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)

Cuthbert Hamilton: a poor little gallery

Hamilton as remembered by William Roberts

Hamilton as remembered by William Roberts

This is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, delayed only by awareness of certain inadequacy where Cuthbert J Hamilton is concerned. Cuthbert who? You know, the invisible Vorticist, the one in a hat at the left of William Roberts’s Tour Eiffel group, the could-almost-be-anyone gent sitting (wearing spats?) in one of the Rebel Art Centre photos of 1914.

'Self Portrait' 1920

‘Self Portrait’ 1920

Our biographical knowledge of Hamilton is not much further on than it was when sketched out by Richard Cork in 1974: born 1884 in India, son of a judge. At the Slade with Wyndham Lewis then taught at Clifton College. Within Lewis’s network working on decorations for the Golden Calf, at the Omega Workshops and Rebel Art Centre, signing the BLAST manifesto. Special constable during the war, founded and produced ceramics at the Yeoman Pottery in Kensington, participant in the Group X show of 1920. Skip forty years to his death in Cookham in April 1959. One painting in the Tate, one pot at the V&A.

Left to right: Hamilton, Wyndham Lewis, Kate Lechmere and Edward Wadsworth at the Rebel Art centre, 1914

Left to right: Hamilton, Wyndham Lewis, Kate Lechmere and Edward Wadsworth at the Rebel Art centre, 1914

Last year the Court Gallery came up with a small but by definition significant Hamilton show, based around a group of fairly slight drawings that had surfaced within the family. This brought a little additional information on the “missing” years: about 1919 Hamilton began to experiment with copper and wood sculpture. He married a rich insurance heiress in 1920, closed the Pottery and stopped working professionally, though continuing to draw and paint for his own pleasure. He lived in Bray, Berkshire, near his friend and collaborator, the influential art potter William Staite Murray, and became acquainted with Henry Moore.

What appears below does not pretend to any sort of comprehensiveness. But after pulling together the few scraps I can find (mostly already scattered online), it becomes clear that Hamilton was more than some posh dilettante. His work of the Group X period is particularly convincing and vigorous, and like Lawrence Atkinson, he must be counted a Vorticist after Vorticism. Some of the later work seems imitative and uncertain in comparison. What a pity he was enabled to take it easy!

Given that anything “new” in Vorticism is a major find, it’s clearly tempting to assign undated items to that period, and this has happened with some of the Court Gallery drawings. My personal doubts on that front are indicated by reassignments below. Note that titles given with images below are not necessarily original, and may have been invented by passing auctioneers. Click the images for enlargements / slide show.

To 1912


Deposition
has the feel of a student piece, so may date to as early as c1900? Passing through two owners it went to Sotheby’s in 1982, and more recently to Clevedon Salerooms.

The quirky Dancing Figures has the look of a design for Frida Strindberg’s Cave of the Golden Calf, and has been given the right date for it, 1912.

Cubism and Vorticism


The watercolour Cubist Landscape (Futurist Landscape at Court Gallery) is tentative and unresolved in my eyes; it is dated 1913. Composition (on offer at Daniel Katz Ltd) is undated, but has a far more assured quality, making it a fair comparison with Group (original lost), which was reproduced in BLAST 1, 1914. It’s not at all clear whether Composition could be the piece of the same title exhibited at the Group X show in 1920.

Vorticist Figure is dated 1913, and was offered as Vorticist Nude by Bonhams in 2009. However, the figure is no kind of nude, but clearly wears a form of Greek armour, inviting comparison with Lewis’s Timon of Athens suite. Now at Abbott and Holder, it is said to be inscribed “The (?Shower)” on the reverse. As it is no more a nude in a shower than a nude out of a shower, this has to be a mis-reading. I’d hazard “The Thrower”, but I haven’t seen the inscription.

The Group X period


According to the 1920 Group X programme, Hamilton showed five pieces (plus some pottery) at that show: The Mill, The Glass Factory, Reconstruction, Composition and Landscape. The Glass Factory is known in the form of a simplified black and white illustration (not a “woodcut” as sometimes assumed) in the programme. Composition may or may not be the item of that name already shown above. Reconstruction (in the Tate) is the one we all recognise, reproduced in all the books as the single token Hamilton.

The wonderfully vigorous and angular Self Portrait is from the process block of the drawing as contributed for the Group X programme. 1919-20 has to be Hamilton’s high point; the work is resolved, powerful and still Vorticist in spirit. Later work would not regain this peak.

Pottery


Hamilton’s work at the Yeoman Pottery can be dated to between 1915 and 1919. No details of his ceramics on show at Group X are given in the programme. Some confusion has to be possible with similar items produced at Yeoman by Hamilton’s collaborator William Staite Murray, and the fish design bowl has been attributed to both men, though Murray seems the better bet. I’m well out of my depth here, but Murray’s handling of decoration appears more fluid and calligraphic, while the chunky Vorticist human figure seems to be Hamilton’s thing. However, the attractive fish design on paper turned up among the Court Gallery material, where it was suggested to be a working drawing for a piece of pottery, which is a fair speculation.

‘Twenties abstraction


Though given dates such as “c1919”, the abstractions of curvilinear forms enclosing isolated dots invite comparison with similar features in Wyndham Lewis’s abstract drawings of the mid-‘twenties, and seem to have the feel of that period.

The untitled piece in black ink on buff paper was at Sotheby’s in 2014, where it was shown in landscape format. In the absence of any indication to the contrary, I’ve turned it 90º as it seems to me to work far better in portrait, and must surely have been intended that way. The simple black and white fan-like structure (Design) was given the date of 1919 when offered by Court on the grounds of a supposed similarity to the Group X Self Portrait above, but the resemblance is so superficial as to be meaningless, and the concerns of its forms seem to belong to a later date.

The pencil Cubist Nude was given as c1914-15 at the Court Gallery, but has a rather later feel to my mind. It has some relation to the sheet of Figure Studies in blue pastel dated (optimistically?) to 1919 by Bonhams in 2012. Design for Copper Head (dated to 1919) does seem to suggest a sculptural form, but not one that could be fabricated as it stands from copper sheet; it seems more of an imaginative visualisation than a working design. The employment of negative spaces within the face might owe something to F E McWilliam, and the whole thing has a ‘thirties loosely quasi-surrealist feel. The date must be left open.

Later work


The single sheet with three related pasted studies was split by Court and offered as Standing Nude with Vorticist Design, Figure Study and Nude with Arms Raised, all given a date of 1913-14. Other closely related sketches – titled as Dancing Figure, Female Nude, Standing Female Nude and Torso – were all dated likewise. The hollowing of the form, and the “contour” lines used to describe volumes in three of these sketches both suggest a much later affinity with the work of Henry Moore, and personally I can’t see these being made before the ‘thirties. That sort of dating was accepted by Court for the pastel Reclining Figure, the related Figure Studies and a sheet of ink Mother and Child Studies, where Moore’s influence is clear. (I can’t see any “child”, even an implicit child, in the latter, by the way.) These later drawings are mostly awkward and derivative.

I’m sure that other Hamiltons will surface from time to time. What is gathered here is a poor tribute to an artist whose later work may disappoint, but who, at his peak, was a pioneer abstractionist of real force and significance.

2 responses to “Cuthbert Hamilton: a poor little gallery

  1. jesn marc frayysse May 5, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    Would any of hamilton’s nudes shown above be available for sale?
    With thanks

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