AN ENGLISH CUBIST
and Vorticism's Year
This piece first appeared as the preface to Some Early Abstract and Cubist Work 19131920 (London, 1957); the present text is that reprinted as 'William Roberts and Vorticism's
Year' 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.
The cover of Some Early Abstract and Cubist Work 19131920
It is customary with a book illustrating the work of a living artist to introduce
it to the public with a foreword by some eminent art critic; for now more than ever
a bundle of aesthetic analysis and theorising is a necessary accompaniment to a painting.
An ingenious piece of Art theory can do much for a picture; whilst a glance at a collection
of the most modern of the Moderns will show that nowadays it can do a good deal for
a blank canvas too. So, I thought, I must find an art critic who would be prepared to act as my sponsor before the public. But the more I considered this plan the
less easy it seemed to carry out.
The obvious choice, of course, was one of Art Criticism's Big Three. But here arose
the difficulties. Number One dealt only with Child Art and Old Masters. Number Two
considered that there were no abstract artists in England before 1930, the period
at which he began to write. As for Number Three, although willing to concede that there
were abstract painters in England in 191315, he yet maintained that they were all Vorticists, consequently 'Disciples' of Wyndham
Lewis. Besides this trio there were still other critics, for instance Y of the 'Daily
Telegram', and Z of the Council of Culture. But for years past with regard to my
work Y had remained severely silent; and Z wrote only for his own organisation for
As for the band of younger and lesser stars of Art journalism who intermittently sparkle
in the daily and weekly press, they could not be expected to consider anything less
recent than Tachism and Other Art; or their own generation of rocking and rolling
Young Contemporaries. Moreover I needed someone with a knowledge of the terrain, one
who would not be intimidated by a few Blasts or the swirling of a Vortex; for the
Enemy was strongly entrenched in this storm-centre, this trouble-spot of English
In this matter time was a vital factor, and speed was essential. This little book
is long overdue about forty years to be exact. Had it appeared as it should have done, in 1915, I
would have escaped, in 1956, the delayed action blasts and the back-wash from the
vortex of 1914.
As a last resort there is still one person available for the job myself. As I have been over this ground before and know the positions of the Enemy,
there is a good chance that I shall get through. To facilitate this I shall first
remove the Vorticist fancy costume and put on my original workaday dress of the period,
that of a plain English Cubist.
With the exception of the drawing The Resurrection done while still a student at the Slade in 1911, these twelve illustrations represent
only a part of my early abstract and cubist work. Of my abstract pictures, these
reproductions are all that have survived of the paintings and drawings done during
the years 191345. The less abstract cubist examples shown, were produced between 191820. The two large pictures of war subjects which I painted whilst an official war
artist in 1918, requiring a more realistic treatment, diverted my interest from abstract
design and caused me to develop more easily recognisable human forms in the work
I became an abstract painter through the influence of the French Cubists; this influence
was further strengthened by a stay in France and Italy during the summer of 1913;
and then on my return home, by association with Roger Fry at the Omega workshops.
An additional stimulant to my interest in abstract art was the example of David Bomberg
a friend and fellow student at the Slade School who had begun to produce some fine
cubist compositions. Bomberg's independence of character kept him free from Vorticism.
At that time, for one reason or another, he always found himself in opposition to Lewis.
And in 1956, to attach Bomberg's work to that of Lewis's and exhibit him as 'Another
Vorticist' betrays on the part of the Tate organisers an ignorance of the real situation in 1914. The irony of finding himself thus placed could have given Bomberg little
cause for amusement.
Two other of my contemporaries at the Slade, Nevinson and Wadsworth, both enthusiasts
of the new painting being done in Paris, also distinguished themselves as cubists.
This Slade group played an important part in the development of abstract art in this
country. Another former Slade student, Wyndham Lewis, who from his visits to Paris had
evolved his own brand of Cubism, sought through contact with these Slade Cubists,
and the employment of the ingenious word Vorticism, to establish his hegemony over
the English abstract movement.
