Elizabeth Cayzer:

from William Roberts, R.A., 1895–1980

catalogue of an exhibition held at
the Maclean Gallery, London,
24 September to 31 October 1980

© Elizabeth Cayzer 1980. Reproduced by kind permission


William Roberts was born in Hackney on 5th June, 1895 the third child of Edward Roberts, a carpenter, and his wife Emma, née Collins. He received active encouragement from his parents to pursue an artistic career and, in 1909, he was apprenticed to the designing and advertising firm of Sir Joseph Causton Ltd., as a commercial artist. Concurrently, he attended evening classes at St. Martin's School of Art through a meeting with William P. Robins (1882–1959), the landscapist and etcher who taught there. Robins later presented the Victoria and Albert Museum with some early drawings by his pupil which show him studying the Old Masters.

In 1910 Roberts won an L.C.C. Scholarship in drawing to the Slade School where, he recalled, 'We were continuously exhorted by Professor Tonks and Steer to study Ingres and Degas; yet how much, too, could we learn from Stanley Spencer and Gertler, drawing at our side.' [1]

In 1912 the artist was awarded a Slade Scholarship, followed in 1913 by a Prize for Figure Drawing, and the Melvill Nettleship Prize for Figure Composition. Early that year Sir Cyril Kendall Butler (1864–1936), then Honorary Secretary of The Contemporary Art Society, commissioned him to execute a series of six market scenes; the project was uncompleted. In the same year Roberts left the Slade and travelled in France and Italy showing interest in the avant-garde works being produced by young artists there. But, he admitted that, 'an additional stimulant to my interest in abstract art was the example of David Bomberg, a friend and fellow-student . . . who had begun to produce some fine Cubist compositions.' [2]

Through an introduction from Laurence Binyon to Roger Fry, also in 1913, Roberts was enabled to join the Omega Workshop. In December his earliest extant oil painting, The Return of Ulysses, was exhibited at the N.E.A.C. The picture was bequeathed to The Contemporary Art Society in 1953 by Sir Edward Marsh who was one of Roberts's earliest patrons.

In January 1914 the artist exhibited with Fry's Grafton Group at The Alpine Club Gallery. Following a meeting with Wyndham Lewis that spring he left the Omega Workshop and joined a group of painters soon to become known as the Vorticists; however, like Bomberg, Roberts always maintained a fiery independence in his actions. He exhibited alongside his new friends at The Whitechapel Art Gallery's Twentieth Century Art Exhibition in May. He appeared as one of the signatories of the Vorticist Manifesto, which was published in BLAST 1 on 2nd July; this followed an acrimonious correspondence in the columns of the Observer between the Futurists and the newly-named Vorticists.

Roberts exhibited three works at the second London Group Exhibition in March 1915. He was represented by six works in the Vorticist Exhibition at the Doré Gallery in June, two of which (Jeu and Overbacks) were purchased by John Quinn the American lawyer and art patron. BLAST 2 was published in July. Many years later the artist stated that: 'Vorticism for me is the work I did for the Doré Gallery exhibition, together with the drawings in the second Blast (War number) whilst a member of the Group.' [3]

From the spring of 1916 until April 1918 Roberts served as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery. During this time he maintained a moving correspondence with his future wife, Sarah Kramer. (See William Roberts, Memories of the War to End War 1914–18, n.d. (1974).) In April, as an Official War Artist, [4] he began his commission for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, The First German Gas Attack at Ypres [5]. In May he was approached by The Ministry of Information to paint a picture for the proposed Great War Hall of Remembrance. He has recorded, in his correspondence with Alfred Yockney [6] (Secretary of The British War Memorials Committee, and later the Pictorial Propaganda Committee), a number of useful conversations held with Muirhead Bone (the First Official War Artist and someone who was frequently consulted by Yockney and his colleagues) regarding the theme for this new painting, and also the general problems attached to executing such an enormous work as A Shell Dump, France.

By November the Canadian Commission was finished and the remaining painting was completed by August 1919. Demobilised in September 1919 Roberts made contact with the 'Vorticist' Group and took part in the Group X Exhibition at the Mansard Gallery in March 1920, after which the artists tended to pursue more separate careers.


In November 1923 William Roberts held his first one-man show at The Chenil Galleries. The catalogue Foreword was written by Muirhead Bone, and in it the artist's war drawings were singled out for special attention as having 'never been bettered for a delightful quality of mordant irony. They are priceless, untranslatable documents and the only ones of their class.' The art critic, P. G. Konody, writing about the exhibition in The Daily Mail (9th November, 1923) outlined the great strength underlying the artist's style, namely: ' . . . Mr. Roberts proves triumphantly that his Weird Vorticist designs, with all their geometric distortion and grim caricaturist humour, are based on powerful draughtsmanship and knowledge of form.'

Roberts's ability to design large-scale works was acknowledged by the Underground Railway Company of London who, in 1924, commissioned an enormous poster, The History of the Omnibus, for the prestigious British Empire Exhibition, held at Wembley, which attracted 27,000,000 visitors during the summer months of 1924–26. [7]

The following year the artist became a visiting teacher at the L.C.C. Central School and continued to teach there, apart from the war years, until 1960.

He contributed some of the illustrations to the first de luxe edition of T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. According to Roberts his friend Colin Gill, the portraitist and decorative painter (1892–1940), enabled him to do this work.

