Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Pantechnicon painter: Wyndham Lewis meets Denis Williams

From the October Gallery in Bloomsbury comes word of their show of work by Aubrey Williams, from their stable of artists, opening on 13 September. Much vibrant abstraction, and definitely worth a look – go here for biog and images. The circumstance that Aubrey Williams was born in Guyana reminds me to take a more considered look at the art of the remarkable Denis Williams, artist, art historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, biographer and novelist – no relation but also born in Guyana, of the same generation as Aubrey W, and also a young painter in post-war London.

Denis Williams

My copy of Evelyn Williams’s The Art of Denis Williams is still in the mail as we speak, but meanwhile there’s plenty to be found online. In passing, I’m struck by the wholehearted enthusiasm demonstrated for the young Williams and his work by the ageing Wyndham Lewis, who reviewed him twice for The Listener, and then did his best to give the young painter a leg up in the art world. Lewis’s collected Listener pieces from 1946 to 1951 are immediately accessible thanks to the invaluable work of Jan Cox and Alan Munton, hosted here (no distinct url’s for articles, but the artist A to Z is in the menu at left).

In July 1949 Lewis took a look at the work of “two coloured artists” at the Berkeley Gallery. That of Ghanaian Kofi Antubam he dismissed quickly, finding it Europeanised and saccharine, but Williams he hailed for his “most remarkable gifts” and on the strength of it asked him round for a chat:

… this descendant (as he tells me) of African slaves responds to European barbarism with enthusiasm. The ‘dark unconscious’, as Lawrence would have called it, staring at itself in the Picassoan mirror, is unquestionably a fascinating spectacle – though when I mentioned Picasso he answered, ‘It is not a case of my going to Picasso, Picasso came to Africa and to me’.

Wyndham Lewis in his later years

The whole question around modernism’s espousal of “primitivism” is now rightly found uncomfortable in several respects; we might also curl the odd toe at some nuances of Lewis’s language, though it would have been considered unusually respectful at the time, and there’s no doubt that Lewis gave generously of his time and effort to assist Williams. The young painter had been in London for three years, the first year on a British Council art scholarship and then working at the Colonial Office. In a few days’ time, he told Lewis, he would be leaving for the ‘States. Lewis promptly took the liberty of giving Williams the New York address of the academic Felix Giovanelli, a close friend of Marshall McLuhan, and wrote to Giovanelli to let him know:

Denis Williams is an extremely intelligent young man … He will not be a disagreeable contact (though I hope he will not be a socially embarrassing one) … you may by chance know a Negro artist? – you might assist him re any charitable organisation to help visiting Negroes of the student type. That sort of thing … it seems abominable for the British Council to give him one years lift, and then drop him. Guiana is no place in which to be a painter. It would be wonderful if he could stay in New York … The main fact in all this is that he is a very unusually promising artist. I hope I have not done the wrong thing in giving this young chap your address …

By late 1950 Williams was back in London, with a one man show at Gimpel Fils, which Lewis reviewed at length:

I do not wish to be guilty of what is called overpraising … but I consider Denis Williams a young man of very remarkable talent. He paints pictures the size of a pantechnicon with as little effort as the blackbird sings. But these huge canvases are not the apparently carefree vocalism of a bird, they are heavy with human import … The canvases are big because there is such a volume, such a weight, of emotion there, requiring a big receptacle into which to pour itself …

Human World, 1950

One of the three large canvases described at some length in the review was Human World (1950), since justly celebrated. Lewis found this a “parade of symbols”, focused around “pregnancy … standing for the new regenerate mankind … encompassed by human obtuseness”. The symbolism he found sympathetic but also a little problematic:

The lot of the Negro, and related to that the lot of the underdog everywhere, is, with Williams, an ever present tragedy. The word ‘Korea’ is for him a violent irritant … Williams is an existentialist, or has been greatly influenced by the teaching of Sartre. ‘Anxiety’ is a word that often recurs in his conversation: the Kierkegaardian ‘Angst’ receives a new interpretation entangled with contemporary politics. ‘Horror’ is another word obsessively frequent.
It is what Anxiety merges in when stimulated
by such symbolic names as ‘Korea’ or ‘MacArthur’.

While gently dissociating himself from Williams’s philosophies, Lewis admits gladly their stimulus to his painting.

All I have to do here is to acclaim these pictures, full of power and vitality. No one interested in what is being done in London today should fail to see them.

