A Brief Discussion of the Vortex Pamphlets

This piece first appeared in 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.

Vortex Pamphlets cover

'In Art, being a Leader is also an Art.'
– A Reply to my Biographer.

From July 7 to August 19, 1956, there was an exhibition at the Tate Gallery of 'Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism' with 150 works by Lewis, and a small selection from other artists; these were to give 'an indication of the effect of his immediate impact upon his contemporaries.'

The first Vortex pamphlet was a criticism of this arrangement:
'The Resurrection of Vorticism and the Apotheosis of Wyndham Lewis at the Tate.'
The frontispiece, showing a Vorticist whale with palette, brushes and canvas, was suggested by a remark by Michael Ayrton in the New Statesman, that the artists in the appended rooms 'rather unfairly... looked like a lot of sprats a whale has caught.'

The second pamphlet dealt with the Catalogue, more misleading than the exhibition itself:
'Cometism and Vorticism – a Tate Gallery Catalogue revised.'
The Comet had as its head Wyndham Lewis, and as its tail the artists of the Appendix. The illustration shows John Rothenstein [the director of the Tate], Ayrton and Lewis conversing at a cafe table.

John: We must include some 'Other Vorticists' to give an indication of the effect of your 'Impact' upon your contemporaries.

Michael: They will look rather like a lot of sprats a whale has caught.

Wyndham: Gentlemen, Vorticism, in fact, was what I, personally, did and said at a certain period.

In this pamphlet W.R wrote: 'I had no wish to take part in a show of Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism. It was not, I felt, a good arrangement for Vorticism. It should have been one or the other. Either an exhibition of Vorticism (in which case Lewis would have taken his place with the rest of us) or a retrospective show of Lewis only . . . During the exhibition I sent three letters to the Press expressing my reactions to the way the show had been organised. When they were not accepted I issued them in the form of a pamphlet . . . A visit to the Tate, or what is more important, a perusal of the Catalogue, would lead the uninitiated to suppose that the artists designated as 'Other Vorticists' are in some way subservient to Lewis.'

The third pamphlet quoted the Times and the Listener to show that some critics did indeed suppose this:
'A Press View at the Tate Gallery.'
The illustration shows a group of earnest press correspondents studying abstract designs, while Rothenstein and Lewis peep benignly round the door. Lewis has his hand on Rothenstein's shoulder in a fatherly way.

W.R. wrote: 'The following nosegay culled from the pages of the Times, Listener, New Statesman and Tate Gallery Catalogue, will emphasise my point: 'Professed Followers' and 'Under the Immediate Influence', showing the 'Effect of the Immediate Impact' . . . 'Adherents, some of them now little known, of the Vorticist Movement' . . . 'Who have profitably modified Lewis's style' and, finally, 'Look like a lot of sprats a whale has caught'. Nice work, boys!'

Some pages later, he writes: 'With regard to the origins of abstract art in England, the evidence contained in the weekly numbers of the New Age, ranging from December 1913 to July 1914, is decisive, for it proves that there was in England a group of Cubist and Abstract artists working and exhibiting independently of Lewis before the word Vorticism was introduced.'

Ten citations from the New Age show that 'Much had been done and said by others in the sphere of abstract art apart from Lewis, before Lewis and the American poet Ezra Pound began sticking their Vorticist labels upon our productions.'

He was also to write at the end of the Fourth pamphlet: 'Some of my Cubist productions have been misnamed Vorticist. I wish to emphasise 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 unrecognisable.'

In the third pamphlet there is an account of his relations with Lewis. 'The fact that I was at the Omega' – Roger Fry's Omega Workshop – 'made him curious to meet me, for he too had worked there. One day he called upon me where I lived in Cumberland Market and borrowed a painting ('Dancers') and a drawing ('Religion') to exhibit at the Rebel Art Centre. The 'Centre' consisted of two rooms on the first floor of an old Georgian house in Great Ormonde Street, Bloomsbury . . . I visited the Rebel Art Centre only once and stayed about five minutes . . . It was some months after this visit to the Centre that I saw Lewis again. He called on me with a copy of the first 'Blast' in which were reproduced the two pictures I had lent him for his Rebel Centre. Thus began the 'Vorticist Dodge.'

