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)

Lawrence Atkinson – Vorticist after Vorticism

(For a gallery of Lawrence Atkinson works, click here.)

Lawrence Atkinson is one of the more invisible of the “other” Vorticists. Even so, the 1956 Tate exhibition “Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism” included three of his works – two more than either Bomberg or Hamilton. Richard Cork’s 1974 “Vorticism and its Allies” at the Hayward pulled together no less than fourteen Atkinsons, not counting photographs of lost works. (Two Atkinson paintings will appear in the Vorticist show due at Tate Britain this June.)

Born in 1873, a decade or so before most of his fellow Vorticists, Atkinson had been a singing teacher and self-taught Fauvist painter before a conversion experience at the Rebel Art Centre in 1914. He signed the Manifesto in Blast 1 and appeared in the “Invited” room of the 1915 Vorticist exhibition. After this, his work continued with remarkable consistency through the post-war period, with a one man show of painting and sculpture in London in 1921 and a gold medal at the Milan Exhibition of the same year. In 1922 his work was the subject of The New Art by the critic Horace Shipp – in effect a generalised apology for abstraction bolted onto a monograph on Atkinson. He died in Paris in 1931. The frontispiece to Shipp shows an ascetic, formally dressed man with the demeanour of an Anglican vicar, posed in the act of chiselling at an elegant piece of Vorticist marble. The image seems to match a former student’s recollection of him as “very respectable and public-schoolish,” “very absent-minded”, but with “decided and unusual views” [1].

The obscurity of Atkinson’s work, combined with its even development, necessarily makes the titling and dating of surviving paintings and drawings problematic. Many are simply designated “Painting” or “Abstract Composition” and given catch-all datings such as “c. 1914-20”. One suspects that some dates have been pushed back in order to present a tidy impression of an earlier, Vorticist style succeeded by work that was less so. However, while there could be an element of truth in this, it may equally well be that Atkinson was still doggedly turning out work in the style of 1914 into the early ‘twenties and beyond.

Shipp’s wordy and unsatisfactory monograph does not help much here. (A late convert to abstraction, he had no understanding of Vorticism, and was usually more at home pot-boiling on the Old Masters or “Books that Changed the World”.) However, Shipp does make it clear that Atkinson’s development “led away from colour and on to form, and it was when he had been concerned almost entirely with form for some time that he realised the trend of his art and commenced experimenting seriously with sculpture as a medium.” Shipp devotes a chapter to these sculptures, the majority of which cannot date from much before 1920, and illustrates many. Most may now be lost, though one was included in the 1956 Tate show [2]. Since then they have been invisible. Richard Cork excluded them from the 1974 Vorticism exhibition, though he included Shipp’s photographs of lost paintings and drawings, presumably on the grounds that Atkinson’s sculpture is too inconveniently late to be properly Vorticist.

For a historian whose concern has been to reclaim the substantiality of Vorticism, Cork is often remarkably narrow in his definitions of Vorticist authenticity. In their rescue of the women Vorticists – Saunders, Dismorr and Shakespear – Jane Beckett and Deborah Cherry rightly pounce on Cork’s fondness for Lewisian “virility”, which leads him to conclude that “a feminine temperament was congenitally incapable of sustaining the amount of aggression needed to create a convincing Vorticist work of art.” (Though admitting this to be a “male chauvinist hypothesis”, Cork still claims it as “tenable”.) [3]

Atkinson also has suffered for his perceived lack of aggression. Cork constantly snipes at aspects of Atkinson’s work that he considers  “coolly deliberate”, “soothing, almost pastoral”, “ethereal”, “puritanical”, “unworldly”, “reflective”, “cerebral”, “bloodless” or “wan”, these being self-evidently un-Vorticist qualities. It is hard to see a great deal of this in the work itself – certainly little more than the relatively benign and optimistic tone noted in Wadsworth’s work, as compared to Lewis’s, by the reviews of 1914– an absence of anger, as Pound put it [4]. Cork emphasises the “landscape” basis of Atkinson’s The Lake (now in the Tate), and insists of another Painting (collection of the Arts Council) that “its origins as a still life remain clear”. It is, frankly, impossible to see any basis for this assertion beyond a rectangle at the base that might, superficially, be interpreted as a table top. The image could equally well represent a figure, but, like most of Atkinson’s painting and drawing, is essentially a non-representative sculptural form. But the still life tag allows Cork to condemn this work as “domestic”, so that Atkinson’s “decision to employ this sacrilegious motif is a measure of the divide separating him from the group …”