In 1927 Roberts joined the London Artists' Association which had come into being towards the end of 1925. It was the brainchild of Maynard Keynes and its aim was to promote the sales of the member-artists' work. Writing about it in The Studio (June 1925), Keynes said: 'Three friends who were interested in modern painting came forward and offered to join with me in guaranteeing a certain sum for this purpose – Mr. Samuel Courtauld . . . Mr. Hindley Smith and Mr. L. H. Myers . . . ' William Roberts exhibited with the Association in 1929 and 1931 and following its liquidation in 1935 he continued to benefit financially by a special agreement with Keynes who arranged exhibitions for him, and other artists, elsewhere. Keynes was an important patron who bought many pictures from Roberts as well as commissioning the artist to do a large portrait of himself and his wife, the ballerina, Lydia Lopokova.

In both 1935 and 1938 Roberts held one-man exhibitions at The Lefevre Gallery.


Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War William Roberts moved from London to the Oxford area; by this time he was over the military age. He continued his teaching job, two days a week, in London until 1940 but it, and a subsequent post at Oxford Technical School, occasioned moments of anxiety for Roberts as, from time to time, these jobs conflicted with his part-time work as an Official War Artist. He was extremely hard-up during this period and needed every penny he could get; the Artists Advisory Committee, and in particular Sir Muirhead Bone and M. O'Rorke Dickey (1894–1977 a past Professor of Fine Art at Durham University, and a fellow-exhibitor with Roberts in many London Group shows) its Secretary, realised this and did all they possibly could to smooth his path. Writing, in December 1939, to the War Office to recommend Roberts as a suitable artist to draw army officers Dickey commented: 'Roberts, as you know, did some Official War pictures of the last war, and in addition to, his reputation as an original imaginative artist, is a distinguished portrait draughtsman.' Between 1939 and 1942 the artist produced two paintings, Munitions Factory, 1940 and The Control Room, Civil Defence Headquarters, 1941; four portrait drawings, and two drawings of war subjects for the Artists Advisory Committee.

During this period Roberts held two one-man exhibitions, at The Redfern Gallery (1942), and The Leicester Galleries (1945). Many of the subjects drawn and painted by him during the War reflect the life around Oxford; the river Cherwell and the gypsies at Marston appear frequently in these works.

The Post War Years

In 1948 William Roberts first exhibited at The Royal Academy and he continued to do so until his death. The following year his one-man exhibition at The Leicester Galleries was composed almost entirely of watercolours and drawings.

After the 1956 Wyndham Lewis Exhibition at The Tate Gallery, Roberts published a series of pamphlets which were re-issued in 1958, as the Vortex Pamphlets, after their review in The Times Literary Supplement. In his stand against the Tate's handling of the Exhibition he was strongly supported by David Bomberg; however the latter died before he, too, could publish his thoughts about the show. During the 1960's and 1970's Roberts continued to print pamphlets reflecting his views on the art world, and he also had printed three volumes containing selections of his paintings and drawings.

In 1958 the artist was elected an Associate of The Royal Academy; he also held a one-man show at The Leicester Galleries.

William Roberts was given an award, by The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 'in recognition of his artistic achievement and his outstanding service to British painting', (1961).

The Chantrey Bequest purchased his painting, Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: 1915, for The Tate Gallery in 1962. It had been judged the best work in The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of that year. In it Roberts indulges in a little nostalgia, as he had done in an article published in The Listener (21st March, 1957), over his collaboration with the Vorticist Group.

The Arts Council held a large retrospective exhibition of Roberts's work at The Tate Gallery in 1965; it was shown in Newcastle and Manchester the next year. William Roberts was elected Royal Academician in 1966.

One-man exhibitions of his work were shown at The d'Offay Couper Gallery (1969), and The Hamet Gallery, and City of Exeter Museums and Art Gallery in 1971.

An important patron, in more recent years, has been Ernest Cooper and his collection of paintings, watercolours, drawings and designs was shown at The Worthing Museum and Art Gallery in 1972. In a letter to The Worthing Herald, dated 12th May, 1972, he summed up his collection as, 'not representative of William Roberts's total work; it is merely what one man has managed to collect'.

The Hamet Gallery held their second one-man show of Roberts's work in 1973. The Parkin Gallery also held a one-man exhibition in 1976.


(Notes 4, 5 and 7 have been extracted from notes on individual works in the Maclean Gallery catalogue.)

1. Portrait of the Artist. No. 20 William Roberts. Worthing Herald 12th May, 1972.

2. Richard Cork, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age [London: Gordon Fraser, 1976], Vol. 1, p. 70.

3. William Roberts, Cometism and Vorticism (1956).

4. The artist had planned to hold an exhibition of his war drawings, some of which were executed before he became an Official War Artist in 1918. However, shortage of money obliged him to sell them by about June 1919. (See letter, dated 24th August, 1919 to Alfred Yockney, one-time editor of The Arts Journal, and from 1916 involved with a series of government committees formed to organise the growing number of War Artists being seconded for propaganda purposes.)

5. The artist was commissioned by The Canadian War Memorials Fund to paint a picture to commemorate the first use of gas in modern warfare. The art critic P. G. Konody, who was artistic adviser to the Committee, recorded this event in Art and War: Canadian War Memorials (1919):
'The Germans attacked with gas in the afternoon of April 22nd, 1915, and the first to feel the effects of the poisonous fumes, were the French soldiers on the Canadians' left. The French troops, largely made up of Turcos and Zouaves, surged wildly back over the canal and through the village of Vlammertinghe just at dark.'

Roberts was appointed an Official War Artist and made to adhere to the terms of the contract which were that he would be paid £250 for the picture, plus expenses, as long as the Committee approved of it. He was advised not to paint in his Vorticist manner.

6. First World War 277-6 William Roberts 1918–1950. (MS. Department of Art, Imperial War Museum).

7. In 1951 the artist was commissioned, by The London Transport Board, to design a poster advertising London fairs, within easy reach by bus and underground, which was entitled Hampstead Fair.

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