Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

‘I drag my body over yellow stones’: the Vorticist period writings of Jessie Dismorr

l'ingenueFollowing on from my page of images by Jessie (later Jessica) Dismorr, Vorticist painter, poet and flâneuse, a new bunch of drop-down pages is available among the tabs up above (or go here and find the links) on her writings from 1915 to 1922. Here are collected all her pieces from Blast 2 of 1915, from The Little Review of 1918-19, and from the manuscript poetry collection of 1918 given to John Storrs, with her piece on Russian art for The Tyro 2 of 1922, preceded by a general introduction. Maybe someone else has done this far better, or is about to, but I’m not aware of it, so here’s my best shot.

From the psychogeography of “June Night” to the dense and breathless metaphysics of the later poems, from aphorisms on aesthetics to feminist satires on the Pre-Raphaelite woman, there is much of interest here, not forgetting the savage attacks on Dismorr in The Little Review by Margaret Anderson and Yvor Winters that knocked the stuffing out of her literary self-confidence.

“To Strangers – all my curiosity and artlessness.
To my Lovers – an eternal regret.
To my Friends – more insistent demands, the last enigma of conduct, a few gifts.”

Hannah Hoch stitches it up

And so to Hannah Hoch at the Whitechapel, on till 23 March. Despite the thousand pieces of poor GSCE artwork “inspired” by her collages, the prolific but always fascinating “Dadosophess” seems suddenly to be very much of this moment, and I found the gallery gratifyingly crowded by tall, serious young people, many in black knitwear.

Here are a few sneaky snaps of pieces that might not be easily found elsewhere online. (Forgive the grainy ‘phone images. Must get a better ‘phone …)

And a few thoughts:

  • This show is almost entirely of collages, but her paintings are often even more impressive.
  • Her early abstractions derive from a professional preoccupation with pattern and patterns – textile and crochet. Her Vom Sticken of 1917-18 is a modernist manifesto of embroidery, no less.
  • As a good dressmaker, Hoch rarely attempts to disguise the seams in her collages. You are confronted by images that first appear unified, but then promptly deconstruct themselves into their constituent parts, only to reassemble moments later. They are alive within that flicker.
  • Was she as overtly anti-racist as today’s commentaries suggest? I’m not so sure. The use of black faces in some collages seems to me to be meant more as an aesthetic jolt than as a political one. But I guess that, whatever the intention, that in itself was taking an almighty risk in ‘thirties Germany.
  • Her Album scrapbook of magazine photos is strongly reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s way of working. Except of course that Bacon, being a bloke, chucked his images all over the floor.
  • It comes as a surprise to find that she was active into the early 1970’s – from the era of Johannes Baader into that of Baader-Meinhof, in fact. Post war, she found a renewed preoccupation with abstraction; not the reductive abstraction of constructivism, but an abstraction of accretion, of self-complicating and fantastic forms.

I very much recommend this, if you find yourself in London. Far more rewarding than *ahem* Richard Hamilton at Tate Mod.

A little gallery for Jessie Dismorr

small self portraitAs we move into the centenary year of Blast, it seems like a good time to present a page of work by the uncommonly interesting Vorticist (and much else) Jessie, or Jessica, Dismorr. (To view the page, find the tab above or go here.)

So far I’ve managed to scrounge up 66 images of paintings and drawings from all periods, including what appears to be an image of James Joyce, and two likely Vorticist designs, among the papers of American sculptor John Storrs, that for all I know may previously have been overlooked.

As and when other images turn up, they will be added without announcement.

Dismorr was also a poet, and the (uncollected) texts of her Vorticist period are well worth reading – the stuff of a future page, no doubt.

Keith Douglas makes a ghost

IMG_0001I’ve been catching up with Desmond Graham’s 1974 biography of the difficult but brilliant Keith Douglas  (mentioned in passing in a recent post on Drummond Allison). Douglas was killed by an invisible splinter of shell a few days after D Day, aged 24. His Faber Complete Poems is still about, with an intro from 1987 by Ted Hughes. Hughes finds in Douglas a manly man, betrothed to Death, a poet-as-martial-artist, a Home Counties samurai, though this may say more about Hughes than about Douglas. But he does draw attention to the relentless labour with which Douglas chipped away at the rough block of his drafts, and he does rightly hail “Vergissmeinnicht” and “How to Kill” as probably the two best poems to emerge from combat in World War Two.