Referring now to the abstract and cubistic work illustrated here; the first is of
a drawing done in 1913 for the painting The Dancers reproduced on the following page. The drawing was published in 'The New Age' on the
16th April, 1914, with the following commentary by the critic T. E. Hulme:
'This drawing contains four figures. I could point out the position of these figures
in more detail, but I think such detailed indication misleading. No artist can create
abstract form spontaneously; it is always generated or, at least suggested, by the
consideration of some outside concrete shapes. But such shapes are only interesting
if you want to explain the psychology of the process of composition in the artist's
mind. The interest of the drawing itself depends on the forms it contains. The fact
that such forms were suggested by human figures is of no importance.'
In an abstract design the concrete forms upon which it is based have greater importance
than Hulme allows for in his final sentence. As the best abstract work shows, the
artist is always careful to retain some traces of the natural forms that have inspired him and upon which his composition is built. It is these suggestive fragments of
natural forms scattered throughout the design that give the abstract shapes it contains
their vitality and significance, without this levain the picture remains a mechanical geometric construction. Even in the case of paintings
that appear to be total abstractions, the title can serve to indicate to the observer
the vestiges of nature's forms used in the composition of the picture; as, for instance, when a conglomeration of cubes is called . . . Femme à la Guitare. When one comes upon such titles as Arrangement No. 1, Unit 2 or Layout 3 applied to a picture, it is obvious that the artist has been dealing with pure geometric
patterns. The results of leaving nature entirely out of the picture can be seen in
the nursery box-of-bricks construction of Mondrian and his English counterparts.
The drawing Religion is of the same period as The Dancers and was done shortly after I had left the Slade School. The first of the three line
drawings was made at the request of my friend Bernard Meninsky for the St. George's
Day celebration number of the 'Evening News'; it was published on the 23rd April,
1915, with the following title and comment:
A FUTURIST ST. GEORGE
'To the uninitiated in the mysteries of Futurism, this drawing will appear rather like a distracted jigsaw puzzle. The artist Mr. William Roberts
is a member of the London Group, which recently held its second exhibition at the
Goupil Salon. Some of his work also appeared in the Futurist magazine Blast.'
Be it noted that to this journalist even Blast was a Futurist magazine. In this same
number of the 'Evening News' there appeared, also in honour of St. George, an abstract
design by Meninsky. This was, I think, the only occasion that he tried his hand at
this form of art.
To the general public of 1915 the English abstract painters were known as Cubists
and Futurists; and with good reason, for the French Cubist movement had begun about
1907, and the Italian Futurists had been issuing manifestos since 1910, time enough
for both to fix themselves in the public mind. But in the spring of 1915 the word Vorticism
was a newcomer to our vocabulary and its use limited, having been introduced only
six months previously with the first number of Blast. The word was not used in the
London Group, despite the fact that all the abstract painters of the day were members of
this Group. Vorticism was intended to oppose not only Futurism, but the recently
formed London Group a member of which was Roger Fry. This intention manifested itself again in 1920,
when the members of the newly formed Group X resigned in a body from the London Group.
The above remarks explain how I could be, in The New Age, a Cubist or an exponent
of what Hulme called geometric art; in the 'Evening News', a Futurist; and a Vorticist
in Blast; and is a sufficient contradiction of the recent attempt at the Tate Gallery
to exhibit the whole of this period as completely Vorticised and dominated by a central
figure self-named The Great London Vortex.
This idea was first advanced at the retrospective exhibition of Wyndham Lewis' work
held in July 1956 at the Tate, when the unusual step was taken of adding some minor
examples of the work of the 1914 abstract painters under the heading 'Other Vorticists'
so as to display Lewis in a leader's role. In the catalogue Lewis claimed that only
his work and nothing else was.Vorticism; while on the other hand, Sir John Rothenstein
asserted that the 'Other Vorticists' were really Lewis' disciples, and had been joined to his retrospective show to demonstrate his impact upon his 1914 contemporaries.
Both these claims had never been made before. I, at once, in three pamphlets distributed
during the run of the exhibition, contradicted Lewis and Rothenstein. Nevinson and
Wadsworth, had they been alive, would, I am sure, have concurred.
Yet very little study of the art of the period immediately preceding the first World
War is necessary to realise the incorrectness of the Tate Director's theory. To begin
with, in this matter of Lewis' 'Impact upon his contemporaries', it is not his work
as a whole that we have to consider, but only that portion of it that had been produced
up till June 1914.
