The Great London Vortex: Wyndham Lewis and his Contemporaries

Symposium on European Modernism, 1895-1935

Professor Paul Edwards, Bath Spa University

16 October 2010

The following essay is by the Convenor for Literature and Humanities, Dr Robert Blackburn. It is partly based on a visit to the Tate Britain exhibition The Vorticists, 14 June to 4 September 2011, and includes much detail and information well beyond that given in the lecture.

I

Wyndham Lewis was, of course, a near or exact contemporary of Pablo Picasso, Bela Bartok, James Joyce and Igor Stravinsky, all of whom became, after relatively conventional starts, major, formative figures in the modernist movement in the arts. Lewis was always first and foremost a visual artist, in his own mind, but he was also a writer and critic from the beginning, and a vigorous, articulate polemicist. He was also a near contemporary of another central figure in the modern movement. It’s arguable that the short-lived Vorticist ‘movement’ could never have developed far without the influence and impact of Ezra Pound – poet, critic, and translator, 1885-1972.  Although born in Hailey, Idaho, Pound spent the critically important years 1908-1920 in London, after which he moved to Paris, and then (1924) Rapallo in Italy. Pound had been a great admirer of his compatriot James McNeill Whistler (d.1903). In the formatively significant years before the Great War began, he had been closely involved artistically with the philosopher and authoritarian T.E. Hulme (killed at the Front in 1917), Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brszeska, and several other figures working in England at the time. Pound’s activities, alongside those of Lewis, led to the formation of the Rebel Art centre, in direct conflict with and opposition to the ethos of Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop and two very important Post-Impressionist exhibitions held in London in 1910 and 1912.

The arrival of the Futurist artists in London took place simultaneously with Fry’s epoch-making exhibitions, and it was the appearance of these figures, led by F.T. Marinetti (1876-1944), a rich man and an impresario and polemicist himself, which seemed like a clarion call to Pound and his associates. There is no doubt that London artistic life became sharply more polarised and factional in these crucial years.   Perhaps inevitably, a serious intolerance and lack of generosity of spirit was in the air, even an uncontrolled irrational fanaticism. Feelings ran high about the directions in which art was travelling, as well the relationship of the present to the past.

Pound invented the term ‘Vortex’ for his own modernist aesthetic, as applied to the artists he approved of in 1913-1914, and thus the term ‘Vorticism’ is rightly credited to him. The emphasis from the start was on the machine, and on science.  Hulme had been developing his own ideas on similar lines in his essay Modern Art and Its Philosophy (Quest Society, London, 22 January 1914) where he distinguished between two kinds of art, Geometrical and Vital, which in his view were completely distinct. The new art was geometrical, while ‘the art that we are accustomed to’ as Hulme put it, is ‘vital and organic’. Geometrical art had appeared in earlier times and in other cultures (Egyptian, Indian, Byzantine), he argued, and in the present age (1914) he felt that the Renaissance humanistic attitude was coming to an end. In taking this view, Hulme was influenced by the German art historian Wilhelm Worringer and his treatise Abstraktion und Einfuhlung (Abstraction and Empathy, first published in 1907) and its adumbration of the tendency to abstraction, described by Hulme as ‘ a feeling of separation in the face of outside nature.’

Pound as a young man circa 1912

Pound described the Vortex as ‘the point of maximum energy’. ‘It represents’, he said, ‘in mechanics the greatest efficiency. We use the words ‘greatest efficiency ‘in the precise sense, as they would be used in a textbook of MECHANICS (his capitals).   (BLAST, issue no. 1, June 1914, page 153). Wyndham Lewis, keen to distance himself from both the Futurists and the Cubists, said about the term Vorticism that ‘you think at once of a whirlpool. At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place, where all the energy is concentrated, and there at the point of concentration is the Vorticist.’ Lewis’s strident, complex, arrogantly assertive and aggressive statements are set out in Issue No. 1 of BLAST (June 1914), which made him famous throughout the art world overnight. On is headed Long Live the Vortex, filled with what Lewis called ‘vivid and violent ‘ideas, of which BLAST was intended to be a channel into the public conscious ness. The second is headed simply MANIFESTO, and strives even harder to be aphoristic, paradoxical and uncompromising, It is very much about England and English mores, damning English complacency and snobbery, but also asserting that this is why England produces good artists from time to time. Typical of the MANIFESTO is the following, from Section VI: The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius --- its appearance and its spirit