In his biography Graham reproduces one of the fourteen pages of drafts and revisions that went into “How to Kill”, and quotes from others. Comparison with the finished version is instructive. Here is something of the evolution of the first verse:

Under the parabola of his ball
the child turned into a man
looking in the air at the bright thing.
The ball fell in his hand; it sang
IMG_0002in the closed fist, Open, Open.
for the gift you hold is lethal

Under the parabola of his ball went
the child turning into a man
looking upwards at the thing
in the air. The ball fell: it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
behold a gift, a lethal instrument.

Under the parabola of a ball
a child turning into a man
I stared into the air at the bright thing.
The ball fell into my hand: it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
behold a lethal instrument.

As the child is turning man (and as a tennis ball is unlikely to kill), I take this as an image from the school cricket pitch; in the end the cricketer becomes the first person.

In an early version of what would become the third verse, Douglas seems to identify with the man who is to die:

I have committed sorcery
sorcerers are of the angels cursed,
for by sorcery the focus of love is diffused
so the waves of love travel into vacancy
it is sad to be a ghost.

Then a second verse is inserted which puts him at the near end of the rifle barrel:

In my dial of glass appears
the young man I have come to kill.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face. I call
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

leaps out and turns to dust
a man of flesh. I have committed sorcery,
see how my hand turns black. I am accursed
who have the focal point of love diffused
the waves of love travel into vacancy.

My hand has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh: a sorcery
achieved by fragile mechanism.
Now, my face smiling in the prism
of another, he erases me.
It is easy to be a ghost.

Suddenly there is a man of dust
the live man gone as if by sorcery,
look down, some demon, and be amused
to see the focus of women’s love diffused
the waves of love will travel into vacancy
I am the creator of a ghost
it is sad to be a ghost.

“Sad to be a ghost”; “easy to be a ghost”; “creator of a ghost”: the writer’s identity flickers between killer and killed. But the “dial of glass” and the cross hairs of the “wires” are a rifle sight, and Douglas, though he had certainly killed in battle, was a tank commander. In the final version, though narrated in the first person, it is not Douglas who pulls the trigger, as indicated by the poem’s provisional title, “The Sniper”. The poem is a dramatic conceit, not autobiography. But, preoccupied with his own death in battle, which he regarded as inevitable, does Douglas write himself in as the young man blown to dust?

The last verse introduces another theme:

As a weightless mosquito who
meets her shadow on the stone
a puffball, enclosed in my own silence
as in a glass sphere, I am gliding
towards the minute when shadow and self are one
meeting unnoticeably as insects do.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone
like a balloonist I
am borne along to die

The weightless mosquito touches
her shadow on the stone
with such an infinite
lightness, in a brief minute
my shadow & I will join
for the mosquito death approaches

The final version of this verse loses the first person voice, and death is generalised. Here is the published poem:

How to kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Self portrait 1944

Self portrait 1944

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
he smiles, and moves about  in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW.  Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the waves of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

It is remarkable how this sits fresh and effortless on the page, as if evoked whole and immaculate. It doesn’t occur to us that it was the culmination of a lengthy and painful struggle, for it doesn’t look like the result of a process of accretion. Or rather, it is as if Douglas has had to hack his way through a maze of misbegotten apocrypha, searching for the Ur-poem, stripping away erroneous associations and testing alternatives, pulling together themes that at first appeared quite disconnected, finally to uncover the poem itself as it always has been.

With “how infinite a lightness” the poem looks to have been done. “How easy it is to make a ghost”. Well, not really. It only appears to be.

Some more lost surrealists

Here’s a second batch of lesser known surrealists or quasi-surrealists, culled from a continuing trawl of the BBC’s Your Paintings site. (First batch here. More to come, no doubt.) Again, I’m keeping to the “classic” period (‘thirties to ‘fifties). Though all here lived and worked in the UK, not all were British nationals, so I’ve left the “British” out of this post. Enjoy, as they say. Click for enlargement or slideshow.

Augustus Lunn is one of the many dismissed by Michel Remy, in Surrealism in Britain, as “constitutively incomplete” – surrealists by virtue of technique alone, lacking doctrinal rigour. In Lunn’s case, this seems particularly unfair. Though with Beatrice, Lady Glenavy, Dublin aesthete, pupil of William Orpen and friend of Katherine Mansfield, we are definitely at the decorative end of surrealism. She seems to have moved from late Pre-Raph to Catholic symbolism to a sort of twee deco, but for a while in the ‘thirties, she certainly flirted with surreality. But whatever the style, her work is always highly accomplished technically. With Fergus Graham, we seem to be at the fantasy end. Beyond a show at the Lefevre in 1935, I can’t say I know much more about him.

