The William Roberts Society
William Roberts 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 culture.
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 art.
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 that followed.
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:
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 says this:
'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 the neighbourhood.
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 of silence.'
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 by Ayrton.
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 destroyed it.
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 another story.
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 Catalogue.
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 as 'unpredictable'.
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 Frederick Etchells.
I give here an extract from a letter I received from him following the Lewis retrospective exhibition at the Tate.
29th October, 1956
This, I think, adds another signature to my 'Repudiation' of Sir John Rothenstein's version of Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism.
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