And W.R. sums up: 'Vorticism did not precede the germination of English Cubism, but was a kind of exotic growth nurtured later by certain cultivators in the hope that it would overgrow and supplant the later flowering Cubism.'

Shortly after the exhibition appeared the second volume of Rothenstein's 'Modern English Painters.' It had an essay on W.R. to which he replied with the fourth pamphlet:
'A Reply to my Biographer Sir John Rothenstein.'
This is in two parts. The first, of five pages (out of fourteen) concerns his suspicion of Rothenstein and the lack of interest or sympathy shown by Rothenstein to him. The second part is the reply proper, twice the length and hard to refute. The headings of the two parts are 'Introductory' and 'William Roberts.'

Rothenstein wrote him a long letter in rebuttal, which was not answered.

Some months later all four pamphlets were reviewed anonymously in the Times Literary Supplement. [In William Roberts (1895–1980), his catalogue of the 2004 Roberts retrospective at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, Andrew Heard identified the anonymous TLS reviewer as Clive Bell, as revealed by the 2001 TLS Centenary Archive.] Of the fourth pamphlet the reviewer remarked: 'To his quarrel with Sir John Rothenstein – who comes in for some smart knocks in other places – the painter devotes an entire pamphlet, and proves conclusively that the biographer's account of his career is inaccurate.'

To this charge, Rothenstein never made any reply; but he sent in a copy of the rebuttal already sent to W.R. In a covering letter he suggests reprinting the whole of the fourth pamphlet as an appendix to the next edition of his book. This was rather cool; and as he probably foresaw, W.R. refused any republication or quotation. However, the obvious result, that Rothenstein's essay would go into a second and third edition with all faults, this perhaps W.R. did not foresee.

In the rebuttal, Rothenstein said: ' . . . I would select, at random, just a few examples . . . ' and towards the end: 'Here, then, is a sampling at random of the travesties of the truth . . . '

He is anxious that his selection should appear to be random; but comparison with the pamphlet contradicts this. In fact, he concentrates on the 'Introductory,' and stops when that becomes irrefutable, on the fifth page of text. On this very page, W.R. shows that Rothenstein lifts a passage from 'Paint and Prejudice,' Nevinson's Autobiography (p. 55), presenting it as if spoken at a party with Rothenstein present. This charge, and the remaining nine pages of the pamphlet (with one exception) Rothenstein completely ignores. He could do this because it was as good as unknown to readers of the Literary Supplement.

Six of Rothenstein's seven points in his rebuttal deal with the 'Introductory.' The last point deals with the charge that Rothenstein was under Lewis's influence, which is made several times. Rothenstein states: 'Lewis . . . had no hand in the chapter on him, nor was any aspect of the book discussed with him at any time.'

However, the Tate Gallery Catalogue says that Lewis 'spared no pains in providing essential information.' It seems to me that if he could do this for the exhibition he could also do it for the book.

This is Rothenstein's only reference to the last two-thirds of the pamphlet. Far from selecting at random, he kept carefully to the part he could answer. However, his rebuttal would seem effective to most readers. They could not know the points he had ignored, neatly sidestepping W.R.'s objections.

This rebuttal being public, W.R. could not now keep silent. In his reply (3.12.57) he kept mainly to the ground chosen by Rothenstein, so that matters relating to the Chantrey Bequest or to Stanley Spencer at the Academy were discussed, instead of the chief issue – the inadequacy of Rothenstein's essay on him.

Three weeks later there came a flank attack from Michael Ayrton. After complimenting Rothenstein on his defence, he says: 'Lewis thought very little of his own Vorticism, let alone the Vorticism of his followers'; giving the impression that W.R was beating the empty air. Ayrton agreed however that the Tate show was unfair to the 'Followers.'

Further letters appeared, two on the 10th and two on the 17th, of January, 1958. They were on side issues except for Rothenstein's on the 10th. In answer to Ayrton he said, not very convincingly: 'The exhibition was intended to be exactly what its title said it was, a retrospective exhibition of Lewis and an exhibition to illustrate the work of a short-lived but interesting group among whom Lewis was for the time a moving spirit.' Note here that Rothenstein relaxes his claims somewhat. Lewis is not now the moving spirit but a moving spirit, one of several.

