Wyndham Lewis Portraits

London, National Portrait Gallery, from 3 July to 19 October 2008.

Percy Wyndham Lewis’s name will be familiar to readers of The Art Tribune, at least in the United Kingdom – but one may wonder how many people, even among the educated public, really know what he did apart from writing a book in praise of Hitler in 1931 (even though he retracted his judgement after a visit to Berlin in 1937, now denouncing the Nazis’ anti-Semitism). Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) has also been seen as a man sitting between two stools : an artist or a writer ? He had ambitions in both fields, and the National Portrait Gallery exhibition seems to justify his claim to be at least a talented portraitist. In fact Walter Sickert [1] sent him a telegram of praise after seeing his remarkable Portrait of Rebecca West in 1932, telling him that he was ‘the greatest portraitist of this or any other time’. Wyndham Lewis had met her in 1914 and published one of her short stories in Blast.

1. Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957)
Mr Wyndham
Lewis as a Tyro
, 1920-1921
Oil on canvas - 73 x 44 cm
Ferens, Art Gallery, Hull City Museums and
Art Gallery
Photo : The Estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham
Lewis : The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust

He was arguably at the centre of all the experimental movements which flourished in Britain from the Edwardian period, starting with the Camden Town Group [2] (participating in its June and December 1911 exhibitions), continuing with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops in 1913, and founding the Rebel Art Centre in March 1914 when he fell out with Fry and what was to become the Bloomsbury Group. The Rebel Art Centre gave birth to Vorticism, and Wyndham Lewis mounted the first and only Vorticist Exhibition in June 1915, before joining the Forces in 1916. Pursuing the theme of the ‘tyro’, or innocent (?) creature, he held an exhibition entitled ‘Tyros and Portraits’ at the Leicester Galleries in 1921, with little commercial success. His acerbic vision of the post-war world – and also perhaps of himself – is clearly in evidence in the forced grin of his 1920-1921 self-portrait, Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro (ill. 1). The angularity of Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro, clearly reminiscent of the cover of Blast 2, disappeared from the later (1921) self-portrait which he also offered to the public of the Leicester Galleries, Portrait of the Artist as the Painter Raphael. The excellent Exhibition Catalogue justly points out the analogy with the famous Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare, showing both side by side. Six other self-portraits on paper, 1911-1938, give an idea of the evolution of the artist’s self-perception towards respectability – by 1938 he was an established writer, a prominent member of the London literary scene, if not part of the Establishment.

2. Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957)
Portrait of Ezra Pound, 1920
Pencil - 36 x 27 cm
London, National Portrait Gallery
Photo : The Estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham
Lewis : The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust

Since his painting did not pay, Wyndham Lewis increasingly turned to writing in the 1920s – here again being attracted by the work of the avant-garde authors whom he frequented, at least for some time, notably James Joyce, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. But he did not lose his interest in portraiture, giving us elaborate drawings of Ezra Pound (ill. 2) – and finally a canvas (1939) which the Tate bought for what the Catalogue calls ‘the pitiful sum of £100’. A 1925 study in pencil of T.S. Eliot had to wait until 1938 before it was translated into a highly complex oil portrait (ill. 3) – a work with a history of controversy, since Wyndham Lewis submitted it to the Royal Academy of Arts, as a ‘test case’ he later claimed. He wanted to demonstrate that the Royal Academy was only ‘a group of small-time businessmen’ – and indeed they duly rejected his portrait [3]. James Joyce, who benefited from several fine studies on paper, did not enjoy the same privilege as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot (who had another oil portrait in 1949).

3. Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957)
Portrait of T.S. Eliot
Photo : All rights reserved

Wyndham Lewis did not of course limit himself to portraying avant-garde figures. The Exhibition has a highly-finished pencil study of the Roman Catholic author G.K. Chesterton (1932) and several images of women : literary and Society friends (notably Naomi Mitchison), mistresses (a delicate sketch of a boyish Nancy Cunard) and above all his wife, ‘Froanna’ (=Frau Anna), with two oils of 1937 in a dominant red hue which the co-curators of the Exhibition (and co-authors of the Catalogue) believe may be attributable to the beginning of the decline of his sense of vision due to damage to his optic nerves – he died almost a blind man twenty years later. For visitors interested in his writings, and especially the connection between his writings and his paintings, the Exhibition offers four showcases with his short-lived literary journals (Blast, The Tyro, The Enemy), his provocative ‘novels’ (Apes of God, a transparent attack on his former friends and benefactors, being the best-known one) – often with covers designed by himself, and a copy of the London Mercury (October 1934) showing his equally provocative ‘spread’ with ‘two dictators’ : Sir Stafford Cripps and Sir Oswald Mosley (the original drawing for the latter being now lost).

It is clear that anybody interested in the highly agitated literary and artistic life of Britain in the first half of the twentieth century will find a visit to this compact exhibition (58 portraits) rewarding – potential visitors should not be put off by Wyndham Lewis’s reputation as ‘that lonely old volcano of the Right’, as W.H. Auden once described him. If the works on show teach us something, it is that he was a far more complex – and interesting – man than his surviving image as a crass Fascist suggests.

Edwards, Paul & Humphreys, Richard. Wyndham Lewis Portraits. London, National Portrait Gallery, 2008, 112 pp. £15.00. ISBN : 978-1855143951.

Visitor Information : National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE. Phone : 020 7312 2463. Open daily, 10.00 - 18.00, Thursdays and Fridays until 21.00. Admission : £5


Antoine Capet, samedi 2 août 2008


[1] See review of Walter Sickert : The Camden Town Nudes (Courtauld Gallery, 2007-2008) on this website

[2] See review on this website of Tate Camden Town Group 2008 Exhibition

[3] In this, Wyndham Lewis was probably inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s submission of a urinal at a New York exhibition in 1917. Cf. on this website

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