AN ENGLISH CUBIST
A Reply to My Biographer Sir John Rothenstein
[Vortex Pamphlet No. 4]
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.
The cover of Vortex Pamphlet No. 4
Sir John Maurice Knewstubb-Rothenstein, with the assistance of Messrs. Eyre & Spottiswoode, has been promulgating valuations and judgments upon the artists of his time. It would be a very grave error to accept these as fair or, as it were, final judgments, and in some cases as judgments at all. The delight this writer takes in legends and the operations of his imagination, deprives certain of his essays of any value at all as biographies. This is clearly apparent in the essay upon myself in the second volume of 'Modern English Painters'.
From his continuous association with Wyndham Lewis during the years following the War, Rothenstein came to believe that Lewis must have been the predominant figure among the English Cubist artists of 1914, more even that he was the first, the one and only, the sole originator of the English Cubist movement. He not only believed this, he has endeavoured to make his 'belief' a reality. There was, however, one obstacle to this, the only other Cubist of the 1914 period yet remaining: William Roberts. Still, to one who had succeeded in reinstating Stanley Spencer at the Royal Academy, the removal of this hindrance to the supremacy of Lewis seemed but a trifle. The attempt to eliminate me was carried out in two stages. First there was the exhibition: Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism at the Tate; to this I replied with three pamphlets. Next, the publication of the second volume of Modern English Painters. In spite of his efforts, however, I think Knewstubb-Rothenstein will find that what he thought might be an 'Entombment' will turn out after all to be yet another resurrection.
The following dated paragraphs will help to explain the relationship which existed between Knewstubb-Rothenstein and myself prior to the publication of the 'Biography' in 1956.
The events of 1956 can be said to have their origin in a letter. In the autumn of 1923 I had a One-Man show at the old Chenil Gallery in King's Road, Chelsea, when I came in contact for the first time with the Knewstubb-Rothenstein family group. The Chenil Gallery was run by Charles Knewstubb. During my exhibition I received a letter from William Rothenstein, who had seen my show, a rather rhetorical, fulsome letter, proposing that I exchange one of my pictures for one of his. I showed this note to Knewstubb who, although I did not know it at that time, was William Rothenstein's brother-in-law. Knewstubb read the letter and remarked, 'Lip service, just Lip service.' The letter was put aside and remained unanswered. From what Sir John has written concerning his father and Roger Fry, it is easy to imagine the effect of the impact caused by this unanswered letter upon the youthful Rothenstein.
In 1938 Knewstubb-Rothenstein was appointed Director of the Tate Gallery, and he came to live not far from me in Chalk Farm. I heard a good deal about him from Jacob Kramer, my brother-in-law, who had made his acquaintance in Leeds. In an unguarded moment I wrote to the newly installed Director inviting him to come and see my work. He dropped a note in my letter-box declining on the grounds that he was off to Paris. Ignoring the red light, I later presented myself at the Tate with a painting that I wished to offer to the Trustees for purchase. Knewstubb-Rothenstein saw me in his room at the Gallery. He told me that the committee would not meet for some days. During this interview, which lasted about ten minutes, he produced from a drawer of his desk a crimson leather-bound album, which he said he used for collecting the signatures of distinguished visitors. The book was empty except for three signatures on the front page which, he pointed out, were those of King George the Sixth, his Queen's, and Wyndham Lewis's; he asked me to add my name. Later I learned that my painting had not been submitted to the meeting of the Trustees.
Rothenstein gave this evasive reason for not having done so: 'I wanted to be sure of my support first.'
One day in the summer of this year, I received a telegram from an important West-end picture dealer; it ran, 'Put as much work as you can in a taxi and bring it to the Gallery immediately, John Rothenstein is interested and wishes to see something.' With a taxi-load of pictures I hurried to the dealer's. Several days elapsed, then, upon enquiry, I was told that Rothenstein had seen the paintings but had 'Not been interested'.
A proposal came to me from the British Council that I should hold, together with Graham Sutherland, a retrospective show of pictures at the Venice Biennial Exhibition. I was informed that a delegation of Art experts would call on me to inspect my work, among them John Knewstubb-Rothenstein. The prospect of a visit from a group which was to include a person whom I felt to be hostile made me doubtful as to the outcome of the scheme; I declined the invitation.
From time to time I had received requests from the Tate Gallery for biographical information; these I had ignored. The Director, deciding that a bait would perhaps produce better results, sent a note saying that he would like to see me, and that, if I brought along some work, the Trustees were almost certain to purchase something. When the Committee were to meet was not stated, but I discovered that the meeting was fixed for the next day. I promptly dispatched two paintings to the Gallery, one of these, 'Cantering to the Post', was bought by the Trustees.
