History of the Omnibus

Illustration © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society. Catalogue information based on the catalogue raisonné by David Cleall. For this and full details of the exhibitions cited, see the links below. Any auction prices quoted may not include all fees and taxes, such as VAT and Artist's Resale Right charges.

History of the Omnibus

History of the Omnibus, 1924
Painting, 610 cm x 213 cm

In his essay 'Dealers and Galleries', Roberts described the origin of this work as follows:
Muirhead Bone, who had written an introduction to the catalogue of the show [Roberts's 1923 one-man show at the Chenil Galleries], brought Frank Pick, head of the Underground, to see it. As a result of their visit I was asked to do a poster, to be put up at the entrance of the British Trade Fair [the British Empire Exhibition] at Wembley. It was to be in two sections, about thirty feet over-all in length, and some eight feet in height. [It was eventually 20 ft x 7 ft.] The poster was to illustrate the development of the bus, from the horse-drawn to the mechanical.

The painting was done in a large, dingy petrol-smelling shed, part of a bus dépôt in Chelsea. Outside, adjoining my impromptu studio, was a spacious courtyard where bus-drivers practised skids, on ground made slippery with oil and water. Before I began the poster Bone decided the job would be too much for one person, and brought in Neville Lewis to paint one of the sections. Lewis, a South African, was known as 'Nigger' Lewis, because of his frequent use of negresses and negroes as models. I fear Lewis did not get much inspiration from his new model: the motor bus. His visits to this grimy bus dépôt were very irregular, and once in desperation he suggested that I should paint his portion as well. But 'Nigger' made no mention of payment.
In 1912 the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (to give it its full name) had taken over the London General Omnibus Company, and Roberts's painting was incorporated into the frame of a bus/stop shelter in LGOC's bus station which opened at the south-west entrance to the Wembley exhibition in June 1924, with LGOC roundels above the shelter's roof. The Sportsman of 11 June 1924 described 'two remarkable paintings' at the newly opened bus station: one of them included 'a poster, "Star Girl Murdered in Taxi"' and the other – presumably Roberts's – 'seem[ed] to represent "men as trees walking," or robots with that Wembley feeling'. The 31 May 1924 issue of Art News commented, 'Though it has nothing to do with the Palace of Arts, it is impossible not to mention a remarkable poster by William Roberts for the London General Omnibus Co. displayed at the bus terminus outside the Stadium. It will bear comparison with not a few of the more serious works in the exhibition.'
EXHIBITION HISTORY: Wembley 1924 (and 1925?)
REPRODUCED: Artwork 1, 3 (Feb.–Apr. 1925), p. 188, where captioned 'Commissioned by the Underground Railway Company of London and placed at the entrance to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, 1924'

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