1.     Machinery, trains, steamships, all that distinguishes externally our time, came far more from here than anywhere else

2.     In dress, manners, mechanical inventions, LIFE, that is, ENGLAND has influenced Europe in the same way that France has in Art

5.    Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke (Section VI)

And

The nearest thing in England to a great traditional French artist is a great revolutionary English one (Section VII, 10)

The Manifesto is signed by eleven people, in alphabetical order, but including Lewis himself, Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brszeska, William Roberts, Cuthbert Hamilton, Edward Wadsworth, Jessica Dismorr, Helen Saunders and Lawrence Atkinson, as well as the pictorialist photographer Malcolm Arbuthnot (1877-1967) and the writer Richard Aldington (1892-1962). Jacob Epstein, David Bomberg and the American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, who were associated for a time with Vorticism, were not signatories to the 1914 Manifesto, nor was Pound’s wife Dorothy Shakespear.

There was only one further issue of BLAST, which appeared in July 1915, and was labelled WAR NUMBER. While the first issue of BLAST had a plain pink cover designed by Wyndham Lewis, the second featured one of Lewis’s new Vorticist woodcuts, Before Antwerp, 1915. He wanted to be the presiding spirit; the others always seemed to see him as such, but in the end had their own, separate aims and agendas.

Wyndham Lewis in 1913                                                        

II

On 5 June 1915, Henri Gaudier-Brszeska was killed at Neuville Saint Vaast in France, at the age of only 23. Widely regarded as one of the most gifted of the group of Vorticists, Gaudier Brszeska’s death was intensely mourned by all the other artists, notably by Lewis himself, and by Pound. The young Frenchman had begun work on his Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound in January and February of 1914. It was featured in the 2011 Tate Britain exhibition, and is one of Gaudier-Brszeska’s finest sculptures. H.S. (Jim) Ede bought many of Gaudier-Brszeska’s works following the death in 1925 of the artist’s mistress Sophie Brszeska. Ede’s 1931 biography Savage Messiah (Heinemann, London) formed the basis of one of Ken Russell’s more deeply felt films, which had a screenplay by Christopher Logue, and sets by Derek Jarman.

In June / July 1915, the First Vorticist Exhibition (and in effect the last in Britain until 1956) was held at the Dore Galleries in London, in the immediate shadow of Gaudier- Brszeska’s death. Lewis painted three abstract panels at this time for a Vorticist room in the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel in London. The First Vorticist Exhibition contained work by Jessica Dismorr, Frederick Etchells, Henri Gaudier-Brszeska, Wyndham Lewis, William Roberts, Helen Saunders, Lawrence Atkinson and Edward Wadsworth.  Also included by invitation from Lewis were artists who were not signed-up members of the group. They were Bernard Adeney, David Bomberg, Duncan Grant ( an important member of the Bloomsbury group, of course), Jacob Kramer  and Christopher (C.R.W.) Nevinson.

War broke out in August 1914, and affected British artists in these ways:

  • 4 August 1914 C.R.W. Nevinson joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. He later became an Official War Artist.
  • November 1915 David Bomberg joined the Royal Engineers.
  • April 1916 William Roberts enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner, and served on the Western Front.
  • April 1916 Wyndham Lewis volunteered as a gunner and bombardier, entering the Cadet Artillery School, Exeter.
  • June 1916 Edward Wadsworth served with British naval Intelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
  • Jessica Dismorr did voluntary work in France for most of the war.
  • An Exhibition of the Vorticists, organised by Pound and the philanthropist / collector John Quinn, was held at the Penguin Club, New York from 10 January to 1 February 1917.
  • May 1917 Lewis left for the Western Front to serve in a siege battery.     Jacob Epstein enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers.
  • December 1917 Bomberg and Lewis transferred to the Canadian Regiment as War Artists.
  • 1917-1918 Edward Wadsworth, as a Lieutenant in the R.N. Volunteer Reserve, supervised dazzle camouflage for English warships in Bristol and Liverpool.
  • 1918 The Canadian War Memorials Fund commissioned paintings from Etchells, Nevinson, Roberts and Wadsworth.

