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)

BLAST-pieces (1): Vortex as Storm Cone

Picking through the two issues of Blast (1914 and 1915), it’s easy to ignore the little head or tail-piece designs that occasionally punctuate the pages. But they are certainly worth a closer look. Someone may already have analysed them thoroughly, but if so I’m not aware of it.

The most recognisable is perhaps the simple Vortex symbol that appears first on the unnumbered page 9 of Blast 1, the title page of the group “Manifesto”, and is repeated on pages 12, 20 and 158. It seems obvious to me that this was not an original design, but an opportunistic use of an existing printer’s block showing a storm cone – the black canvas funnel then in standard use at coast guard shore stations to warn shipping of impending storms. (I can’t quite believe that no one has previously pointed this out. If they have, please leave a comment  and let me know.)

These cones were hoisted in conjunction with similar cylinders (“drums”) to provide a simple but flexible set of signs. A cone with point uppermost universally indicated a storm expected from the North. It is absolutely no coincidence that this image is used on page 12 directly below this declaration:

CURSE
the flabby sky that can manufacture no snow

… But ten years ago we saw distinctly both snow and ice here.
May some vulgarly inventive, but useful person, arise, and restore to us the necessary BLIZZARDS.

LET US ONCE MORE WEAR THE ERMINE OF THE NORTH.

In the “Manifesto”, Vorticism is figured as a storm from the North, a cultural movement of coldness, hardness and clarity, allied to Germanic and Slavic philosophies and in opposition to the flabby, romantic, Mediterranean blur of Italian Futurism and French Cubism. The “Modern World” is credited to “Anglo-Saxon genius” [page 39]. The English are identified as “the inventors of this bareness and hardness”, and exhorted to be the “great enemies of Romance”, whose defenders are “the Romance peoples”, especially the “romantic and sentimental” Latins [page 41]. “Rebels of the North and the South are diametrically opposed species” [page 42]. “What is actual and vital for the South, is ineffectual and unactual in the North” [page 34]. And so on.

This blast is a cold one. The Vorticist era is to be a new Ice Age, and the storm cone is the sign of its coming.

(More on other Blast tail-pieces in another post soon.)

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6 responses to “BLAST-pieces (1): Vortex as Storm Cone

  1. richardawarren December 29, 2011 at 5:23 pm

    Bugger. Since posting this I’ve noticed that Paul O’Keeffe first pointed out the storm cone reference in his biography of Lewis, of all places. Not a discovery, then. Never mind.

    • Alan Munton December 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      Richard: no need to get upset! – your account is interesting, and your illustrations fill out Paul’s words-only description (p. 157 of the biography). I have a slight story about this. William C. Wees, in his pioneering account “Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde”, published in 1972, reproduces the storm-cone on his p. 162: but he doesn’t describe it as one. He writes as if it were Lewis’s own design: “At strategic points in the magazine, Lewis printed the Vorticists’ Vortex [cone reproduced]. The image seemed so right, suddenly […], defining the quintessence of Blast and the movement it represented.” I was in Bill Wees’s Modernism seminar at McGill in Montreal in 1969-70, and I definitely recall a discussion as to whether this was a storm cone or not. Wees didn’t think so – hence the words quoted above. It wasn’t my idea, but someone else’s in the seminar; but I did agree it was a storm cone, and taught or described it as such from the mid-70s onwards. I’m pretty sure Paul Edwards thought the same in the 70s, as well.

  2. richardawarren January 1, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    Thanks, Alan! That’s charitable of you, though I’m still forty years behind the curve on this one … Interesting story. And yes, it has to be a storm-cone, and a North cone to boot. Since writing this, I’ve come across the bald assertion that the design was Wadsworth’s, apparently on no grounds other than the fact that Edward was a bit of a sailor boy. But nautical clutter doesn’t feature in his work before the early ‘twenties, so I rather doubt that. More likely, I think, that the symbolism – together with an existing printer’s block at Leveridge’s?? – was a discovery by Lewis.

    • Alan Munton January 1, 2012 at 9:56 pm

      I very much go with that conclusion: Lewis finding an already-existing printer’s block at Leveridge’s, and his realising the good use that could be made of it. (For readers: Leveridge and Co. was the Harlesden firm that printed BLAST in 1914 and 1915. There is a very interesting article by Michael Leveridge in the Wyndham Lewis Annual, vol. VII (2000), which includes a wonderful reproduction of the Harlesden Public Library’s Report for 1906 – it uses the same type as was used for the body type of BLAST; that is, for the fiction by Ford and West, and Lewis’s “Enemy of the Stars”. The company closed as recently as 1996). – Alan

  3. thelinebreak May 14, 2014 at 10:40 pm

    Reblogged this on The Line Break and commented:
    In interesting look at the Vorticist symbol that appears in BLAST. Be sure to read the illuminating comments at the end, too.

  4. Dick Russell May 15, 2014 at 2:38 am

    Yes to the suggestion that the storm cone icon is a symbol of vorticism.
    Old hat to some it seems but new to me. I was in Chapman’s BLAST issue when it came out in the 1970s in Edinburgh. I don’t remember any storm cones in that issue…maybe that was the missing ingredient!

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