'You were very quick' was Rothenstein's comment, referring to this transaction, when we met by appointment shortly afterwards at the Gallery. He then said he was writing a book upon certain modern artists, and as there was a possibility that I might be included, although upon this point he was not at all certain, nonetheless he wished to ask me a few questions. Was this to enable him to say later, as in fact he did say, 'I was under the impression I learnt these things from you'?
The Director of the Tate sat at his desk with some large sheets of foolscap spread out before him; on one or two occasions only he scrawled across the paper a couple of words in a very large hand; he seemed at a loss for questions. Several times we were interrupted by Assistant-Directors and Under-Keepers bringing messages or seeking instructions. After a pause he told me suddenly that he liked Wyndham Lewis, pretending to be interested in this admission, I said, 'Where is Lewis living nowadays?' The Director pondered awhile, as if seeking to discover what sinister intent lurked behind this question what was Roberts after? one must be wary, proceed with caution; the silence continued. As though searching for an answer, his eyes framed by the heavy horned rims of his glasses, shifted about the room and out of the window across the River to Vauxhall. Suddenly the reply came: 'Vauxhall Bridge Road.' This seemed a strange spot for a Vorticist to reside, for I knew, as did Rothenstein too, that Notting Hill Gate was Lewis's chosen domain. At this moment the 'phone rang and the Director spoke with someone whom I guessed to be a person of social importance. A long conversation ensued, which culminated in an agreement to meet for lunch in the Gallery restaurant. Replacing the receiver, Rothenstein turned to me and asked, 'What books do you read?' . . . 'Novels and Art books,' I replied. Here the interview terminated; more than half of it had been occupied by the affairs of Assistant-Keepers, 'phone talks and a digression upon Wyndham Lewis; what was left of this fifteen minutes had been my share. Nevertheless Rothenstein was thus equipped to write, 'I heard the artist say this' . . . 'And saw him do that.' This fifteen minutes, added to the ten minutes we spent together in 1938, amount to less than half-an-hour. Was this sufficient for a serious biography?
The Chantrey Bequest is an important Royal Academy fund for the purchase of pictures. Shortly after the end of the War, for one reason or another, Rothenstein succeeded in getting the Tate represented on the committee of this fund. Now there are in fact two committees; one representing the Royal Academy, the other the Tate. The Academy committee changes each year, the Tate's does not entirely, for one member of this committee is permanent: the Director. Thus, to quote Sir John Knewstubb-Rothenstein, 'Happily, recent efforts to settle the vexed question of the Chantrey Bequest have had a satisfactory outcome.'
A Royal Academy 'Revelation'
In the 1956 Royal Academy show I had a painting entitled 'The Rape of the Sabines'. The R.A. Chantrey Committee recommended this picture for purchase. In connection with this I give some extracts from the letter of an R.A. to a friend, written after the exhibition had opened.
'Among the highly recommended by our committee' (the Chantrey) . . . 'Usually the highly recommended go through' . . . 'But there was an early Gilman the Tate were keen about' . . . 'Roberts isn't unknown at the Tate!' Sir John Rothenstein's 'Happy and satisfactory settlement' of his Chantrey problem has become a 'Vexed Question' for others.
For some time I had heard rumours that an exhibition of Vorticism was to be held at the Tate. Acquaintances would stop me in the street and say: 'Have you heard, there's to be a show of Vorticism at the Tate?' But it was not until the spring of 1956 that I heard anything officially, and that it was not Vorticism, but a retrospective exhibition of Wyndham Lewis that was being planned. If this did not seem to me to be the same as a show of Vorticism, it was due entirely to a youthful illusion on my part. The seeming contradiction was elucidated later when Lewis informed us that he only was, and always had been, Vorticism. Whatever secret magic this word Vorticism may possess, for my part Lewis is welcome to it.
In September, following closely upon the termination of the Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism 'Manoeuvre', came the second volume of Knewstubb-Rothenstein's Modern English Painters:
By Sir John Rothenstein
I would like to introduce my examination of the essay upon myself in this volume with some extracts from the Preface, and the biographies of Duncan Grant and C. R. W. Nevinson.
Here two heads were certainly better than one. The identity of this 'Distinguished painter acquaintance' is not hard to guess. In several of these essays our biographer's 'Bias' has, one feels, been reinforced and buttressed from this anonymous source; in them, the 'Enemy' spirit can truly be said to have descended upon Sir John.