In February 1919, Wyndham Lewis held his first solo exhibition at the Goupil Gallery in London. Pound was still arguing that Vorticism was alive in The Little Review in March 1919, but the article was actually entitled The Death of Vorticism. In March, Edward Wadsworth held his first solo show of woodcuts and drawings at the Adelphi Gallery, while in the summer of 1919 the Omega Workshops of Roger Fry closed, and the planned BLAST issue No. 3 was abandoned. Finally, in march-April 1920, the Exhibition of Group X, organised again by Lewis, was held at the Mansard Gallery in London. His own works were included, together with pieces by Etchells, Roberts, Wadsworth, Cuthbert Hamilton, and Jessica Dismorr. However, the show also included work by ‘outsiders’ such as Frank Dobson, Charles Ginner, Edward McKnight Kauffer, and John Turnbull. Lewis stated firmly in his preface to the Catalogue that Vorticism was finished.  As if to emphasise this, Ezra Pound, having published Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, which quickly became one of his best-known poems, moved to France with his wife Dorothy Shakespear, and allied himself with the Dadaist movement in Paris.  A solo exhibition of paintings and drawings by Wyndham Lewis was held at the Leicester Galleries, London in April 1921.

III

What follows now are brief details of Vorticists who, decades later, appeared in William Roberts’ celebrated painting of 1961-62, The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915, now in the possession of Tate Britain, along with a large number of Roberts’ other pictures. This famous work, which is 183 cm X 213.5 cm, stood at the entrance to The Vorticists exhibition of 2011 (which had been shown in Venice and New York previously) and was seen by visitors arriving at the show, and leaving it. It can be viewed on: http://www.users.waitrose.com/~wrs/eiffel.html

In Roberts’ picture, the core group is sitting round a square table at this restaurant, at 1 Percy Street, W1. This gathering place was patronised by Lewis and Pound, of course, but also by Augustus John, Nancy Cunard, T.E. Hulme, F.S. Flint, and many other literary and artistic people. The seated figures in the foreground are, from left to right:

Cuthbert Hamilton; Ezra Pound; William Roberts (the artist, his hands on a copy of BLAST No.1); Wyndham Lewis (dominant in heavy coat, scarf and hat); Frederick Etchells (holding a copy of the first issue of BLAST); Edward Wadsworth.  Standing in the doorway are Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders. Helen is also clutching a copy of BLAST No.1. Henri Gaudier- Brszeska and Lawrence Atkinson are absent, as is Dorothy Shakespear. On the right are the waiter (Joe) and the Manager of the Tour Eiffel, Rudolph Stulik. We do not know what impulse led William Roberts to paint this now celebrated group portrait, but at the time he did so, the only survivors apart from himself were Etchells, Ezra and Dorothy Pound, and Helen Saunders. Perhaps Lewis’s death in 1957 had released some inhibition in Roberts to make a permanent record of that distant time.

 

Cuthbert Hamilton (1885-1959)

Hamilton, a Slade School of Art graduate, was a friend and colleague of Wyndham Lewis. He was initially part of Fry’s Omega Workshops, but after the row between Fry and Lewis, Hamilton moved away from Omega, and with others, joined with Lewis in starting the Rebel Art Centre. He signed the Vorticist manifesto, and contributed to BLAST No.1. Later, Hamilton exhibited with Group X (1920) but closed his Yeoman Pottery, Kensington (opened in 1915/16) also in 1920,and gave up painting. No works by Hamilton were included in the 2011 Tate Britain Vorticists exhibition.

 

Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

It is hard to overestimate the significance and influence of the American, who left the USA for Europe in 1908. In the years before 1914, Pound founded the Imagist school of poets, with F.S. Flint, Richard Aldington and Hilda Doolittle. Pound was also T.S. Eliot’s friend, adviser and mentor and was absolutely critical to the eventual form taken by The Waste Land (1922).  After Pound had married Dorothy Shakespear (q.v. below) in 1914, the couple left London , first for Paris (19200 then for Rapallo (1924). Throughout these and later years, he worked on the Cantos, his chief claim to fame. Drifting into anti-semitism and support for Mussolini, Pound broadcast over Italian Radio during world war 2, and was inevitably arrested by the American forces in 1945. His tragic final decades were overshadowed by these events, though he was released in 1958, and lived on until 1972.