Ditto Margarethe Garthe, who was born in 1891, lived in Beckenham, had a show at the Loggia Gallery, London, in 1972 and died in 1976. Hein Heckroth, on the other hand, was a considerable name as an art director for film and stage, well connected with the surrealist movement and with other wartime emigrés. His film work has definite Dalinian tendencies, but this portrait opts for the full bonkers effect, with tweedy military theorist and historian Liddell Hart looking splendidly out of place among the pipes, severed ears and assorted squishy objects that litter the receding desert. Thomas Esmond Lowinsky is best known as a successful purveyor of cool, classical-deco whimsy, but this fine, tight little canvas, often on show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, achieves rather more of a disturbing effect.

Poet and artist René Halkett (1900 – 1983) was a Bauhaus veteran who transplanted to Britain. Google-wise, he seems best known these days for his late collaboration with David J of the band Bauhaus, but drop his name into Google images and it’s clear that his artwork is well worth a browse, especially the earlier Dada stuff. American Charles Houghton Howard lived and worked in Britain before and after the war. His nicely clean cut biomorphism puts him at the abstract pole of surrealism, not too far from the messier and more instinctual Sam (Thomas Samuel) Haile, potter and night-time painter – the most pukka British surrealist of the lot in this selection. Remy’s chronicle rightly devotes several pages to Haile, who, he says, “aims at flaying and tearing surfaces to help vision become primary again”. Haile was a developed theorist, but his work is unsettlingly de-learned and outsiderish; it’s no surprise to find that he highly rated the work of fellow psychonauts Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff.

Drummond Allison, bulldog poet

drummond allisonFor no particular reason, time for an honourable mention of WW2 poet Drummond Allison – possibly the only baby ever to have been named after Sapper’s thuggish gentleman detective Bulldog Drummond, on account of his strikingly pugnacious physiognomy as a newborn – at least in his mother’s eyes.

Photos and recollections reveal no thug but “an extrovert, a rackety enfant terrible with tow-coloured hair” (David Wright), resembling, as another friend remarked, an “almost grown-up” Just William. His exuberance, generosity and humour coloured his poetry, which is energetic, quirky, jagged but stately, musically alliterative, telegraphic, with little concession to poetic fashion, though he had clearly absorbed Auden and George Barker among others. Here’s a personal favourite:

O sheriffs

the yellow nightO sheriffs hung with long pearlhandled guns
Showing your stars, coachditching dark road-agents,
O Pony Express on Sioux-surrounded plains,

Mushers of huskies, dudes in border towns,
Rustlers of painted mustangs down thin gorges
And tumblers out of rustler-run saloons,

O Darrell who the revolving logs defy,
O Billy caught with bacon, mad-eyed Hardin
Daring to draw each pallid deputy.

God like a lone and lemon-drinking Ranger,
Or at a far fur-station the half-breed stranger,
Them string up undecayed and stellify.

eight oxford poetsIt could be objected that the last verse suffers by the necessary inversion of “Them string up” and by the obscurity of “stellify” (turn into a star). But let’s face it, “stellify” is a cracking word. And “God like a lone and lemon-drinking Ranger” – just how good is that?

From one boyhood constellation to another passion – cricket. Of all Allison’s poems, “Verity” may be the best known, featuring Death as a batsman, and written for the Yorkshire and England bowler Hedley Verity, killed in Sicily in 1943, a few months before Allison’s own death:


The ruth and truth you taught have come full circle
On that fell island all whose history lies,
poemsFar now from Bramall Lane and far from Scarborough
You recollect how foolish are the wise.

On this great ground more marvellous than Lords
- Time takes more spin than nineteen thirty four -
You face at last that vast that Bradman-shaming
Batsman Whose cuts obey no natural law.

Run up again, as gravely smile as ever,
Veer without fear your left unlucky arm
In His so dark direction, but no length
However lovely can disturb the harm
That is His style, defer the winning drive
Or shake the crowd from their uproarious calm.

But Allison is no mere boyish, or even Boy’s Own Paper, poet. His subjects range from suburbia, class allegiance, social change and Marxism to war, death, girls and sex. Try this study of unlucky love in which every humdrum object embodies uncertainty:

Rejection Song

Now from closing car park and last bus stop start
Vehicles whose muffled passengers and drivers
Have worked out true bearings on their loved and lovers,
But explain no variation of my heart.

collectedNow admitting it my error to have thought
You the right reply to each unsure red setter,
To the query in each clockface in each clutter
Of bewildered boulders, every doubtful fort;

Every question mark that forms on spark-scorched grass,
Puzzled stares of Greenline coach and double decker,
Unconvinced old slot machines, the startled knocker
And the flabbergasted spareroom looking-glass;

Now aware not only unity and shared
Hunts for reasons and for purposes, but looking
More than most, but kissing tired and watching waking,
Are like birds that tantalise their leader snared;

Yet before the unlit fire I know my need
Of your thighs your throat your abdomen their movements,
Yet beside the dry-voiced bookcase on pale pavements
I repeat the quite incredible my creed.

