catalogue there is no mention of Lewis or Vorticism, the only comparison to any other artist there made, is to Chirico – whereas at the Lewis Retrospective show, Wadsworth appears in the role of a Vorticist 'Disciple'.

My reviewer, to judge from the letter, was clearly shaken by the impact of the double-letter barrage laid down by Messrs Rothenstein and Ayrton in reply to the review. And apologising for the discourtesy in omitting two words of an extract from Mr. Ayrton's article 'The Stone Guest', endeavoured to Substitute me as the culprit responsible for this.

At this juncture in the correspondence – as one might expect – the subject in dispute, Lewis and Vorticism, changed to that of Mr. Ayrton's publicity, or rather lack of it. Thus in a note to the T.L.S. on January 17th, we are informed, that the fact that the Reviewer 'did not know his opinions, had him not in mind, and did not mention his name, leaves him abashed'. And so, with the final – who shall deny its importance – emphasis placed upon that point, the correspondence was closed, the editor Mr. Pryce-Jones being of the opinion, 'that by now everyone has had their say on the matter of your pamphlets'. But with six letters to my one, it was obvious that some people had been having rather too much of the 'Say'.

To anyone unschooled in the Politics of Journalism this arrangement of the exchange of Letters in the T.L.S. must have placed my cause in a very unfavourable light. The two unanswered letters, that was bad! A clear sign of surrender to these two gentlemen. Well first, as regards Rothenstein; the use he had made of our meeting at the Tate counselled me to caution, moreover I realised that any private correspondence between us, would be – for his part – a public one some day. The Times Literary Supplement has justified these scruples.

As for the Ayrton letter, I had no desire at that time, August 1956, with Lewis alive, and the Vorticist affair going on at the Tate, to be dragged into an irrelevant discussion about whales and sprats with a stranger. My business was with my old-time friend Wyndham Lewis, not with his present-day 'Follower'. However, if the publication of their letters in the T.L.S. has contributed nothing of value to the history of Vorticism it has at least enabled me to give both Rothenstein and Ayrton their long-awaited replies.

I hope, although one cannot be sure – for Sir John has announced his intention to make alterations in the 2nd edition of his biographical essay William Roberts – that upon the subject of the Vorticist Year, this will be my last word.



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