 

William Roberts (1895-1980)

Roberts was born in Hackney, the son of an Irish carpenter and his wife. He studied at the Slade on an L.C.C. scholarship, from 1910 to 1913, joining Roger Fry’s omega Workshops for three mornings a week. Though a member of Lewis’s Vorticist group, Roberts later said that he preferred to describe his work as ‘Cubist’. He became an accomplished War Artist, having served in France in 1916, and his commission The First German Gas Attack at Ypres (1918) ia a graphic description of war inaction, now in the National Gallery of Canada.

After 1918, Roberts turned to portraiture and illustration, had a solo exhibition in Chelsea in 1923, and taught at the Central School of Art until 1960, working briefly as a War Artist again from 1939 till 1942. He was greatly angered when, in 1956, the Tate, then headed by Sir John Rothenstein, mounted an exhibition under the title Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, in which all the other artists were presented as completely subservient to Lewis.  In addition to blaming Rothenstein for this, as he saw it, serious distortion of the truth, Roberts took animus against Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), then at the height of his pro-Lewis adulation. Lewis, of course, died the following year, 1957. In that year Roberts published Some Early Abstract and Cubist Work, 1913-1920, in an attempt to redress the balance. The fascinating Preface to this can be found on the web at: http://www.users.waitrose.com/~wrs/vorticismsyear.html

Roberts was elected a full member of the Royal Academy in 1966, having been an Associate from 1958. Tate Britain has very large holdings of works by Roberts. 117 of these were taken in lieu of Inheritance Tax after the death of his son John David Roberts in 1995, William’s wife Sarah Kramer having died in 1992.

Apart from the big Tour Eiffel group portrait, only two works by Roberts were shown in the 2011 Tate Britain exhibition. They were a pencil drawing Study for St George and the Dragon (1915) and the brilliant, moving study for the lost painting ‘Two Step’ (pencil, watercolour and gouache on paper).

 

Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957)

Lewis was, despite later comments about his role, the driving force behind the short-lived Vorticism movement in 1914-15, always remembering the vital part in all this played by Ezra Pound. There was no doubt, either, that the avant-garde, geometrical manner which characterised the Vorticist style had its own validity, or that remarkable talents like David Bomberg, who always distanced himself from the group, nevertheless owed something at that time to the general style. Lewis the artist and Lewis the writer went hand in hand. Clearly a gifted portraitist, perhaps one of the most gifted of his time, his achievement in that area paralleled the development of his critical and fictional writing through the 1920-1950 period. Many readers of this will recall the splendid Wyndham Lewis Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 2010, curated by Paul Edwards (Bath Spa University) and Richard Humphreys (Tate Britain).

Lewis’s reputation, sadly, fell away during the 1930s because of his support, first, for the British Fascist movement, and then for Hitler, and he never benefited during his later years from the revival of interest after 1945 in the other key figure s of the Modernist movement in literature, Eliot, Joyce and, to some extent, Virginia Woolf. Always belligerent, he became known as ‘The Enemy’, after a short-lived periodical he had founded in 1927, and which ran for three issues. By the time of his death on 7 March 1957, Lewis was largely a forgotten figure to the general public.

Readers are referred to a short piece in The Vorticists catalogue (Tate Publishing, 2011) by Anna Gruetzner Robins, entitled ‘Reforming with a Pick-Axe’: the First Vorticist Exhibition at the Dore Galleries in 1915’ (pp. 59-65)

Works by Lewis in the 2011 Tate Britain exhibition were, in chronological order:

Anthony (1909), pen and gouache on paper; Architect with green tree (1909), gouache, pen and ink on cut and pasted papers; Design for Programme Cover - Kermesse (1912), pen and ink on paper; Drawing for Timon (19120, pen, oil and watercolour; The dancers (1912), ink and watercolour on paper; Timon of Athens, Act 1. Banquet Scene (1912), pen, ink and watercolour on paper; Two Women (1912), pencil, pen, ink, wash, gouache and collage on paper; Planners: Happy Day (1912-1913), pen, gouache and pencil on paper ; Composition (1913), pen, watercolour and  pencil on paper; Protraction (1913), pencil, crayon,   watercolour on paper; Timon of Athens(1913)pencil, pen, ink on paper; Timon of Athens (1913), portfolio of 16 lithographs and process engravings; Arghol (1914), pen, ink and wash on paper; The Crowd (1914-15), oil and pencil on canvas; Workshop (1914-15), oil on canvas. These last two are very large works, two of Lewis’s biggest pictures.