To estimate correctly 'The Impact' at this period, we must eliminate some forty years
and more of Lewis' output, visualising the scene as it was then without the novels, the philosophies, the Blasts, the Tyros, the Enemies and the
large collection of paintings and drawings done since that date. We must remember,
too, that this was an age of Impacts, and English artists were experiencing the combined
impact of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, and the rest of the French Cubists, besides
the Italian Futurists with their manifestos. The art clubs were filled with the disputes
of the Ancients versus the Moderns; and the thrust and parry of contending aesthetic opinions packed the correspondence columns of the newspapers and reviews. Bearing
these facts in mind, let us journey back into the past, to those golden days of June
1914 the days of our youth and see what we can find.
In May and June 1914, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, was held an exhibition of modern
English Art, with the title 'Twentieth Century Art'. It was a comprehensive display
of the trends in English painting at that time.
This exhibition is a good subject for attention because the artists who appeared as
'Other Vorticists' in 'Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism' at the Tate in 1956, also showed
with Lewis in 'Twentieth Century Art' at Whitechapel in 1914. In the introduction
to the catalogue of Twentieth Century Art, the anonymous author divides the exhibits into
four groups. The first he places under the influence of Sickert and Lucien Pissarro;
in the second he sees the impress of Puvis de Chavannes, Legros, and Augustus John;
the third he derives from Cezanne; and of the fourth group, the abstract painters, he
'The fourth group has abandoned representation almost entirely. Some members of this group have recently established a 'Rebel Art Centre'. Some of the
pictures on the west wall of the Lower Gallery, Nos. 10 to 30, belong to this group
(the non-representational) and the work of Mr. Bomberg in the small Gallery.'
Now if the 1956 Tate theory is to be accepted, one would expect to see the abstract
artists at Whitechapel in 1914 standing under the aegis of Wyndham Lewis. But this
is not so; and the only abstract artist mentioned by name is Bomberg. Even in its
reference to the Rebel Art Centre the Introduction states only that 'Some members' have established
it. We know besides that Nevinson took a hand in its beginning. This Twentieth Century
exhibition was an important one (Marinetti, the Italian Futurist leader, paid it a visit, to inspect our abstract contributions); Roger Fry's Omega Workshop had
more than seventy articles on display from armchairs, tables and stair-carpets, to paper-knives, fans and necklaces. Sir
John Rothenstein, to demonstrate his theory of Lewis' impact upon his contemporaries
in 1914, exhibits in 1956 150 works by Lewis against 1 Bomberg, 4 Etchells, 2 Nevinsons, 1 Hamilton, 5 Wadsworth; while I am represented by 4 sketches and 1 small painting
done in 1918. But if we turn to the 1914 Twentieth Century Art show, which is our
best guide to the 'impacts' of the period, in the catalogue we find a different arrangement with 5 Bombergs, 3 Etchells, 2 Nevinsons, 2 Wadsworth, 6 Gaudier-Brzeska, 8 Roberts,
against 1 Lewis.
There is no evidence here to support a theory of disciples and impacts. Nor would
one have any more success with the other three exhibitions of this period; the 191415 London Group shows at the Goupil Salon; and the 1915 Vorticists' exhibition at
the Doré Gallery.
No, the leader legend originates in Lewis' Vorticist Manifesto; and that belongs to
journalism, not painting. It was the impact of the manifestos of the Italian Futurist
poet Marinetti upon him, that made Lewis realise how valuable a manifesto of his
own would be to himself. Fry was the first to feel the force of this new weapon; it was
inevitable that sooner or later he would be served with a manifesto; as an ally he
was too powerful for the comfort of someone aiming at a leading role in the English
revolutionary art movement. This was not a dispute of two erudites over a subtle point of
aesthetics, but a clash between rivals for the profits of the English interior-decorating
market. There were lucrative commissions to be had by a skilled manifesto-ist at
the head of his own group of abstract artist-decorators; and so we get the abortive
Rebel Art Centre.