From the Duncan Grant essay:
This allowance will indeed be most necessary. In this essay on Duncan Grant, the alleged hostility of Roger Fry towards William Rothenstein is merely a ruse to enable our biographer to put on the old Omega battle-dress of his 'Distinguished painter acquaintance' and, thus equipped, from behind this piece of camouflage 'Hostility', to snipe at the 'Bloomsburys' in this fashion:
'Fry regarded this refusal . . . (to join the Moderns at the Grafton Gallery) . . . as a betrayal of the progressive forces in English painting by a friend whose place was in their ranks. He never forgave my father, and he communicated his rancour to a wide circle of the Bloomsbury Group. Not only were the most venomous attacks made on any artist of the time, made on my father in the columns of the "New Statesman & Nation", but I myself, years later, was in one way and another made aware of Bloomsbury hostility.'
There is some confusion here Sir John. The 'New Statesman & Nation' was not published until February 1931. As the first Post Impressionist exhibition was held in November 1910, more than twenty years earlier, this seems rather a long time even for a Bloomsbury æsthete to nurse his rancour. No, the period immediately following the 'Betrayal' is the most likely time in which to find evidence of these 'Most venomous attacks'.
In 1910 there was in circulation a weekly called 'The Nation' (an ancestor of the present-day 'New Statesman & Nation') to which Roger Fry contributed. However, a perusal of its pages from June 1910 to April 1911, reveals no vestige of an 'attack'. On the contrary, in the number for 17th June, 1910, there is a long eulogistic three-column article entitled 'The Art of Mr. Rothenstein', whose author is none other than Roger Fry.
Periodicals were certainly generous with their space in those days. An article of this length and quality would, today, make an artist jump with joy, and set the Arts Council and the Art Dealers clamouring for a show of his work. It is surprising that in the essay Knewstubb-Rothenstein has devoted to his father in the first volume of Modern English Painters, where one would expect to find this affair of the 'Most venomous attacks' fully treated, there is no mention of them nor of the 'New Statesman & Nation'. Bearing in mind what Sir John has said about a writer who is able to say, 'I heard the artist say this' and 'I saw that', let us take a look at his biography of C. R. W. Nevinson. But first let us look, in Nevinson's autobiography 'Paint and Prejudice', published in 1937, at this passage:
'As may be gathered from past pages, falling in love was not exactly my metier. With ghastly egotism combined with a ruthless desire to be a real artist I had usually left the love game to the female of the species. For all I know that may be a common experience with all men; but nevertheless I am bewildered, and was still more so in those days, at the number of girls who have professed to adore me; poor girls, poor girls, I have met many since, some very rich, some very poor, some happy, some unhappy, most of them now married. Sooner or later they all told me that I was the love of their lives; I give it up, I cannot explain it. I was always fat, ugly, indifferent and promiscuous, with a terribly roving eye, more from force of habit than from real desire.'
And now Sir John, the writer who 'Heard the artist say this' and 'Saw the artist do that':
'With what eagerness I used to await the parties that he and his wife gave at 1 Steele's Studios, off Haverstock Hill. One entered the big room, crowded with 'Celebrities' of stage and screen, of Chelsea and Fleet Street, and made one's way to the centre of the vortex. Nevinson himself stout, portentous, talking loudly about himself. I well remember on the first such occasion going up to him to pay my respects, with his booming voice like a foghorn to guide me through the crowd. 'Poor girls, poor girls,' he was saying, 'sooner or later they all tell me I'm the love of their lives. I give it up, I can't explain it. I'm fat, ugly, promiscuous and indifferent. What do you make of it?'
It is unfortunate for our Writer-Observer that Nevinson's little speech, made on the spur of the moment at this crowded and noisy party, should be identical with the passage of his autobiography composed in the quiet of his study. Moreover, as one who knew him personally, I assert that there was no voice less like a 'Booming foghorn' than Nevinson's.
These samples are sufficient to show Rothenstein's methods and qualities as a biographer, and what value to place upon the statements and judgments contained in his essay upon myself.
In the opening paragraphs a number of artists are presented in succession to the reader. Beginning with Leonardo da Vinci we pass rapidly to Wyndham Lewis and his attributes of genius. Descending the talent scale with Chardin, Constable, and Mathew Smith with his 'unchanging subject matter', Ben Nicholson and his 'scanty themes'; we are brought adroitly to the bottom of the list to Roberts, whose work, 'makes even the puritanical and rigid Nicholson's appear dissipated and capricious'.
Sir John claims here that the range of my subjects is narrow. Well, if subjects taken from War, Rural Life, Modern Town Life, Greek Mythology, Christian Mythology can be called narrow I would be interested to know Rothenstein's definition of a wide range. Details of my personal life follow; it is refreshing to find that the date of my birth is correct, for little else is, in this pseudo-biography. The first of several definite inventions is the sentence:
'Thus equipped he drew constantly "thinking", he once told me, "of nothing but drawing".'