 

Frederick Etchells (1886-1973)

Etchells was a Newcastle-on-Tyne man. He joined the Rebel Art Centre with Lewis, but did not sign the Manifesto.  He appeared in Roberts ’famous portrait of the Vorticists, yet also remained on friendly terms with Roger Fry. Later on, Etchells translated Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture and his Urbanisme, having moved towards architecture in his interests, and in later life became a church and conservation architect, and friend of John Betjeman.  Progression (1914-15), The English Comedian (1914-15) and Composition (Stilts) (1914-15), all works on paper, were in the Tate 2011 exhibition.

 

Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949)

Many would say that Wadsworth, with Roberts and Lewis himself, was the most gifted of the original Vorticists. He was a Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire man by birth, beginning as an engineering student, then turning to art. Wadsworth provided a review of Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) for BLAST No. 1. Enlisting in the navy in 1915, he joined the RN Volunteer reserve, and, invalided out in1917, designed dazzle camouflage for Allied ships. He never lost his fascination for all things nautical. There were many examples of Wadsworth’s black-and-white woodcuts on paper in the 2011 exhibition, notably Newcastle (c.1913), Cleckheaton (1914) and Rotterdam (1915). A gouache on paper by Wadsworth with the title Abstract Composition may be compared with Helen Saunders’ Study for ‘Black and Khaki’ of the same year (Catalogue Nos 20 and 21).

Platelayers’ Sheds: Woodcut by Edward Wadsworth

 

Jessica Dismorr (1885-1939)

Jessica Dismorr came from a wealthy family, and never had to earn her living. She studied at the Slade, then Etaples and Paris. Returning to London, she had a studio in King’s Road, Chelsea,and visited France frequently. Jessica practised sexual freedom, and was, in one view, and example of ‘the new woman.’ Her relationship with Lewis was always difficult (he may or may not have been her lover) but Walter Sickert liked this temperamental lady enough to propose to her twice, o both occasions unsuccessfully. She exhibited with the Vorticists in 1915, signed the 1914 Manifesto, and her work featured in the Penguin Club exhibition in New York in 1917. Two of Dismorr’s works appeared in the Tate Britain 2011 show: Edinburgh Castle (pen and watercolour on paper (1914-15) and an Abstract Composition (1915, on wood) bought by the Tate in 1968. Jessica Dismorr took her own life in august 1939. She was 54.

Jessica Dismorr Abstract Composition 1915

 

Helen Saunders (1885-1963)

Ealing-born, Helen Saunders studied at the Slade (1906-7) and then at the Central School of Arta and Design. A non-figurative artist, she signed the Vorticist Manifesto, and exhibited with them in June 1915. In later years, Helen Saunders, who died accidentally at home in Kilburn in 1963, aged 77, turned back to realism, but had little commercial success. Six attractive Vorticist works by her, all works on paper, were on show at the 2011 Tate Britain exhibition. They were; Island of Laputa (1915), Abstract Composition in Blue and Yellow (c.1915), Canon (c.1915), Dance (c.1915), and Study  for Black and Khaki (c. 1915).

 

NOT INCLUDED IN WILLIAM ROBERTS’ GROUP PORTRAIT (1957):

Henri Gaudier-Brszeska (1891-1915)

Born near Orleans, the son of a carpenter, Henri Gaudier came to London in 1910, aged nineteen, with no formal training. He annexed the surname of Sophie Brszeska, a Polish writer in her late thirties. They had met in Paris, but never married. Gaudier-Brszeska, an anarchist early on, met Pound and Lewis, and became a member of the London Group. At first he had been influenced by Rodin, but from 1912 the main influence on his sculpture was Jacob Epstein. Non-European art in the British Museum and the V & A also influenced him profoundly; these included Japanese Netsuke and West African and Pacific art. He was very poor, but greatly loved and admired by the other Vorticists.  From the moment they met in July 1913, Gaudier and Pound were good friends. The friendship developed as time went on, influenced by the deep impact of Dora Marsden, editor of The New Freewoman (June-December 1013) and The Egoist (January 1914-December 1919). The background here is the egoist philosophy of Max Stirner, whose 1844 work on this subject appeared in English translation in 1907 (see Mark Antliff’s important article Sculptural Nominalism /Anarchist Vortex: H. Gaudier-Brszeska, Dora Marsden and Ezra Pound, in The Vorticists catalogue, Tate Britain, 2011, pp.47-57).