In order not to be suspected of offering the patrons second-hand Italian goods, Futurism
had to be got rid of, and for this a big blast was needed; also a team of 'Reliable'
there was the rub native designers, with their own distinctive trademark, ready to take over. Following
the collapse of the short-lived Rebel Art Centre Nevinson was far too involved with the Italians a second attempt in June 1914 to form a group was successful, due to better organised
publicity in the shape of the massive pink magazine Blast, the slogan Vorticism,
and . . . a Manifesto. From the point of view of a Leader, the rotating forces of this Vortex
were in perfect equilibrium; none of these artists were writers, but just painters
who put their trust in brush and palette; such implements could never challenge leadership, for that a pen would be necessary. The arrangement seemed ideal; and yet it appears
that this group, as the Omega and Rebel Art Centre before them, were ill-fitted to
march beneath the banner of the Great London Vortex. For we are told, in what may
have been Lewis' last article published in 'Vogue Magazine' in 1956 that he found them 'not very reliable'. In what way Etchells, Wadsworth and the rest
of us were unreliable was not stated.
With the exception of a few small objects such as painted match-box holders, by Miss
Dismorr and Miss Saunders, probably from Lewis' designs, only one job of interior
decorating was carried out during the twelve months of Vorticism; this was a small
dining-room at the Hotel de la Tour Eiffel, which became known as the Vorticist Room; for
this Lewis painted three abstract panels.
Opportunities for further undertakings of this sort were prevented by the war's progress
and the demands of the army. My own year's connection with Vorticism ended with the
publication of my two line-drawings, Combat and Machine-Gunners, in the second Blast in July 1915; that marked the close of the Vorticist episode.
To the question: What was Vorticism? The answer could only be a slogan. For as far as the character of the work of each artist forming the Group
was concerned, this continued to be the same during Vorticism as after it, the varying
development according to each talent, of Cubist and Futurist influences.
Lewis, in the catalogue to his 1956 exhibition, states that Vorticism was only what
he did and said at a certain period. But the other members of the Group could make
similar claims on their own behalf and with equal justification. Multiplying the
'Vorticist Year' by fifty, Lewis pretends that his life's work, graphic and literary, is Vorticism.
Even that part of it done before Ezra Pound invented the word, in that fateful month
of June 1914, becomes a 'Teaching'. Working from this his biographers expand it into a philosophy; a kind of religion with its central figure and attendant disciples.
A number of my abstract pictures painted during the period 19131915 have been lost or destroyed; The Parting, exhibited at the Twentieth Century Art show at Whitechapel in 1914, is one of this
batch. A large abstract composition The Boatmen, shown at the second London Group exhibition, and which Lewis mentions in Blast No.
2, was also lost during the later part of the War. Several paintings, including The Draughts Players and The Party, shown with the Vorticists at the Doré Gallery and afterwards bought by John Quinn
of New York, were somehow destroyed in America. The Bombardment of Scarborough, a painting rejected by the New English Art Club in 1915 it was perhaps asking too much of the New English that they should be interested
in abstract art at that date has disappeared without trace.
A large drawing entitled The Toe Dancer a subject that was derived from the dances performed by the wife of Stewart Gray
the Hunger-Marcher at their home in old Ormonde Terrace in the autumn of 1914 has gone the way of my other works mentioned above.
This enumeration of the titles of pictures that no longer exist may seem pointless
to some people, but to me they are as real as my Canal Fishers now hanging in the Royal Academy. I attribute the loss of some of these pictures
described above, to the frequent changes of residence I made at this disturbed period
of the War's commencement. In the early part of 1913 I was living in the old Cumberland
Market; during the summer I moved from there to Chalcot Crescent, Chalk Farm; then
in the autumn across Primrose Hill to Stewart Gray's house at Ormonde Terrace, where
I had as co-tenants David Bomberg and John Flanagan. But my sojourn in this bohemian
paradise was short, my next move being to Hackney. Whilst staying there I carried out
the paintings for the Doré show; when these were completed I moved to more centrally
situated lodgings in Fitzroy Street, where I stayed throughout the remainder of 1915,
until in the spring of 1916, at Lord Derby's invitation, I exchanged this dwelling for
a barrack-room at the Royal Field Artillery Depot, Woolwich. This barrack-room I
soon vacated for another at Weedon, in Northamptonshire. The beginning of August
saw me bivouacked outside Le Havre, preparatory to making a twenty-two months' tour of the
Flanders' battle-fields. On this merry-go-round of temporary dwelling places, unfortunately
some of my possessions got lost.
