Muirhead Bone


William Roberts

The following is the foreword to the catalogue of 'Painting and Drawings by William Roberts' – Roberts's first one-man exhibition, at the Chenil Galleries, London, in November 1923. Muirhead Bone (1876–1953) was a noted printmaker and draughtsman. He was a moving spirit behind the foundation of the Imperial War Museum, of which he was appointed a trustee in 1920, and at the time when this piece was written he was also a trustee of the Tate Gallery.
© The Estate of Muirhead Bone; reproduced by kind permission of Sylvester Bone.


Looking round the art of our day it is rather melancholy to see what difficulties beset the path of any artist who sets his face towards ambitious projects. Yet surely, even if imperfectly realized and attained, such works would be of better augury for the progress of art than a general prevalence of the petty and the merely inoffensive. Myosis, our national characteristic, lies in wait for us here also, and there is little danger of our overdoing anything. We respond all too readily to the appeal of the tweeny and the jitney.

So there is much that is refreshing in the mere boldness of Roberts's style. His compositions are spacious enough for a pattern designing which is stimulating and intriguing to the eye – we feel that here we have got down to something candid and definite. And, in addition, the ideas at the back of these pictures are fresh and personal to the artist – there is as much a Roberts way of seeing the world as there is a Johannine or Spencerian. A strong lover of character at its raciest – especially where it shades into the grotesque – he presents to us his memories of life in a sharp manner, odd, vivid, and quite his own, whose foundation is a really sterling draughtsmanship.

Roberts has lots of native wit. Some of his quaint drawings in the War Museum of the mad, bad, glad life of ration parties in the trenches – the 'brass hats' mixing with the tin hats, and the mules and the duckboards getting between – have never been bettered for a delightful quality of mordant irony. They are priceless, untranslatable documents and the only ones of their class. Bigger things were the pictures he did for the Imperial War Museum and the Canadian Government, which hung like gorgeous tapestries – new and unmellowed as all tapestries once looked in their time – on the walls of Burlington House. Why these works did not bring Roberts instant employment as obviously the man to decorate our theatres and picture palaces, I, for one, have never understood.

Since these days he has taken to portrait painting, and this exhibition shows his progress in that direction. If it is objected that there is too little of the niceties and subtleties of oil painting in Roberts's pictures, it can I think be fairly answered that the world of art enjoyment is a big world and that even discounting these qualities, precious though they are, there is yet plenty of genuine aesthetic pleasure to be got from Roberts's works, for they hold much of interest to us in design and pictorial simplifications – qualities as indisputably art qualities as manipulative skill in the use of oil paints. Pictorialism being a wider region then than most of us choose to admit, surely the wise man is he who tries to keep a mind open and receptive to excellence in any of its various manifestations.

The art of William Roberts is a genuine artistic asset of our country, and this his first collected exhibition surely deserves support from the art lovers among us to nerve him on his way to yet more considerable achievement.


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