Fame or Defame:

A Reply to Barrie Sturt-Penrose

This piece was first published as a folded leaflet in 1971, in response to an article by Barrie Sturt-Penrose, 'The Grand Old Recluses of Art', which appeared in the Observer Magazine of 14 February 1971 and contained separate interview-based profiles of Roberts and of Edward Burra. The present text is taken from William Roberts, Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings (Valencia, 1990). © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society.


Frontispiece from Vortex Pamphlet No. 5 (ink), 1958
© The Estate of John David Roberts

This is the age of Quizzes. We are Quizzed on the B.B.C. and on the T.V. We are stopped in the street and Quizzed by people making surveys on this or that. If some law is proposed in Parliament, the news researchers, male and female, armed with notebook and biro, are out to ask the Teenagers what they think about it. This business of questioning has become an important profession, and to disregard these Quiz professionals can lead one into awkward situations, should there be a lack of co-operation on the part of the person questioned. If necessary, these Quizzers can be expert at supplying their own scheme of question and answer, spiced with a liberal sprinkling of disparaging epithets as well. Also the frustration felt by these professional interrogators when they do not obtain the desired answers, often renders them spiteful.

I have frequently been the target of embryo art historians, and Undergrads, with thesis problems; usually they want to discuss Vorticism with me. Recently, one top critic in his note, addressed me as 'The last Existing Vorticist' – a sort of primeval monster, rather a slight on Ezra Pound, who still exists in Italy. However I could not bear the thought of having to confess my ignorance of Vorticism to these Undergrads and other enquirers, who most likely would end by telling me what it was, or wasn't. In this matter, I am in the same fix as Degas, who did not know what 'Impressionism' was. In the past I had been successful in avoiding these various interviewers; until one day an unexpected visitor arrived who proved to be a super professional quiz man. The reason for his approach to me was the publicity required by the Hamet Gallery for the retrospective show of my work which they were arranging.

Glancing through my window one morning recently, I saw a man outside, gesticulating to my wife in the kitchen below. Thinking he was the milkman calling for the empties, I opened the street door. At once he dashed past me to greet Sarah, waving a small packet in his hand; this I later discovered was my pamphlets, that she had sent him. By now I began to realise that it was not the milkman I had to deal with. He introduced himself as Barrie Sturt-Penrose, explaining that he was not the celebrated Picasso-Penrose. Later at table, whilst he took a sip of coffee, and pecked cautiously at a piece of homemade cake, I was able to get a more detailed picture of our visitor.

Barrie Sturt-Penrose as depicted in his 1969 book The Art Scene

His pallid face was framed Beatle style in a bunch of black hair and side whiskers, commonly known as Sideboards or Muttonchops; he did not however, display the popular Latin-American Handlebars. The clothes were of Carnaby Street cut; a light coloured jacket close fitting at the waist, of some thin silky looking material, or Terylene perhaps; exhibited in the breast pocket were a number of gaudy coloured biros; his bell bottomed trousers tight fitting at the rump, gave Sturt-Penrose the appearance of a Pop singer, more at home thumping an electric guitar, than a typewriter. This costume would certainly be the centre of attraction at any Private View. Behind the Hippie camouflage, the age of our visitor was difficult to fix, somewhere perhaps, between that of a mature teenager and a middle aged 'Square'. During this short coffee period, Sturt-Penrose asked no questions about my work; as far as he was concerned, there was no need, he was quite prepared to invent the answers. He talked chiefly about his Hungarian wife; his trips to New York and Canada; the notorious Gallery One; and about an American artist friend, who had once taken him to a cafe in Queens Way, where in the basement, customers could draw from nude models. Also there was an acquaintance, who he informed us had begun life as a poor East End boy, to become eventually art adviser to a millionaire. There were other bits of gossip besides, doubtless overheard in the art dealers' galleries. A few days after this visit – my only meeting with Sturt-Penrose – a messenger brought a large bouquet of flowers for Sarah. This gesture seemed to indicate, that our newspaper-man was preparing to use the oblique approach to get the required information for his article.

Now a glance at this disparaging piece of literature. This document, the material for which Penrose pretends he got directly from me, appeared the 14th February in the advert supplement of a Sunday newspaper; it is interesting and instructive on the way to manipulate an interview. At the start there is the key-word RECLUSE. Using this as the pivot, the rest is built around it. We find statements such as this 'Roberts turned his back on the art world more than 25 years ago, and has become a virtual recluse!' This idea occurs in various forms throughout, accompanied by the repetitive phrase; 'Roberts says' or 'Roberts said'. The name Roberts in this single page of print is hammered out 25 times.

About my work Penrose is hesitant to express an opinion, relying on the verdict of others, thus: 'As one critic puts it': or 'Roberts, an important painter, if you take the word of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, or Herbert Read'. Nor does it bother him, to make a statement such as the following: 'After all he had to wait a long time for recognition, unlike "YOUNGER" artists like Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore', unfortunately for our art critic, these two 'YOUNGSTERS' are both over 70. Quotations are put down also as words directly spoken by me, as here: 'Later I learnt that Rothenstein was not interested.' This is lifted from my pamphlet, 'A reply to my biographer Sir John Rothenstein'.

Here are some of my unspoken 'Sayings':
'I have always kept myself to myself . . . '
'They didn't buy directly from me . . . '
'Everything in life has come too late . . . '
'The Tate was often just as bad . . . '
'I haven't got a model . . . '
'We moved here before the war . . . '
(Untrue, it was after the war that we moved here.)
And all the way through the essay there are similar falsities. States Penrose: 'To a wider public Roberts is virtually unknown.' So forthwith, by a system of falsehood and disparagement, he proceeds to the introduction.

What kind of art critic is this, who sets out to criticise my pictures, but criticises my gas stove and kitchen table instead? Barrie Sturt-Penrose, as an art critic, is not in the same class, I am afraid, with John Russell; nor Paul George Konody, a former critic on the newspaper he now represents.

Home page | Chronology | Bibliography | Collections | Exhibitions
News | Gallery | Auction results | The artist’s house | Contact
List of works illustrated on the site

Catalogue raisonné:
chronological | alphabetical