In the old Cumberland Market I did the two paintings, The Dancers and The Parting, together with the drawings Religion and Dancers. At that time there was a small colony of artists quartered around this spacious
cobbled-stoned hay market, sufficient to have formed a Market Group; however, I doubt
if the Camden Town Group would have tolerated a rival coterie within the limits of
their territory. Among others I had as neighbours Bernard Meninsky, John Flanagan, Colin
Gill, and Geoffrey Nelson. It was in John Flanagan's rooms across the Market that
Sickert with his Camden Town crowd met a number of other artists to make arrangements
for promoting a larger organisation The London Group. In Flanagan's balconied rooms were
held many an all-nightly revel to the Jazz-music of a gramophone; our full-throated
singing of 'Way down on the Levee' and 'Hold your hand out, you naughty boy', if
too long sustained in the still small hours, brought visits from constables disturbed on
their beats. But Flanagan, by the judicious use of a little blarney, knew how to
quieten the apprehensions of these uniformed intruders solicitous for the peace of
However, the festive nights were not permitted to interfere with the serious business
of the daytime. It was to Cumberland Market that Lewis came one day to borrow The Dancers and Religion
: he said he wanted to hang them in some rooms he had in Great Ormonde Street, which
he referred to as the Rebel Art Centre. At that date Ezra Pound had not invented
Vorticism, and Lewis had yet to write his Manifesto. Little did I realise, as my
work was carried off that spring afternoon of 1914, that in about six months I would be entering
my Vorticist Year!
What follows could appropriately be described as the Aftermath of the Vorticist Year.
The refutation I gave to Lewis in 1956 regarding his Vorticist leadership pretensions,
has angered some of his latest admirers.
Sir John Rothenstein, who was so anxious to discover to the art-interested public
the effect of Lewis' impact upon his contemporaries, has now found me to be suffering
from Impact in a most advanced stage; for in his latest book, 'Lewis to Moore', he
declares me to be a 'Superficial imitator of the art of Wyndham Lewis'. In answer to my
protest, Sir John proposed that if I would meet him in a private discussion, and
was able to convince him that I was not a 'Superficial imitator of Lewis', he would
be prepared to alter his statements in future editions of his book. It is evident that the
Tate Director has a subtle sense of irony.
We have next Mr. Michael Ayrton, an enthusiastic, aggressively enthusiastic admirer
of Lewis' work, who is ready to place the 'Other Vorticists' up alongside Picasso
and Braque; or throw the whole bunch of them into the ocean, if by so doing he could
enhance still more the reputation of Lewis. And so in Ayrton's Foreword to the catalogue
of Lewis' 1949 Redfern Gallery show, we read: 'To him (Lewis) we owe the most important,
if not the only concerted movement in the arts in England within living memory; the one group, the Vorticists, whose intention and achievement could be compared for
a moment to those of the Cubists in Paris before 1914.' In this 1949 estimate, the
Other Vorticists being artists of such merit, their leader naturally must be one
of exceptional quality. At that time the obvious way to hoist the leader was to give the group
a boost. But in 1956, under the impact of the 'Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism' exhibition,
Ayrton changes his method; for in his 'New Statesman' article 'The Stone Guest',
we read: 'And it does not look, from this exhibition, as if Vorticism was a movement
engendered in terms of the robust collective romps of the Futurists... the 'Other
Vorticists' collected at the Tate, look rather like a lot of sprats a whale has caught.'
We see on this occasion the leader increased to mighty proportions by the employment
of a system of shrinkage to the other members of the group.
Mr. Ayrton has of late been actively engaged in Lewis' publicity a piece of immense irony this and is angry; he has expressed his displeasure in an essay, 'Obsequy with Teeth',
published in the summer number of 'The Universities and Left Review'. Ayrton scolds
the editor of 'The Listener' for inviting me to write about Lewis in his paper. He states that: 'The irony of this would greatly have amused Lewis.'
Furthermore, the editor has shown 'He knew nothing of the matter with which he was
dealing' and has 'handed Mr. Lewis the partially frozen mit before his funeral was
over.' Mr. Ayrton, because of my pamphlets, presumably, finds it 'Curious of Roberts to
undertake "The Listener" article in the circumstances' especially as 'He had not
been on speaking terms with Lewis for thirty years or more.'