On January 16 the editor of the Literary Supplement wrote privately to W.R with regard to his second letter, in reply to Ayrton. 'I think that by now everyone has had their say on the matter of your pamphlets, and I don't think any useful purpose will be served by continuing the correspondence any further . . . '

W.R remarked: ' . . . with six letters to my one, it was obvious that some people had been having rather too much of the 'say'.'

Hence he produced the fifth pamphlet:
'Vorticism and the Politics of Belles-Lettres-ism.'
The frontispiece shows a group of astonished newspaper readers.

Of this closing of the correspondence by the editor, he says: 'To anyone unschooled in the Politics of Journalism this arrangement . . . must have placed my cause in a very unfavourable light. The two unanswered letters, that was bad! A clear case of surrender to these two gentlemen.' (I.e. Rothenstein and Ayrton)

He had the remaining pamphlets bound up into sets, and the fifth with them. He hoped this would be his last word, but his last word, in a sense, was to write to Rothenstein and his publishers forbidding any use of the fourth pamphlet in future editions of 'Modern English Painters.' The leaflet which follows is based on the second part of the pamphlet; I prepared it to summarise the main differences urged against Rothenstein, who had, as I found afterwards, ignored them entirely.

Vortex Pamphlets title page

Regarding Ayrton's statement that 'Lewis thought very little of his own Vorticism,' this is a change from the earlier Lewis who wrote: 'Konody wanted to call a paper 'The Vortex' and I had forbidden this and told him it was only over my dead body he would employ the word 'Vortex,' of which I considered I had a monopoly' (Blasting and Bombardiering, 1937, p. 188).


[In Time's Thievish Progress (London: Cassell, 1970), the third volume of his autobiography, Rothenstein gave his thoughts on this episode in a chapter entitled 'Wyndham Lewis and Others':
William Roberts . . . interpreted this tribute [the 1956 Tate Gallery exhibition Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism] as an attempt on the part of Lewis and myself to relegate his fellow vorticists to the status of mere disciples of Lewis. In a foreword to the catalogue Lewis did indeed claim that vorticism was 'What I, personally, did and said at a certain period,' but this provocative claim apart there was nothing either in the catalogue or the exhibition that could reasonably be regarded as disparaging of the other vorticists. No suggestion reached the Tate from any other artist that he felt himself disparaged, though it is possible on account of his refusal to lend his 'Rock Drill' that Epstein entertained similar suspicions.

Roberts ignored our invitation to suggest how he might most appropriately be represented in the vorticist section. His conviction that the exhibition was designed 'to minimize the standing' of Lewis' former associates roused Roberts' bitter resentment – resentment that was intensified by his belief that I was a person whom he 'felt to be hostile' to him and that this 'hostility' was expressed in the chapter devoted to him in Volume II of my Modern English Painters, published shortly before the Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism exhibition. This suspicion was baseless: I had (nor have) no shadow of antipathy for Roberts the man and admiration for a single-minded artist by whom I have never seen a work unworthy of him. When I went to the Tate I found only one of his pictures and that unshown; during the ensuing years eight further examples were acquired and shown together, and arrangements were made with the Arts Council for a retrospective exhibition, though this was not held until shortly after my retirement.

Roberts' resentment expressed itself in a succession of privately printed pamphlets: The Resurrection of Vorticism and Apotheosis of Wyndham Lewis at the Tate Gallery, Cometism and Vorticism, a Tate Gallery Catalogue Revised (all three appearing in 1955 [in fact these two, together with A Press View at the Tate Gallery, appeared in 1956]) and in the following year [1957] A Reply to My Biographer, Sir John Rothenstein. The second has an entertaining frontispiece by the artist entitled 'Conversation Piece', purporting to show Wyndham Lewis, Michael Ayrton and me plotting to make the 'other vorticists' 'look like a lot of sprats a whale has caught'.

When the first of the pamphlets appeared [in August 1956] Lewis telephoned to me deeply incensed, and asked whether I thought he should reply. I advised him to ignore it, for although his voice was combative, I thought that the strain of controversy might be harmful to the health, already precarious, of this blind, seventy-four-year-old man. Whether because he was already too near death [he died in March 1957] or on account of my advice, Lewis made no reply.]

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