An exhibition at the Imperial War Museum North, Salford, 23rd June 2017, to 1st January, 2018


By Richard Slocombe (preface by Paul Edwards)

Published by IWM, London, 79 pages. £15. ISBN 978-1-904897-38-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

We don’t get many opportunities to see a wide range of Wyndham Lewis’s work, and this exhibition is to be welcomed. The fact of it being at the Imperial War Museum North doesn’t indicate that it focuses solely on the paintings he produced during the First World War. They are there, of course, but only as part of what is, in fact, a wide survey of his life and art. And it shouldn’t be thought that he practised only in the visual arts. Lewis was a novelist, short-story writer, dramatist, poet, journalist, magazine-editor, and much more. In some ways, I can’t help thinking that this diversity has functioned against him. It’s often said that the English don’t care too much for people like Lewis (and Sven Berlin and John Bratby, and perhaps Jeff Nuttall in more recent times) who are boisterous, often controversial, turn their hands to a variety of things, and are disrespectful of the conventions of the cultural world. People should have a place and stay in it.

Born in Canada in 1882 to a British mother and American father, who soon abandoned his wife and child, Lewis was brought up in England. After attending the Slade School of Art he wandered around Europe for a time and spent several years in Paris. He was back in England in 1908 and quickly got involved in the London art scene, forming friendships with Augustus John and Harold Gilman, and joining in with the Camden Town Group. He linked up with Roger Fry and Clive Bell, but soon fell out with them, ostensibly over a contract for decorating a restaurant, but more likely because Lewis wasn’t someone who would take easily to being dominated by anyone else. Somehow, I can’t imagine Lewis settling in with the polite bohemianism of the Bloomsbury set. He formed his own group, the short-lived Rebel Arts Centre.

In 1913 or so, Lewis was developing a style described as “geometrical abstraction”, which was partly influenced by Cubism and Futurism, and he joined with other artists like Edward Wadsworth and William Roberts, to launch Vorticism, a term invented by Ezra Pound. Movements and “isms” have never really been an English thing, and Vorticism was destined to be affected by the First World War, though it produced a couple of issues of the now-legendary magazine, Blast. Copies can be seen in the exhibition, though safely placed behind glass screens.  One of the other delights of visiting the IWMN is that the exhibition includes William Roberts’s large painting, The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel. It shows most of the personalities involved in the movement, and there’s a copy of Blast prominently displayed.

Members of the group were dispersed, the talented sculptor, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, died in the trenches, and Lewis himself  became an artillery officer and, later, a war artist. It was an experience that would affect him, and perhaps lead to his error of judgement in 1931 when he acclaimed Hitler as a “man of peace”.

Lewis retracted his earlier beliefs about the intentions of the fascists after a visit to Germany in 1937, when he could see for himself how Jews and other groups hated by the Nazis were being treated. But he certainly didn’t swing to the Left, and his 1937 novel, The Revenge for Love, dealt mockingly with those middle and upper-class intellectuals who were members of the Communist Party or fellow-travellers with its ideas and actions. Lewis never set out to make friends with members of establishments of any sort. His earlier novel The Apes of God, published in 1930, had satirised the literary world of the 1920s, and had particularly lampooned the Sitwells.

Writing became much more of a preoccupation for Lewis in the 1920s, and he edited a couple of short-lived magazines, The Tyro and The Enemy, as well as producing fiction and criticism. The first part of The Childermass, his strange futuristic novel, was published in 1928. The second and third parts were commissioned by the BBC in the early 1950s, the trilogy as a whole being called, The Human Age. Paul Edwards says that it “conjured a nightmare fantasy world of corporate consumption, compliant masses and a hell operated by a dapper devil, Sammael”.

Lewis moved away from complete abstraction in the 1930s and painted quite a few portraits, including Stephen Spender, T.S. Eliot, Naomi Mitchison, and others. He was a skilled draftsman, though his Eliot portrait caused something of an upset, and a “press furore”, when the Royal Academy rejected it. Augustus John resigned from the Academy in protest. It has been suggested that Lewis knew that it would be turned down, and deliberately submitted it to an institution he had always attacked largely to reinforce his role as a rebel. Richard Slocombe describes it as “one of the outstanding British twentieth-century portraits”.

After spending the period of the Second World War in Canada, where he and his wife lived a frugal existence, Lewis returned to London. He had been troubled with sight problems, but continued to write, and became art critic for The Listener, where he praised the work of the artists associated with the Neo-Romantic group, in particular John Minton, Michael Ayrton, and Robert Colquhoun. I was pleased to see that small examples of their work were included in the exhibition.

Lewis died in 1957, by which time he was more of an historical figure than an active presence, other than as a critic, on the English art scene. There were displays of his work here and there over the years, and I recall visiting the 2011 exhibition, Vorticism: Manifesto for a Modern World at Tate Britain in 2011. What was on show by Lewis and others still held the attention and not just for art history reasons.

The current exhibition in Salford provides a fitting tribute to someone who, in his day, managed to upset the apple-cart of the English art establishment in more ways than one. But it also shows how the best of his paintings have survived as impressive works in their own right.