Human World has been so much reproduced online that I feel able to add to that accumulation here without permission. It’s an impressively humane and stonkingly powerful piece of painting, and was subsequently purchased to form the basis of the National Collection of Guyana. Today, in the aftermath of the “Windrush Generation” scandal, we might be more inclined to read the painting as an image of a migrant community confronted by an alien and industrial society. And I’m surely not alone in seeing in it clear afterimages of some of the mannerisms of the painter Wyndham Lewis?

In November 1950 Lewis tried again on Williams’s behalf, this time tugging at the sleeve of Herbert Read:

… if he is to survive he must be found a job. Because of colour this presents great difficulties. It is a pity that all this talent should be lost for no better reason than that its possessor’s skin is controversial.

In the end, Lewis helped to enable Williams to obtain a teaching position at the Central School of Art in London. He later taught at the Slade, exhibited at the ICA and went on to participate in the legendary This is Tomorrow exhibition of 1956. Later he came to feel that he was working within a culture that was not his own, and moved on to other forms of success.

For devotees of Lewis, the image of a “pantechnicon”, used by him for the hugeness of Williams’s canvases, rings a bell. In Blast, decades previously, he had characterised Ezra Pound as

Demon pantechnicon driver, busy with removal of old world into new quarters.

If we choose to apply it to Denis Williams, the description takes on a interesting new resonance. Was there, at the back of Lewis’s mind, some distant echo of Pound in Williams?

One response to “Pantechnicon painter: Wyndham Lewis meets Denis Williams

  1. edward chaney August 16, 2018 at 11:46 pm

    I included bits on Denis Williams, including the suggestion that a previously unpublished painting by Duncan Grant may have portrayed him in my epic articolo in the 2016 issue of the Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies. This is from footnote 50:
    As art critic for The Listener Lewis was generous to young artists generally, but campaigned particularly assiduously for Denis Williams, even writing to ‘Committee Man [Herbert] Read’ on Williams’s behalf; see WLA, 423-4, Rose, Letters, 500-01, 527-8, ODNB and Evelyn A.Williams’s The Art of Denis Williams (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2012). Williams’s
    best-known painting, Human World (Guyana National Collection) even hints
    at the influence of Lewis’s post-war style; see, The Art of Denis Williams, 29;
    cf. the interview (ibid., 25) in which Williams remembers phoning Lewis in
    1949 (after a positive review) and being invited the bring his paintings ‘to
    his home’: ‘He was painting his now famous T. S. Eliot [in fact the less
    famous of the two]… Lewis arranged viewings of my paintings and within a
    week I had as many as three offers of exhibitions’. On 27 October 1950,
    William Townsend writes of meeting Bernard Denvir at the Slade and then
    lunching at the British Council’s expense with Lewis, Mrs Lilian Somerville
    (the Council’s Director of Fine Art), and ‘Williams’: ‘We saw some of his
    pictures afterwards at Portland Place; they are immensely talented …’. A
    vivid portrait of Lewis follows; see The Townsend Journals: An Artist’s Record of
    his Times 1928-51 (London: Tate Gallery, 1976), 90-91. I believe Duncan
    Grant’s so-called Painting in Studio c. 1960, displayed in the Sussex and
    Modernism exhibition at Two Temple Place in early 2017, may be a portrait
    of Denis Williams. It resembles photographs of him of the 1950s, while the
    painting on the easel in Grant’s portrait resembles those illustrated in
    Williams, The Art of Denis Williams, 68-69, dating from 1958. Interestingly,
    Williams studied under Graham Bell’s one-time colleagues at the Euston
    Road School, Coldstream, Claude Rogers, Pasmore and Gowing, at
    Camberwell School of Art (from 1946-48). Grant’s portrait would likely
    have been painted before 1957 when Williams left London to take up a
    teaching post in Khartoum. Before leaving Britain he taught at the Central
    School of Art and the Slade and participated in many prestigious
    exhibitions, including This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in
    1956. In correspondence with me, Evelyn Williams agrees that the Grant
    portrait might be of her father but his other scholarly daughter, Professor
    Charlotte Williams, suggests Clifton Campbell as a more likely candidate;
    see the photograph of Campbell painting in the 1960s reproduced in Anne
    Walmsley, The Caribbean Artists Movement 1966-1972: A Literary & Cultural
    History (London and Port of Spain: New Beacon Books, 1992), 100. I thank
    both daughters for their timely assistance in this matter. At the time of
    going to press, Anne Walmsley, who is also the author of Denis Williams’s
    ODNB entry and Guardian obituary, has kindly written to say that ‘your
    arguments for its being Denis Williams are thorough and persuasive’,
    though she is less convinced by the resemblance to Williams’s work of the
    painting depicted in Grant’s picture.

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