AN ENGLISH CUBIST
Rothenstein against Roberts
With WR's Replies
On publication of Sir John Rothenstein's Modern English Painters, William Roberts published a pamphlet (A Reply to My Biographer Sir John Rothenstein (London, February 1957)) to refute a number of Rothenstein's comments. Subsequent editions of Rothenstein's books made the same comments, and the third edition (Macdonald,1984; vol. 2) aggravated the offence by giving the date of WR's death wrongly as 1982 instead of 1980. John Roberts then circulated a photocopied list of extracts from his father's pamphlet, and this was reprinted as 'Rothenstein against Roberts' in William Roberts, Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings (Valencia, 1990), from which the following text is taken.
'Early in life Roberts discovered the narrow range of subjects he wished to represent.'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.
'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.
' . . . apprenticed for seven years to Joseph Cawston, the printers and law stationers. He looked forward to designing posters, but at first he was allowed to assist only in the mixing of colours . . . Opportunities . . . 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.
One does not win a scholarship to the Slade at the age of fifteen by "preparing workmen's lunches".
'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?
'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: 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" on the "imagination" of one already familiar with the work of Picasso and the other French cubists.
'His impact upon Roberts was heavy but beneficial. The effects of association with the dynamically didactic leader of Vorticism and editor of Blast upon a temperament different from Roberts's might have been stultifying; although its immediate consequence for Roberts was the production of paintings and drawings easily mistaken for those of Lewis . . . 'Upon the subject of my association with Wyndham Lewis the Director gets his big chance to show his talent and his versatility as a fabulist . . .
It was Lewis' 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 . . .
'I do not know precisely what relation there was between Roberts and Hulme. They no doubt met at the Rebel Art Centre, with which Roberts became associated after his departure from the Omega. . . '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 . . . 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.
'We may take it that Hulme's theories, developed and illustrated by Lewis, provided both the point of departure and continuing inspiration for Roberts' art.'. . .. new movements in painting do not spring from the theories of philosophers . . .
. . . 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?
'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.'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 evaluation of my character.
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 [The Times, 9 July 1942]:
He has devised for himself a convention for representing the human race that is identifiable at a glance. His clumsy, staring-eyed, fish-mouthed, heavy-jawed puppets may look as if they have 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 [underlined] parts only of this word-sketch.
'A person reading these pages who happened to be unacquainted with Roberts's work 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".'Surely it is your reprehensible treatment of of your subject that will make your readers wonder why I have been included among your select company.
'Roberts, on the contrary, ever since he freed himself from the imitation of the superficial aspects of Wyndham Lewis . . . '
WR sums up: 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.
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