In the article 'Obsequy with Teeth' I am presented in the dual role of Mark Antony
and Cassius, or is it Casca? It seems as if Ayrton has chosen the part of Octavius
in his adaptation of Shakespeare to the requirements of Vorticism; but although his
entrance comes late in this drama, he is well rehearsed, and knows how to make full use
of the stage. Now as to 'The Listener': one of my three original letters to the Press,
sent in July during the Lewis show, was addressed to the editor of 'The Listener';
and my four pamphlets, too, as they were printed. I see nothing curious in the fact that although disagreeing
with Lewis upon his 1956 definition of Vorticism, I was nevertheless invited to write
about our early friendship.
Until 'Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism' there had been no difference between us, despite
the misleading statement 'He had not been on speaking terms with Lewis,' which implies
that we had quarrelled. With regard to the statement that it was too late for Lewis
to reply to my 'old-fashioned pamphlets,' I would like to point out that the first
one was distributed during the 'Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism' exhibition, and two
others whilst the exhibition was touring the Provinces. My last pamphlet, a reply
to Sir John Rothenstein's biography of myself, published in September 1956, had just been printed,
when the announcement in March 1957 of Lewis' sudden death appeared. This pamphlet
would have been out much sooner, but for the many alterations and deletions desired
by the printer. During this period of six months, one indication that Lewis was aware
of my campaign was a short note, signed Agnes Bedford, printed in the 'Observer'
on 14th October, 1956.
Before leaving the subject of the Aftermath of Vorticism, I would like to relate to
the writer of 'Obsequy with Teeth' a situation that involved Lewis in his lifetime,
though whether the irony of it amused him I would not care to say.
The acquaintanceship of Wyndham Lewis and Michael Ayrton dates from the years immediately
following the last war, upon Lewis' return from America. At that time the author
of 'Tarr', 'The Apes of God' and a dozen other books on philosophy, literature and
art, as well as a large output of paintings and drawings, was sixty years old. Ayrton,
then little known, was twenty-five. The young Ayrton early formed the curious opinion
that this famous artist-author-lecturer, whose life had been spent in writing, painting, lecturing, and whose pictures hung in many English and American art galleries,
was nevertheless practically unknown. For as he wrote in 1949 in his Foreword: 'The
nature of his several talents has caused Mr. Lewis to be subjected to a long conspiracy
Obviously something had to be done to correct this state of affairs; Lewis needed
publicity. A splendid start in the right direction was made with a Foreword that
preceded Lewis' own Introduction in the Catalogue of his 1949 retrospective exhibition
at the Redfern Gallery; this Foreword was an important factor in bringing Lewis' name before
a wider public; it was signed Ayrton. Next a couple of articles in the 'New Statesman', for example, 'Encounters
with Wyndham Lewis', attracted immediate attention to Lewis' weekly art criticism
in 'The Listener'; the writer of these articles was Ayrton. Still more effective action was taken to make Lewis' drawings better known,
when, on the occasion of a new edition, in 1955, of 'The Apes of God' his original
bold design of a vigorous ape striding across the cover, flourishing palette and
brushes, was replaced by a drawing of a squatting and extremely bored baboon by Ayrton. And in 1955 with his book 'Self Condemned' a useful piece of advertisement
was accomplished for Lewis, the artist, by a cover-design with the signature Ayrton.
Again in 1956 excellent publicity was given to Lewis, the draughtsman, when the two
volumes of his 'Human Age' were published with cover-designs and illustrations by
Ayrton. And so with Lewis' last novel, 'The Red Priest', once more we are given an
opportunity to appreciate the great gifts of Lewis, the designer, by a cover drawn
Another chance to further the reputation of Lewis, the draughtsman, was seized upon
with the publication in 1957 of the biography, 'Wyndham Lewis, A Portrait of the
Artist as the Enemy'. Lewis has done a number of fine self-portraits, and in some
of these portraits of the artist the enemy-trait is strikingly interpreted. Apparently it was
thought by those entrusted with Lewis' publicity that the best way to exhibit this
was to reproduce upon the cover of 'The Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy' a drawing
of a very tired recumbent Lewis by Ayrton. In each of the instances mentioned Lewis' own work could have been utilised;
but then, if this had been done, how much precious publicity would have been lost
for Lewis; or should it be Ayrton?