Is that so? Well, Sir, I told you nothing of the sort! The wording is artful here; why thinking of 'nothing', why not 'thinking only' or 'solely' or 'constantly' of drawing? Why? because Sir John had a theme to 'Plug'. The theme? William Roberts' inability to attain those high intellectual altitudes to which he, himself eagle-like, soars. This theme will become clearer as we proceed. Another deliberate and deceptive invention occurs in a passage concerning my apprenticeship, at the age of fourteen years, to the poster-designing and advertising firm of Sir Joseph Causton, whose head office and designers' studios were at Eastcheap in the City. I was with this firm from my fourteenth to my fifteenth year, when I left them to go to the Slade School.
This is what Knewstubb-Rothenstein, the Director and Keeper of the Tate Gallery, has to say about my stay at Causton's:
'He looked forward to designing posters, but at first he was allowed to assist only in the mixing of colours, later he had some pleasure in making compositions and designs for poster advertising projects, but he showed no aptitude for lettering. Opportunities to participate in such projects were rare, however, for his principal occupations were preparing the workmen's lunches, buying cakes for their teas and the like.'
My only occupation during the few months I was with Sir Joseph Causton was to learn the craft of the advertising artist. I was required to practise lettering, make designs and sketches for posters, and acquire skill in the execution of these things. Could this be done by 'preparing workmen's lunches'? It was important to this firm that their artists should be skilled and accomplished, for how could they otherwise attract the custom of the commercial and business world? To obtain an apprenticeship with this advertising establishment, I had to submit examples of my painting and drawing; would this have been necessary if 'preparing workmen's lunches' was to be my 'principal occupation'? Furthermore, one does not win a scholarship to the Slade at the age of fifteen by 'preparing workmen's lunches'.
As to these 'Workmen', Publicity or Commercial artists are not 'workmen' in the accustomed sense of this word, and Sir John can hardly be ignorant of this fact. Of the artists who were employed at Causton's Studios when I was there, were men whose work was well known in the Press and on poster hoardings. For instance, David Langdon, whose humorous drawings appeared in 'Punch' and other magazines; Weekes, the marine painter, whose posters and showcards of ocean liners were used by the P. & O. and other large shipping companies; Harris, the designer of large posters, boldly executed, that were familiar on the street hoardings of the period. From among artists such as these have come many of our Royal Academicians; the 'Punch' draughtsman George Belcher, R.A.; Maurice Griffenhagen, R.A., the magazine illustrator; and at the present time, James Fitton, R.A., head of the Vernon Publicity Studios.
In 1909 the Canteen Era had not yet dawned: it was not the custom for the artists in those days to lunch on the premises; even if it had been I doubt that they would have been satisfied with the meals a boy of fourteen was capable of preparing. Sir John may be surprised to hear that even as early as 1909 the City was amply provided with restaurants in great variety.
But let us leave these Rothensteinian 'Workmen' and their lunches, and examine some of the other mis-statements and fictions in my biography.
'On the advice of the art mistress of a local school, he attended classes after working hours, at the St. Martin's school of art.' This is not correct; it was W. P. Robins, the etcher, who introduced me to St. Martin's; Robins at that time was teaching there. This is also inexact: 'At the Slade, where he remained from his sixteenth to his twentieth year . . . ' I left the Slade at eighteen, but then, what's a couple of years more or less to a biographer of Sir John's calibre!
The following assumption is without foundation. 'It was Fry who drew Roberts in a general way within the orbit of the Post Impressionist movement.' It was because I had left the orbit of the Old Masters, and was already working within the Cubist orbit, that my friend Laurence Binyon of the British Museum Print Room, sent me with a letter of introduction to Roger Fry at the Omega Workshops. It is remarkable that a writer who professes to value hearing the artist say this and seeing him do that should be so ready to use his own invention. For instance, 'After he left the Omega, "I was no longer interested" he told me, "in the work of anyone who worked there."' What nonsense! Whilst at the Omega, I was interested; after leaving the Omega I was interested; and today I am still interested in the originality and quality of the designs and decorations for textiles, fabrics and furniture that the Omega produced.
Upon the subject of my association with Wyndham Lewis the Director gets his big chance to show his talent and versatility as a fabulist. All the remaining portion of this essay shows the effect of Knewstubb-Rothenstein's frequent pilgrimages to the abode of Vorticism at Notting Hill Gate, and the rich replenishment his bias has derived from these conferences, as the following quotations prove full well.