Left to right: Study of a Figure in relation to its environment; The Sky Pilot; Vital: study for sculpture

Nor is it easy to understand Cork’s assertion that Atkinson’s 1918 work The Sky Pilot is evidence that by then “he had broken away from Vorticism for ever”. (This was reproduced on the front cover of Edith Sitwell’s magazine Wheels, and so is precisely datable.) Since organised Vorticism no longer existed, this can only mean in terms of style or content. Yet in the next breath Cork concedes that “in terms both of its style and its archetypally modern subject-matter, [it] still belongs within the movement’s frames of reference.” A pretty good fit, then! In fact, Cork already has Atkinson as “a sheep half way out of his former fold” by 1915, though elsewhere he is obliged to admit the remarkable continuity of his work. It all makes for a neater story; Vorticism as a style is not allowed to outlast Vorticism as a movement [5].

Two untitled sculptures

Atkinson’s forgotten sculptures deserve a second look. There was, in fact, nothing else like them at the time, nor has there been since. They are directly rooted in Vorticist concerns, and bear no relation to the line of abstraction later pursued by Unit One, Ben Nicholson etc. Nor do they resemble the geometrised “wild body” primitivism explored by Epstein and Gaudier, who have since, by default almost, come to represent exclusively the sculptural arm of Vorticism. Only one piece, identified by Shipp as “a first experiment”, connects in that respect. The stone carving In the Beginning represents a squat, abstractly masked primal being whose anatomy has been pushed to a dry and mechanical extreme of geometry. The composition is not entirely satisfactory, but this interesting piece does hint at where Epstein’s strand of Vorticist sculpture might have arrived, had he not abandoned the project with the Rock Drill [6].

In the Beginning

In the Beginning is atypical. Most of Atkinson’s sculptures resemble Cork’s characterisation of Vorticist design as “… shoot[ing] outwards in iconoclastic shafts, zig-zags or diagonally oriented fragments.”[7] It is clear that Atkinson’s drawn and painted images increasingly came to resemble designs for sculptures, in which clustered and fractured shapes rise on a diagonal axis, often thinning out from a more crowded base, and set against a background of narrow vertical panels. Indeed, a number are authoritatively titled as designs for sculptures. From here, it was a short step to rendering such compositions as low reliefs, or as sculptural surfaces with incised lines. As the carving became deeper, the relief blocks themselves took on increased depth, and were cut out in silhouette to become two sided and free standing; a criticism of some of Atkinson’s sculptures might be that they are essentially deep profiles with unworked “edges”, and not properly three dimensional forms.

Left: Low Relief, Stone. Right: Earthbound, Sculpture in Stone

One piece illustrated by Shipp, Memorial, is captioned as a “sculpture for a cenotaph”. Shipp notes that “several of the pieces designed at this time were designed as cenotaphs,” and advocates the use of “the expressive power of some such abstract art as this … to convey in lines and masses of universal appeal an emotion which is in itself universal.” What a fine alternative, worthy of the Caliph, this would have made to the “comparative barrenness” (Shipp) of Lutyens’ abstract classicism. Here the architects would have found their Vortex indeed! Only Wadsworth’s plaster Suggestion for a Building of 1919 is comparable. Lewis explicitly recognised this in his unpublished review of Atkinson’s 1921 exhibition: “There were several designs for sculpture there, that, executed on a proper scale, would have been, in the public places of a modern city, appropriate monuments, and a welcome contrast to the obscene and idiotic rubbish that is hourly raised to commemorate and to parody some heroism.” Unfortunately, the nation was not ready for Vorticist war memorials [8].