Lieutenant John Drummond Allison left for the front in October 1943. Little more than a month later he was killed in the assault on Monte Camino. He was 22 years old.

A biography by Ross Davies appeared in 2009, though I can’t pretend to have read it. At the same time, Allison’s Wiki stub still consists of just four sentences. His work, sadly, is thoroughly out of print, a 1994 Collected (published by his old school in an edition of 300, and admirably edited by Stephen Benson) being his most recent appearance. Before that, we have a 1978 Poems (Whiteknights Press in a run of 200), his posthumous 1944 collection The Yellow Night, and his modest appearance in the 1941 anthology Eight Oxford Poets.

VerityLimited editions or not, none of these are at all pricey second hand – a sure sign of neglect. Of Allison’s fellow Oxford soldier poets who never returned, Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes, Douglas is now properly regarded; Keyes remains interesting but was hugely overrated at the time. Allison stands up solidly against Douglas, and is a far more important poet than Keyes, but both the latter are still in print, with Faber and Carcanet no less. A manuscript of “Verity” in Allison’s hand, on the endpaper of a Yorkshire County Cricket Club programme for 1911, turned up at Christie’s in 2004. It made £72.

His poetry demands urgent recognition. Him string up undecayed and stellify.

Great Little One


No apologies for reposting the wonderful Mother and Child, 1860, by the mad, bad Richard Dadd. (Nor for showing a golden haired Madonna and Christ child. It’s good to inculturate holy images; the only problem is when we try to impose ours as a universal.) I particularly like the red socks and sandals.

Welcome, all wonders in one sight,
Eternity shut in a span,
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth and God in man,
Great little one whose all-embracing birth
Brings earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

Happy Christmas!

Some lost British surrealists

Browsing the BBC’s Your Paintings site (every oil painting in UK public collections) is one of life’s greater pleasures. The search facility may be erratic and site navigation a tad clunky, but who cares? In among the tottering heaps of sodden landscapes, zooming Spitfires and portraits of bored vice-chancellors can be found all sorts of hidden nuggets.

Here, for instance, is my selection (click to enlarge) of “lost” British surrealists from the ‘thirties to the ‘fifties – and this is only from surnames A to C. More to come in later posts, perhaps. Surprising how many of these names are Scots. Surprising too, how little ready information there is on some of them – only two Wikipedia entries here.

To be fair, some of these painters were very much on the margins of British surrealism, or even on the margins of the margins. In some cases the vogue for surrealism seems to have offered itself to otherwise anti-modernist purveyors of illusionism as the only acceptable form of modernism. Which may be telling. What emerges here is mainly a style, characterised by a kind of cool Deco tonality.

Though John Selby Bigge exhibited at the 1936 London Surrealist exhibition, he is dismissed abruptly from Michel Remy’s rather doctrinaire Surrealism in Britain on the grounds of not being surrealist enough. (Having said that, Remy similarly dismisses John Armstrong, which is absurd.) Both Edward Baird and James Cowie usually ploughed more orthodox furrows, but were clearly seduced by the still-lives-in-low-horizon-seascapes of Edward Wadsworth. Margaret Barnard seems better known for her lino cuts, having trained under Claude Flight, while of Alexander Allan, William Baillie and William Cosnahan I can say nothing except that they were born in 1914, 1905 and 1930 respectively. The painting by Angela Baynes is certainly a portrait, but for me it shares enough of a surrealist sensibility to qualify. I know nothing of her, and this seems to be the sole painting by her in public ownership.

surrealism in birminghamSadly, it seems the latter can also be said of Emmy Bridgwater, who is the odd girl out here, by virtue both of her style – anything but cool Deco – and of her role in the Birmingham Surrealist group, usefully chronicled in the catalogue to the 2001 Surrealism in Birmingham show. I include her here as not so much lost as neglected. But her tense, quirky spikiness is worth a dozen of the dutiful pastiches churned out by her Birmingham collaborator, the hugely overrated Conroy Maddox.

Potteries primitivism: the paintings of C W Brown

c w brownAs good a time as any for a mention of C W (Charles William) Brown, labourer, miner (from the age of 12), pit manager and “primitive” painter.