'There was one artist, however, who like himself had a brief experience of the Omega and whose work, even before he met him, took a powerful hold upon his imagination. This was Wyndham Lewis.' What presumption! How can Rothenstein possibly know what held my 'imagination' in 1913? When I joined the Omega, and before that event, I had never heard of Lewis or his work. Nor were the remnants he left behind at the Omega, some small paper lampshades and two bits of partly carved wood (which I later discovered to be his), at all likely to take a 'powerful hold' upon the 'imagination' of one already familiar with the work of Picasso and the other French Cubists. It was Lewis's curiosity concerning the Omega and the people employed there that led him to contact me. Moreover, when I made his acquaintance he was not a 'dynamically didactic leader' for the simple reason that at that time there was nothing to lead; his 'Blasted' Vorticism did not arise until much later. The 'Rebel Art Centre' with which I had no connection was little more than a high-sounding name; nothing was done there, and in any case it lasted only a few weeks. Over this distance of time, more than forty years, a detail can get magnified if it suits the interests of
Sir John is too eager to fill the blank spaces in the 'tapestry he is endeavouring to weave' with wild surmises. Thus . . . ' I do not know precisely what relation there was between Roberts and Hulme; they met no doubt at the Rebel Art Centre.' There is not the slightest doubt at all, that they did not. My relation to Hulme is limited to one short walk I took with him and Ashley Dukes, the dramatic critic, through Soho one night homeward from the Café Royal; we separated at St. Giles Circus.
As for this Rebel Art Centre, perhaps Sir John, knowing Lewis as you do, you can tell me what it was, for I know nothing of the place. I called at these mysterious rooms in Great Ormond Street but once. I found Lewis there with a woman friend whom I knew as the Countess; my visit was unexpected, I stayed a few minutes only.
The significance of the hint contained in this earlier phrase, 'Thinking' he once told me 'of nothing but drawing', is realised on reading the extract which follows: 'But it is unlikely that Roberts who has shown little interest for intellectual discussion, and indeed little interest in the operations of the intellect, should have been directly affected by Hulme's theories.'
Is this detraction? Certainly the implication in this circuitous phrase is hardly flattery. No doubt it will be difficult for our Doctor of Philosophy to grasp this; but new movements in painting do not spring from the theories of philosophers. I have read, and this I am sure all artists who are merely artists, and not also Masters of Art, will agree, that Picasso developed his abstract cubism from the doodleings of his friend Max Jacob upon the table-top of a Parisian café. But this, I am sure, is too simple a theory for our certificated Doctor of Philosophy ever to accept. And so it is with Hulme's philosophic ideas. Whatever they may have done for Lewis, they certainly played no part in the rise of the English cubist movement in general. Hulme's role in the Press vis-à-vis his cubist friends was that of an apologist, their Public Relations Officer as it were. With the work of the French cubists before their eyes, what need had the young English painters of 191314 to rummage among philosophic tomes or the writings of a student of German philosophy? Let us turn our eyes again to the fray and gaze upon the prowess of the mighty Director with his double-headed battle-axe, LewisHulme.
'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.'
Well, well, Sir John ought to feel much relieved with this 'Estimate' out of his system; that is he would be if it were his own, but it is not, it is someone else's! He did not know me in 1914. It was not until 1937, some twenty-three years later, that we met, and the thirty minutes of our acquaintanceship could scarcely account for the animosity and the vehemence of expression in the above valuation of my character.
There is, however, someone who knew me in 1914 and who knows Sir John now, his 'Dynamic didactic leader', his 'Distinguished painter acquaintance'. For one who believes in the personal approach, it is remarkable how much second-hand material the Director has accumulated to form this essay: even old newspapers come in handy at times. As will be seen, it is not only my character that incites the ire of my biographer, he can be equally splenetic when he catches sight of my pictures. In this for instance:
'Human beings, the subjects of almost all his works, are represented by animated figures of an unmistakable character; studiedly clumsy, tubular-limbed, fish-mouthed, staring-eyed puppets, stuffed with something heavier than sawdust lead-shot perhaps which makes their movements ponderous and ineffective.'
This is an adaptation of a newspaper criticism of my 1942 exhibition at the Redfern Gallery, and here is the relevant passage from the newspaper: 'He has devised for himself a convention for representing the human race which is identifiable at a glance. His clumsy staring-eyed, fish-mouthed, heavy-jawed puppets may look as if they were filled with sawdust, yet they have vigour, and sometimes humour, and the artist manages to arrange them into very ingenious patterns.'
Our Picture-Gallery Keeper prefers to exhibit the shaded parts only of this word-sketch. Yet it would be impolitic to have the complete painting all shadow, a light well placed here and there gives added value to the 'Darks'. Thus we may find in grubbing among this heap of innuendos, mis-statements and disparagements a soft word or two, like faded flowers in a rubbish bin; but these soft touches in no way affect the ensemble, or the main purport of this biography, which is to discredit its subject. Your skilful detractor places his offering of honied phrases upon the grave of a buried reputation with the same spirit of reverence as the gangster who sends a wreath to his victim's funeral, but with this difference, the gangster's wreath is not a borrowed one.