In 1937, Lewis wrote:

‘Gaudier has been written about under the heading ‘Savage Messiah’. (but) to be brave is not to be savage, not what the French describe as exalte and that he certainly was messianic. He was gentle, unselfish, and excitable, and probably struck some people as fiery, uncouth and messianic. No artist so fine as Gaudier could be a Messiah, as a matter of fact.    Messianic emotionality and Art are incompatible terms. But the stones that he carved are there to prove that Gaudier was a placid genius, of gentle and rounded shapes, not a turbulent or ‘savage ‘ one at all.’ Wyndham Lewis: Blasting and Bombardiering (1937) pp.108-9

Apart from the Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound (1914), (see above), which was on loan from the NGA in Washington, the following nine works by Gaudier-Brszeska were on display at the 2011 Tate Britain Vorticists Exhibition:

Crouching Fawn, in Bath stone (1913), Singer in Derby stone (1913), Red Stone Dancer, in red Mansfield stone (1913), Doorknocker, in brass (1914 Duck, in marble (1914), Fish, in bronze (19140, Green Stone Charm, in Irish marble (1914) Ornamental Torpille, in brass (1914) and The Imp , in alabaster  (c.1914)

 

Dorothy Shakespear (1886-1973)

Dorothy Shakespear was the daughter of the novelist and socialite Olivia Shakespear, and a Harrow-educated barrister Henry Hope Shakespear, from whom she learned to paint.  Having met Ezra Pound in 1909, she married him in 1914, when she was 28, and Pound 29. As mentioned earlier, they moved from Paris to Rapallo, Italy in 1924, where they lived in a ménage –a-trois with Pound’s mistress, Olga Rudge. Dorothy did not finally leave Pound until the 1960s, having seen him through his imprisonment for treason and incarceration in the U.S.A. Pound died in 1972, and Dorothy the following year.

Four works by her were included in the 2011 Vorticist’s exhibition; all of them works on paper. They were: Composition in Blue and Black (1914-15), Untitled (c. 1914-15), Untitled (Abstract Composition) (1914-15) and Cover design for a Catholic anthology (1915).

 

Lawrence Atkinson (1873-1931)

Atkinson was the oldest of the 1915 Vorticists. He had two works included in the 2011 Tate exhibition, which were as follows:  A small Abstract Composition (1915) in ink, crayon and watercolour, and Abstract (c.1915-20), a much larger oil on wood work, which is in the Arts Council Southbank Centre.

 

OTHERS WHO WERE NOT FORMALLY MEMBERS OF THE VORTICIST GROUP

Jacob Epstein (1880-1959)

Epstein was a New Yorker, born of Polish refugee parents, who was later taught by Rodin in Paris, settling in London in 1905. In his long and distinguished career, Epstein shocked as many as he delighted by the boldness and frankness of his sculptures. He was never a fully-fledged Vorticist. The first large exhibit in the 2011 Tate Britain show is a reconstruction by Ken Cook and Ann Christopher (made in 1973-4) of Epstein’s 1913-15 Rock Drill, a large tripodic structure of polyester resin, metal and wood This imposing piece, 205 cm X 141.5 cm , stood in the first room, accompanied only by enlarged pages from BLAST No.1. 

There was also a Female Figure (1913) and a Female Figure in Flenite (also 1913).  Two further figures by Epstein were Birth (1913-14), and another, larger, undated Birth, and a very tall marble Venus of 1917, which can be compared conceptually with Gaudier-Brszeska’s much smaller, wooden Portrait of Ezra Pound (n.d.) ; this last work was shown in the U.S.A. only, not at the Tate.

 

David Bomberg (1890-1957)

Bomberg was arguably one of the most naturally talented artists of his generation, and a true draughtsman. He was a Birmingham man who, like Epstein in New York, was born into a Polish refugee family. Bomberg was influenced by Sickert at the Westminster School of Art (1908-10) and by Roger Fry’s 1910 exhibition. Later, he went to the Slade School of Art, helped by the American society painter J.S. Sargent and the Jewish Educational Aid Society, and studying there at the same time as Rosenberg,  Gertler,  Nash, Spencer,  Nicholson and others - a distinguished group indeed. Five of his works appeared in the London Group’s exhibition in 1914, but Bomberg could not endorse the Groups Manifesto. He said at the time ‘I regret everything in painting that is not Pure Form.’ His later career as a teacher was actually very notable, but his exclusion from the schools of art in London was baffling and tragic. He died in poverty. Bomberg was furious when he was included by Rothenstein in the 1956 Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism exhibition at the Tate Gallery.