After his death in 1962 aged 80, “tea chests full” of his paintings were bequeathed to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, where they were “discovered” by Potteries painter Arthur Berry, prompted by a sight of a Brown watercolour, whose intensity he much admired, in a local shop window. Berry recalled:

“I was astounded by the range of his subject matter. Everything was grist to his mill. He was never short of anything to paint. The match box on the table by his paint box would do for a subject, the paint box itself, even his fingers holding the paint brush. Every ornament in his little street house had been painted with great intensity of observation. Looking through the tea chest was a revelation. I knew that I was looking at the work of an unknown artist of very considerable power, in fact, a great naïve painter. As usual, when I came away from seeing work that had deeply impressed me, I was depressed … The way he drew the simplest domestic object revealed the essence of it. All his shortcomings as an academic painter made his work stronger. What he didn’t know had added to the power of his paintings.”

In 1981 the Museum put out a 24 page guide to “The Potteries Primitive”; I can’t pretend to have read it, nor for that matter have I ever seen a Brown painting in the flesh. But 38 of his oils are accessible on the BBC’s Your Paintings site, as well as in the Public Catalogue Foundation’s Staffordshire volume. In both, the reproductions seem extremely yellow; whether that’s down to the photography or to Brown’s varnish, I couldn’t say. Here are a few of my favourites (click to enlarge), but a browse through the whole 38 is well worth it.

In many of these, the intensity is created by an enormously rich luminosity of detail. In some, an abhorrence of vacuum is dominant, as found in many “outsider” painters. As Berry saw, Brown was clearly mesmerised by the sheer miraculous thingness of things, as revealed in their intricacy. Though he was also interested in the peopleness of people, as shown in the wonderful Woman and Child. Some local views are more prosaic and documentary, but they are offset by Brown’s versions of pleasure grounds such as Trentham Gardens and Alton Towers (in its pre-theme park days), which come across like the Plains of Heaven or the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis.

Venerable, pitiable, frightful: Mervyn Peake’s ‘Ancient Mariner’

Volume X (1944) of Tambimuttu’s Poetry London has been mentioned in an earlier post here. Besides much mediocre poetry, it contained Terence White’s remarkable “Irene”, images by Gerald White, Tambi’s perceptive review of Keith Douglas and, as a bonus, Mervyn Peake’s eight illustrations to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published the previous year. These latter, as if they needed it, were pegged onto a forgettable essay by critic and minor poet Margaret Diggle comparing the Mariner with Eliot’s The Waste Land, her thrust seeming to be that both have something to do with redemption. (Quite so. And your point is?)

detail 1

detail 2

Peake’s images are sometimes tentative, under-observed, or coyly sentimental – a failure of much “fantasy” illustration. But here he is at his most resolved and most ferociously intense. This intensity derives from the obsessive and disciplined density of his pen line, which shows extraordinary virtuosity; I particularly like the looping “scribbled” hatch that forms the sky in the first image below. In the mood of their tonality these owe something to the example of Doré, but otherwise they are very much their own vision. Elsewhere they are described as ink and wash, but I can see no signs of any wash, though white ink lines are used occasionally and judiciously. C S Lewis commented on these drawings in a much later letter to Peake, praising their “disquieting blend of the venerable, the pitiable, and the frightful”, and the sheer gracefulness of their representation of horror.

In their Poetry London reprint, the images were numbered and usefully supplied by Peake with thumbnail sketches keying them to exact lines of text, which I have used as captions. The eight drawings are available here and there online, though sometimes slightly cropped or blurred, so it will do no harm to show them again. A click on the small images will throw up enough of an enlargement (click again with the magnifier cursor) for the interested viewer to lose her/himself indulgently and entirely in the jaw-dropping intricacies of Peake’s cross hatching.

The sun came up upon the left, Out of the sea came he! And he shone bright, and on the right Went down into the sea.

The sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

... 'with my cross-bow I shot the Albatross.'

… ‘with my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.’

Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung.

Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

I bit my arms, I sucked the blood And cried 'A sail! a sail!'

I bit my arms, I sucked the blood
And cried ‘A sail! a sail!’

Her lips were red, her looks were free Her locks were yellow as gold Her skin was white as leprosy, The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she, Who thicks man's blood with cold.

Her lips were red, her looks were free
Her locks were yellow as gold
Her skin was white as leprosy,
The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she,
Who thicks man’s blood with cold.

Alone, alone, all, all alone, Alone on a wide, wide sea!

Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea!

I could not draw my eyes from theirs Nor turn them up to pray.

I could not draw my eyes from theirs
Nor turn them up to pray.

I pass like night, from land to land.

I pass like night, from land to land.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 152 other followers