Here are some samples of Knewstubb-Rothenstein's prose in his less rancourous mood. One can imagine the forced, fixed expression, the strain and stress that the effort to get these words out on to paper must have caused their author.
'His compositions derive often from those of the tougher Florentines, and in spirit as well as form he has put more than one critic in mind of Pollaiuolo' . . . 'These often very elaborate but beautifully lucid compositions are worked out "engineered" was the apt description applied by one writer to the process with utmost deliberation and completeness' . . . 'The contrast between the coarse or even brutal figures and the classical and scholarly way in which they are combined is matched by the contrast between their character and their delicate combination of colouring.'
This pæan terminates in a shrilly lyrical outburst of acclaim: 'The black, petunia-pink, sharp acid green and pale chalky blue are entirely his own.' Even the above two statements could not be risked, without the support of the two anonymous art critics. However, I could not, without doing my biographer an injustice, omit these specimens of his appreciation and approval. But I must confess that these are the rare bright-threads in this very sombre tapestry our subtle craftsman is weaving.
The Tate's Art-Critic-Director draws his essay to a close with an obsequious, ingratiating gesture of apology to the reader in these words:
'A person reading these pages who happened to be unacquainted with the work of Roberts might wonder at finding him included in a small company chosen for seeming to the writer "to have distilled to its finest essence the response of our times to the world which the eye sees both the outward and the inward eye".'
My dear Sir, this sentence is cross-eyed; surely it is your reprehensible treatment of your subject that will make readers wonder why I have been included among your select company. Yet it does not require any very complicated 'Operations of the Intellect' to discover the reason. To have left me out of your choice quadruple-eyed company, would have denied you the sweet indulgence of your antipathy. This second volume of Modern English Painters, upon its author's own showing, is a sort of 'Combined Operation'. When one accepts an ally one is sure to be involved in skirmishes on his account; hence we get the Nevinson Ambush, the Duncan Grant Attack, and the Paul Nash Encounter; skilfully carried out actions by those two seasoned guerrillas 'Enemy Idée-Fix', and 'Revenge Complex'.
A recurring theme dominates and forms as it were the Leit-Motiv of the Director's essay; it is expressed in statements such as these:
'A mere imitator of Lewis' . . . 'An imitator of the superficial aspects of the art of Wyndham Lewis' . . . 'Doing paintings and drawings easily mistaken for those of Lewis'.
In this opinion Knewstubb-Rothenstein stands completely apart from all other writers on my work; he is in fact the inventor of the 'Imitator' theory.
With regard to the Director's charge of 'superficial imitation', it is instructive to compare the opinion of a critic writing upon my exhibits in the Second London Group show held in the Spring of 1915.
'Mr. William Roberts has a very brilliant drawing (done some time ago, I think) called "Dancers" infinitely laboured like a 15th-century engraving in appearance, worked out with astonishing dexterity and scholarship. It displays a power that only the few best people possess in any decade. Michaelangelo is, unfortunately, the guest of honour at this Lord's Supper. But Buonarotti is my Bête Noir. Mr. Roberts' painting "Boatmen" is very different from the drawing. It is a very powerful, definitely centralised structure, based on a simple human group. All the limbs and heads as well, have become, however, a conglomeration of bold and vivid springs, bent together in one organized bunch. The line of colour exploited is the cold effective between colours of modern advertising art. The beauty of many of the Tube posters (at least when seen together, and when organized by a curious mind) is a late discovery. The wide scale of colour, and certain juxtapositions in "Boatmen" however, suggests flowers as well. It is the most successful painting that Mr. Roberts has so far produced, I think.'
This appreciation appeared in Blast No. 2, and the writer's name is Wyndham Lewis. It was Michaelangelo's influence, not his own, that Sir John's 'Dynamically didactic leader' noted in 1915.
In view of the Tate Director's denigration of my Cockneys, it is surprising to find him speaking their language, as in this: . . . 'In the particular angle from which he squints at life about him' . . . Squints at life! . . . To the small company of the chosen, he bestows a double set of eyes, an outward and inward pair; but the painter of fish-mouthed cockneys gets only one set that squint. From these references to 'Unaltered postures' . . . 'Unattractive postures' and 'Squinting at life', the reader might easily imagine this article to be the life story of an ape; not, of course, a high-browed Ape of God, but just a low-browed Cockney Ape, instead of the biography of an artist by 'The Keeper' of an art gallery.