Memorial: sculpture for a Cenotaph

In time, Atkinson‘s aesthetic philosophy underwent something of a “return to nature” [9].  In practice, this too often resulted in the introduction of gently curved edges and organic, rather than mechanical, forms that often appear limply unsuccessful, particularly when done in wood or plaster [10]. However, the vigorous, angular and delicate stone reliefs and carvings that represent the best of Atkinson’s work fulfil precisely, it seems to me, Hulme’s demand for a “new geometric and monumental art making use of mechanical forms”. They also answer to Lewis’s later definition of Vorticism as “a substitute of architecture for painting” that was “peculiarly preoccupied with the pictorial architectonics at the bottom of picture-making.” In his cenotaphs, Atkinson even begins to touch on Lewis’s broader demand for an architectural “shell” appropriate to modernity. Beyond the ideologies of organised Vorticism, in growing obscurity and up to his death, Atkinson pursued, in his own idealist way, Lewis’s injunction that “if the world would only build temples to machinery in the abstract then everything would be perfect.” [11]

L'Oiseau, sculpture awarded Grand Prix at Milan Exhibition, 1921

[1]  Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, The Tate Gallery, 1956, p 27; Vorticism and its Allies, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974, pp 29, 91-3; Alan Windsor, ed., Handbook of Modern British Painting and Printmaking 1900-1990, Ashgate, 1998, p 15; Horace Shipp, The New Art. A Study of the Principles of non-representational Art and their application in the work of Lawrence Atkinson, Cecil Palmer, London, 1922; interview with Nina Waghorn by Richard Cork, cited in Richard Cork, Art Beyond the Gallery in early 20th century England, Yale University Press, 1985, pp 201, 311. Curiously, Atkinson’s grandson Christian N Atkinson (born 1939) has recently announced that he has “taken up Vorticism full time, following in my grandfather’s footsteps”. His unworthy but well crafted Vorticist pastiches – reliefs, sculptures and “Vorto-clocks” – are self-promoted in the Saatchi Online section of that gallery’s website.

[2] Shipp p 101. The Tate show sculpture was lent by a Miss Jean Temple – the film actress of that name?

[3] Jane Beckett and Deborah Cherry, “Reconceptualizing Vorticism: Women, Modernity, Modernism” in Paul Edwards, ed., BLAST. Vorticism 1914-1918, Ashgate, 2000; Cork p 427.

[4] Ezra Pound, “Edward Wadsworth – Vorticist,” The Egoist, August 1914, quoted in Jonathan Black, Edward Wadsworth, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2005, p 23.

[5] Cork pp 156, 275, 410, 413-4. Similarly Cork pronounces that Futurism was “destined to have only a short life”, since the War “swept it away”, as if the second generation and aeropittura had never existed – a truncation also made, incidentally, in the 2009 exhibition of Futurism at the Tate.

[6] Shipp pp 102-5

[7] Cork 1974 p22

[8] Shipp pp 44, 113-4; Cork pp 538-9; Cork 543, 565. Lewis’s review was printed in a trial copy of Tyro 2 cited by Cork, and now in a private collection. Cork detects “a note of subtly veiled sarcasm” at Atkinson’s expense in this review, but it is hard to detect this in the excerpts that he reproduces, though Lewis does, with some justification, criticise Atkinson for a partial “lack of ordinary virtuosity”.

[9] Shipp p109

[10] However, Atkinson’s more organic sculptures exercised a very definite influence on the early “biomorphic” work of the painter Merlyn Evans, later to become a pronounced Lewisite. By this route the Vorticist succession was handed on to a new generation.

[11] Lewis, “Plain Home-Builder: where is your Vorticist?”, in Walter Michel & C J Fox, eds, Wyndham Lewis on Art, Thames & Hudson, 1969, p  278; Lewis, “The Caliph’s Design. Architects! Where is your Vortex?” in Michel & Fox, p 151

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