David Bomberg  The Mud Bath

Three Bomberg works appeared in the 2011 Tate Britain exhibition. These were Abstract Composition, paper and watercolour (c.1914), the large and very impressive The Mud Bath (1914, bought by the Tate in 1964, seven years after Bomberg’s death) and a study for the same (gouache and pencil, 1914)).

 

C.R.W. Nevinson  (Christopher Richard Nevinson) (1889-1946)

Nevinson went to Uppingham School, and later (inspired by Augustus John’s work) to the Slade. He was influenced by both Marinetti and Lewis, but fell out with the Lewis circle, and was never a full Vorticist.  Nevinson’s war service (with his father in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit) changed him forever, and after home service with the Royal Army medical Corps, he became an official War Artist. Sadly, Nevinson was a boastful and difficult man, and fell out with many people, including fellow-artists. Two small works by Nevinson appeared in the 2011 Tate exhibition, both of them made in 1916. They were Marching Men (pastel on paper) and Returning to the Trenches (etching), both of them on loan from the Imperial War Museum.

 

Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966)

The American photographer Coburn was a friend of Ezra Pound, and his experimental vortographs (triple delayed exposure images) appeared in a Camera Club exhibition in new York in 1917, entitled Vortographs and Paintings by Alvin Langdon Coburn. Fourteen of Coburn’s images, both photogravures and gelatin silver prints, were on display at the 2011 Tate Britain show. All dated from 1913-1917, and included images of Pound, Lewis, Epstein and Wadsworth.

It might be best to let Lewis have the last word, as, in his lifetime, he usually did. He introduced the figure of the Tyro, or an ‘elementary person: an elemental’ as he put it, and started a periodical in 1921 with this title. The tone of voice of this extract is characteristic:

‘Abstraction, or plastic music, is justified and at its best when its divorce from natural form or environment is complete, as in Kandinsky’s expressionism, or in the experiments of the 1914 Vorticists, rather than when its basis is still the French Impressionist dogma of the intimate scene. Prototypes of the people who affirm and flourish this new taboo of ‘pure’ art, which is not even PURE, will in twenty years’ time be reacting obediently against it. Twenty years ago, ‘art for art’s sake’ was the slogan of the ancestor of this type of individual. Our present great general movement must be an emancipation towards complete human expression; but it is always liable in England to degenerate into a cultivated and snobbish game.

 

'My Tyros may help to frighten away this local bogey.’  Wyndham Lewis: From Tyros and Portraits: introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition of his own work - Leicester Galleries, London, April 1921.

 

A SHORT BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Mark Antliff and Vivien Green: The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World - Tate Publishing 2010
  • T.E. Hulme ed.; Herbert Read; Foreword by Jacob Epstein: Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art - Routledge 1924,2nd edition 1936, reprinted many times, reissued 1987
  • Wyndham Lewis: Blasting and Bombardiering: An Autobiography, 1914-1926 - John Calder, London 1937, reprinted 1982
  • Richard Humphreys, John Alexander and Peter Robinson: Pound’s Artists:  Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts in London, Paris and Italy - Tate Gallery, 1985
  • Helen Carr: The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, HD and the Imagists - Cape, 2009
  • Richard Cork: Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, 2 vols - Gordon Fraser, London 1976
  • Paul Edwards: Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer - Yale U.P., 2000
  • William Roberts: Five Posthumous essays and Other Writings (for William Roberts and Vorticism’s Year) - Valencia, 1990
  • Andrew Gibbon Williams: William Roberts: An English Cubist - Lund Humphries 2004
  • And the following reviews of Tate Britain’s 2011 exhibition ‘The Vorticists’
  • Andrew Lambirth: Artistic Rebellion - Spectator, 9 July 2011, pp. 47-50
  • Adrian Hamilton: Art that goes back to the futurist - The Independent, 13 June 2011
  • Craig Raine: The Biz of the Buzz - Guardian Saturday Review, 28 may 2011

Text by Dr Robert E. Blackburn, 5 December 2012