There is no doubt that the association of Knewstubb-Rothenstein with Lewis has over a long period been a close one; especially during the preparation of this book 'Lewis to Moore'. The volume commences with Lewis, and then deals in separate essays with five artists who were formerly associated with him. Of these three are dead, whilst Rothenstein has had scarcely any personal contact with the remaining two and regards them even with dislike and hostility. For his friend Lewis on the other hand, he overflows with praise and admiration; in these circumstances therefore, it will be no surprise to the reader to find in the five essays, the powerful impact of this 'dynamic, didactic, distinguished painter friend's' influence. Thus, as Sir John states in his contribution on Duncan Grant: 'If the reader knows where a writer stands, he will be able to make the necessary allowance for his bias.' In my opinion there is here something more than bias, for which no allowance should be made. This 'Bias' has a biblical flavour; we get the leader- or master-and-disciples theme constantly recurring, as in the essay on myself, and also in the one on Wadsworth; . . . 'To his association with Wyndham Lewis he owed the rudiments of a philosophy . . . without this association he might have been tempted to adopt styles and subjects imperfectly suited to his innermost needs. For a time he became a disciple; many of his drawings were tidier but less dynamic versions of his master's.' Not all the disciples were as tidy or as docile as Wadsworth; in the case of some when found yielding to the temptations of independence and originality, for instance Disciple Paul and Disciple Christopher, a sharp rebuke was needed, administered in the form of a catty anecdote or two; see the Lewis and Nevinson essays. In this matter of the Rothenstein 'Disciples', 1952 is the vital year for it was then that plans for their creation were laid.
Two events important in refuting this Master and Disciple blague are the Wadsworth Memorial Exhibition at the Tate, and Lewis's Retrospective Show at the Redfern Gallery; both these exhibitions were held in the Spring of 1949. T. W. Earp in his introduction to the catalogue of the Wadsworth show makes no mention of Lewis, Vorticism, or any reference to Masters and Disciples. Furthermore, in the Lewis and Ayrton introductions to the catalogue of Lewis's Retrospective show there is not the slightest indication of the existence of Vorticist Disciples.
It would seem, however, that Ayrton is a little sad that there are none and even offers, with the help of some friends, to fill this void, as in this sentence: 'Colquhoun, MacBryde, and Minton, to name three, would, I think, be prepared to admit the effect of his (Lewis) work upon their own and I myself am proud to acknowledge his influence on mine.' Why did the suggestion contained in these words come to nothing? The year 1949 was a propitious moment for the formation of a band of genuine disciples from among the younger men, a group of Post-Vorticists as it were. By 1952 it was already too late; for these Volunteer-Disciples had either disappeared or had become Masters in their own right. The simple answer to this is, that Sir John was not ready. Even if a biography of Lewis had occurred to him in 1949, he was far too engrossed with the affairs of Gwen John, Wilson Steer and Mathew Smith, to be able to create Vorticist Legends at that date. Not until three years later, in 1952, with the first volume off his hands and seeking subject-matter for a second book, did he realise what could be done with Vorticism, in the construction of a Lewis-the-Leader legend; and what a magnificent opportunity there was here for the full play of his Bias.
Separated by an interval of some four years from the first, this second volume of Modern English Painters reveals a notable development of literary power; there is a vigour, a dynamic quality here that is new, It can rightly be attributed to the invigorating and beneficial influence of Sir John's 'Dynamic didactic leader' Wyndham Lewis, as I think these extracts will show. From Vol. I, Wilson Steer: 'Eventually he evolved a remarkable style, compounded of Turner, Alexander Cozens, Claude, with a faint but intriguing touch, as Tonks noted, of the Oriental.' From the Mathew Smith article in the same book: . . . 'Mathew Smith's apples have an almost breath-taking nobility of form.' And now from the second volume: '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'. This could easily have been penned by the 'Demon of Satire' himself. Here it is true the Leader's Illuminating Influence has come upon a No-Longer-Young Knewstubb-Rothenstein; but then, one should never be too old to learn.
Contact with the Leader or Master was not at all the vivifying, illuminating, inspiring and beneficial communing, that our 'biased' Keeper would have his readers believe, in which we get the 'Mute' disciples imbibing open-mouthed the new gospel of Vorticism. This Master is an entirely invented Knewstubb-Rothenstein figure. In Art, above all, a Leader must be wide awake or he may find himself his disciple's disciple; in Art being a Leader is also an Art. Early in 1915 Lewis, as editor, asked me to contribute two drawings to Blast No. 2, the War number. He said 'keep them simple, it is easier for the Block-maker.' I did two 'simple' line drawings, one I called 'Machine Gunners' the other 'Combat'. When I gave Lewis these drawings I did not know what his contributions would be. Later when Blast was published my 'Machine Gunners' carried the plain title 'A drawing', whilst upon the front cover appeared a large intricate line drawing of machine gunners by Lewis. In an abstract work the title has a greater significance than in the case of a realistic picture, being in a sense the key to the puzzle.
In the Spring of 1920 Group X, of which E. McKnight Kauffer was the secretary and organizer, held its only exhibition at Heal's Gallery.