By the beginning of 1919 the Vorticist Year was only a memory; but a memory persistent
enough to prompt some of the ex-Vorticists to gather together a new group. And so
in 1920 we paraded in group formation a second time. There were several fresh recruits
in our ranks Charles Ginner, McKnight-Kauffer, Frank Dobson and an airman, an army
acquaintance of Lewis', John Turnbull. McKnight-Kauffer was our secretary, and arranged
the group's only exhibition at Heal's Mansard Gallery. With Ezra Pound no longer
at hand to advise in the choice of a new slogan, and for want of something better, a large
uninspiring 'X' was adopted as the group's device. This time no manifestos were issued;
our plain 'X' offered no message or new theory of art. But what could possibly be done with an 'X'? Art at the cross-roads?
'X' marks our goal? No, 'X' refused to co-operate. Group 'X' set out, but got nowhere.
'X' marked our beginning and end. Unlike Vorticism, 'X'-ism had no future. Thus the
'X'-ists have seen themselves eclipsed by the earlier Vorticists. Why was this? For
the Vorticists, like the 'X'-ists, had but one exhibition. The answer can be given
in one word - Manifesto. Group 'X' had no manifesto, consequently no leader. Not
even Lewis was willing to be known as the 'X' leader. We had only a secretary, the
American artist McKnight-Kauffer. For the lack of a manifesto we consoled ourselves with a catalogue
illustrated with wood-cut self-portraits of each 'X'-ist.
In one way Group 'X' was fortunate in not having a manifesto. If, for instance, Turnbull
had produced one, it would have caused an awkward situation in 1956 for some of the
Group to find themselves described as the disciples of two leaders, and to figure in the Tate Catalogue both as 'Other Vorticists' and 'Other
'X'-ists'. In the catalogue to the Tate exhibition of 'Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism'
it is said that Lewis had seven self-portraits in the Group 'X' show; personally,
I recall only one painting, a large head and shoulders wrapped around with a scarf; perhaps
the story of the seven heads has its origin in our catalogue of self-portraits. Among
my exhibits at the Mansard Gallery was the drawing The Wedding reproduced here, and a large painting The Cockneys which was bought by Eric Kennington. This picture was left behind when Kennington
moved from his studio. The new tenant, Julian Trevelyan, returned it to me, and I
With the termination of the exhibition at the Mansard Gallery, Group 'X' swiftly disbanded.
The 'X'-ists had produced no literature by which to be remembered; and 'X'-ism, while
it lasted, was only a collection of paintings. For this reason the Literati ignore it, and lavish their fond attention on its elder brother Vorticism this rosy-complexioned, smart lad, schooled in the notions of Cubism and Futurism,
and whose wordiness stimulates their own.
After the collapse of Group 'X' no other attempt was made by its ex-members to clothe
themselves in a new 'Ism'. McKnight-Kauffer returned eventually to America; Ginner,
Dobson and Wadsworth retired to Burlington. House and became Royal Academicians;
Lewis retreated to his studio to edit 'The Tyro' and 'The Enemy'; and airman Turnbull vanished
with the same jet-like speed with which he had flown in upon us. As for myself, I
later joined an organisation called 'The London Artist Association'; but that is
In the Tate Catalogue of 'Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism' it is stated that I signed
the 'Repudiation' of the Futurist Manifesto 'Vital English Art'. This is incorrect;
when this 'Repudiating' was taking place I had not yet met Lewis. But there is something
I do repudiate, and that is 'Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism' as it is presented in the Tate's
It might be asked, why have not any of the former Vorticist artists, whose names are
appended to the Blast manifesto, come forward to support Roberts in his 'Repudiation'?
Well, I think the answer is, that of the six painters whose names appear with mine
below this Manifesto, five are dead, and the sixth is of the sex sometimes qualified
Although by some queer oversight his name does not figure on the 'Manifesto', there
is a former Vorticist who can be said to have offered me his support; one whose work
is in Blast, who was with Lewis at the Omega, who signed Lewis' 'Roundrobin' to Fry,
and also 'The Repudiation of the Futurist manifesto Vital English Art'; the architect
I give here an extract from a letter I received from him following the Lewis retrospective
exhibition at the Tate.
29th October, 1956
I want to thank you for your great kindness in sending me the copies of your two pamphlets,
which I greatly enjoyed and also admired.
I agree with everything you say and that the whole thing is a most disgraceful ramp.
Anyhow, your booklets cheered me up a good deal, and also your two drawings the portrait of Lewis is delightful and devastating
This, I think, adds another signature to my 'Repudiation' of Sir John Rothenstein's
version of Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism.
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