SOME PEOPLE (myself among them) have long admired the second tier of artists in Vorticism, a hybrid Cubist-Futurist group that formed in London at the start of World War I (in part in opposition to Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops).
The founders of the movement were British painter and writer Wyndham Lewis and American poet Ezra Pound, who together are also remembered as the originators of an irreverent short-lived magazine, titled BLAST, that premiered in 1914. While the fame of Lewis and Pound is well-deserved, of added interest is the work of others in the group, of whom the three most worthy may be American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, and British painters Edward Wadsworth and William Roberts. A lot is known about Coburn (thanks in part to his autobiography). Wadsworth's daughter also wrote a biography of her father, which describes his wartime service as a dock supervisor for the bizarre dazzle camouflage of ships, of which he made wonderful paintings and prints.
As for William Roberts (1895-1980), one might assume that, if anyone, he was surely a loyal and active Vorticist, if only because his best-known painting is a group portrait of eight of its members (including himself), seated at a table in a famous London restaurant called the Tour Eiffel. Three of them have copies of the first issue of BLAST, and the painting’s formal title reads The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring 1915. Unlike most “docudramas,” this painting is of value both as an esthetic achievement (regardless of subject matter) and as an historical record as well.
As it turns out, Roberts' connection to Vorticism was ambivalent at best. As detailed in this first biography, he eventually grew very spiteful of Lewis, who had let it be known without asking, that Roberts was his protege (his compliant underling), while Roberts claimed that he had made individual and important contributions to Vorticism. He made that group portrait not in 1915 (that date is part of its title instead), but, curiously more than 45 years later, in 1961-62, when Roberts was past retirement age. By that time, resigned to less than stardom, and more resentful of Lewis than ever, instead of correcting the notion that he was a Lewis disciple, he seems to have decided to capitalize on the advantage of that misunderstanding.
In earlier years, he had done whatever he could to bolster his own reputation, in the hope that he might be able to earn a better income. It is not commonly noted, for example, that it was he who made six pencil portraits (of British diplomats and military officers) and a drawing of a camel march for Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922), the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), and following that, in the same year, painted Lawrence's portrait in an airman’s uniform. Ten years later, he was commissioned by John Maynard Keynes to create a double portrait of the eminent economist seated with his Russian ballerina wife (both smoking cigarettes). He also did commissioned work for Frank Pick and the London Underground, failed miserably as a War Artist during World War II, then later made beautiful drawings for use as illustrations for his son’s poetry.
Perusing this endlessly interesting book, which includes reproductions of artworks by Roberts that most of us have never seen (there are 100 images in all), it is tempting to conclude that his most lasting works are those that are virtually unknown. He was, it seems, especially skilled at portrait drawing (see his self-portrait drawing made in 1909-10, or the red chalk portrait of his son from 1941), and his highly patterned figurative works that matured about 1930, and which slowly allowed him to settle in a lonely but exquisite harbor among Cubism, Purism, Fernand Leger, and Art Deco.—RB
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William Roberts: An English Cubist by Andrew Gibbon Williams. Burlington, VT: Lund Humphries, 2004. 154 pp., with 100 lllus. color and b/w. Clothbound, $70.00. ISBN 0-8533!-824-7.
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“[It is] a leading contemporary source book.”
“[It is] an encyclopedic presentation of a vast body of findings in camouflage…[it] opens doors to new frontiers in a number of understudied areas of art and military history.”