On the Hanging Day all the works of the Group were hung, save those of one member, blank spaces on the wall indicated where Lewis's pictures ought to have been. The next day, Press-day, the spaces were still unfilled, and with reporters in the Gallery some of the 'Group' began to feel puzzled. During the morning of Private View day news came through that Lewis was still working on his paintings, whilst a van waited outside his street door in readiness to bring them post-haste to the gallery as soon as they were finished. Already before the show began, Group X had disintegrated, and if there is no group, who needs a Leader! It may be objected that these are trivialities not worthy of mention. But if one considers to what labour the Tate Director and Messrs. Eyre & Spottiswoode have gone to, to reproduce in a medium 8vo, 348 pages and 32 photogravure plates their distortions and insipidities, which will be circulated in thousands everywhere, then any detail that helps to put this Vorticist affair in correct perspective is of value.
As one of the 191314 band of English Cubists I reject the Knewstubb-Rothensteinian interpretation of this movement contained in his book 'Lewis to Moore'. Any study of this period that neglects to give place to the cubist work of David Bomberg is incomplete and unacceptable. Altogether this book is a very neat little 'Frame-Up' and there could be no possible hindrance to this 'Framing' operation, for there were only artists and pictures to deal with; and had not Sir John the assurance of his friend the 'Dynamic leader' in The Demon of Progress in the Arts that 'A book can look after itself a great deal better than can an oil-painting, and a writer can look after himself far better than can a painter, because, to start with, he knows a great deal more.' Perhaps my biographer will be the exception that proves this Lewisian rule.
I said at the start of this essay that Rothenstein came to believe that Lewis was the leading figure among the English Cubists of 191314. But I must admit, it would be next to impossible to approach this writer-artist and maintain a contrary opinion. One is made to realise the centripetal force of this Vortex by the following extracts from an article by Lewis entitled 'The Vorticists', which appeared recently in Vogue Magazine. Sandwiched between corset-foundation lay-outs and nylon hose spreads, hidden away among skin-food blurbs and perfume adverts. Vorticism from the woman's angle, and for the boudoir, obviously; this is what we find.
'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".'
I am sure that the 'unpredictable' women who read Vogue Magazine will appreciate the bit about the 'unreliable men'. But the main thing is that this Vogue article disposes definitely of Sir John Rothenstein's Vorticist Disciple twaddle.
To have a work hung in the Tate is the cherished desire of most contemporary English artists. Maybe they feel that hung in these spacious galleries they have achieved immortality. They perhaps are justified in this belief. Certainly of late there has been much resurrecting of one sort and another going on in this temple of the Arts. There are several ways open to an artist who wishes to have his work hung in the Tate: he can submit his pictures to the periodic meetings of the Trustees; he can boldly invite the Director to his studio; or else he can angle for an invitation to one of the Tate's famous candle-lighted cocktail soirées.
These celebrated functions offer splendid opportunities to 'Observers' desirous of hearing artists 'Say this' and seeing them 'Do that'. For the artist whose 'Sayings and Doings' win approval, there are favours and rewards, the sale of a painting or two, a retrospective show maybe. But if the 'Operations of the Intellect' of the 'Observed' are disapproved of by the 'Observer', well there are subtle ways of dealing with that 'Unsubtle Subject'. After all, the distance is not so great as may at first appear between a Keeper of the Tate and a Keeper of Jeremy Bentham's 'Model' Penitentiary; this the Tate's 'A Brief History and Guide' will confirm.
Besides statements that have no relation to fact, and which cannot be allowed to pass uncorrected, there is through the whole of this biographical essay a strongly unsympathetic 'Bias', both as regards my painting and myself personally; this denies it any value as a just assessment of my work in general, and more especially of my early Cubist period. Some of my Cubist productions have been mis-named Vorticist. I wish to emphasize this point, for recently that time of the beginning of English Cubism has been reconstructed and presented in a fashion which makes it for me unrecognizable.
In conclusion, if a writer decides to produce a biographical essay upon a living artist, is there any valid reason why the subject of the essay should not be informed as to its contents before printing? It is a poor excuse to say, after publication, 'Oh, but I was under the impression I got these details from you.' Previous consultation between author and subject would have left no room for vague impressions. Nor is a belated offer to make corrections in later editions of much value. In a book such as the one under review, a second edition may not appear for years, if ever.
But there is one particular about which we can all be sure; that this biographer's 'Distinguished painter acquaintance' was fully instructed as to the contents of the essay upon Wyndham Lewis before it was passed to the printer.
'Once Upon a Time': the back cover of Vortex Pamphlet No. 4
News | Gallery | Auction results | The artist's house | Contact
List of works illustrated on the site
chronological | alphabetical