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)

Tag Archives: Blast

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 forty years ago: within Wyndham 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.

So on a new page (click here, or find the tab up top) are all the works by Hamilton I can find, put critically into some sort of chronological order. It’s not much, but some of it is excellent stuff …

Flânerie and loss on the 43 bus: Jessie Dismorr and Rosemary Tonks

‘It is possible that we are being led by different ways into the same prohibited and doubtful neighbourhood.’

Jessie Dismorr, ‘Promenade’, 1915

Jessie Dismorr by Wyndham Lewis, 1922

Jessie Dismorr by Wyndham Lewis, 1922

The new Flashpoint online magazine has a useful piece by Francesca Brooks on Jessie Dismorr, Vorticist painter, poet and flâneuse, whose artworks and writings can be found extensively on my pages up above. Brooks focuses pretty much entirely on Dismorr’s two urbanist prose poems published in 1915 in Blast 2. Her tie-in of Dismorr with Guy Debord and the dérive is apt and necessary; we can easily overlook the romantic roots of situationist thought, and the dérive is derived from Baudelairean flânerie. Brooks’s bracketing of Dismorr with Virginia Woolf is viable, if a little elastic. A closer relation to Dismorr’s poetic urbanism might be Hope Mirrlees’s explosively modernist poem Paris of 1919;  Mirrlees was well acquainted with the Woolfs (whose Hogarth Press published Paris), so there’s the link to Virginia if you want it.

Rosemary Tonks, 1968

Rosemary Tonks, 1968

But perhaps we can also relate Dismorr to the later British Baudelairean and flâneuse Rosemary Tonks, whose work has been subjected to a rediscovery following her death in 2014. (Not too great a stretch; Tonks was published by the mid ‘fifties, and the distance between Dismorr and Tonks is less than that between Tonks and today.)

To illustrate the relation, here’s a juxtaposition of two journeys by Dismorr and Tonks, each on the upper deck of a London bus. First, from Dismorr’s venture aboard a number 43 with her annoying suitor ‘Roderigo’, in ‘June Night’ of 1915. (This was an inward journey. The 43 route ran from Muswell Hill to London Bridge.) Roderigo is later left on the bus, as Dismorr wanders London on foot, abandoning the romantic, protecting male and pioneering the occupation of metropolitan spaces by the lone emancipated woman.

‘No 43 bus, its advertisements all lit from within, floats towards us like a luminous balloon.  We cling to it and climb to the top. Towards the red glare of the illuminated city we race through interminable suburbs. These are the bare wings and corridors that give on to the stage. Swiftness at least is exquisite. But it makes me too emotional. Amazing, these gymnastic agitations of the heart! Your blindness, my friend Roderigo, is your most intelligent attribute.

Claude Flight, 'Descent from the Bus', 1927

Claude Flight, ‘Descent from the Bus’, 1927

The Park, to our left, glimmers through strips of iron. Its lawns of antique satin are brocaded with elaborate parterres, whose dyes are faded beyond recognition. Dark as onyx with rims of silver are the little pools that suck in the dew. The tea-kiosk of whitened stucco is as remote as a temple shuttered up against the night. My desires loiter about the silent spaces.

We stop for passengers at Regent’s Corner. Here crowds swarm under green electric globes. Now we stop every moment, the little red staircase is besieged. The bus is really too top-heavy. It must look like a great nodding bouquet, made up of absurd flowers and moths and birds with sharp beaks. I want to escape but Roderigo is lazy and will not stop warbling his infuriating lovesongs. Ribbons of silver fire start into the air, and twist themselves into enormous bows with fringes of tiny dropping stars. Everybody stands up and screams. These people are curious, but not very interesting; they lack reticence. Ah, but the woman in the purple pelisse is too beautiful! I refuse to look at her when she stares round.

It is hot for a night in June. “Che, che, la donna.” Roderigo, you have a magnificent tenor voice, but you bore me. Your crime is that I can no longer distinguish you from the rest of the world.’

And here is a bit of Tonks’s comparable solo London bus trip (route number not given) in ‘An Old-fashioned Traveller on the Trade Routes’, published in 1967:

‘I was sitting upstairs in a bus, cursing the waste of time, and pouring my life away on one of those insane journeys across London – while gradually the wavering motion of this precarious glass salon, that flung us about softly like trusses of wheat or Judo Lords, began its medicinal work inside the magnetic landscape of London.

The bus, with its transparent decks of people, trembled. And was as uniquely ceremonious in propelling itself as an eminent jellyfish with an iron will, by expulsions, valves, hisses, steams, and emotional respirations. A militant, elementary, caparisoned Jellyfish, of the feminine sex, systematically eating and drinking the sea.

I began to feel battered as though I had been making love all night! My limbs distilled the same interesting wide-awake weariness.

We went forward at a swimmer’s pace, gazing through the walls that rocked the weather about like a cloudy drink from a chemist’s shop – with the depth and sting of the Baltic. The air-shocks, the sulphur dioxides, the gelatin ignitions!’

But another, quite different point of contact between Dismorr and Tonks is their abrupt and near absolute abandonment of writing. After some vicious comments in The Little Review of 1919 Dismorr‘s poetry underwent a 15 year hiatus and the following year she suffered a nervous breakdown. In the late ‘seventies, after a series of personal and health crises, Rosemary Tonks repudiated her writings entirely and began a largely solitary religious life, sparking literary chatter of a ‘vanishing’.

In Tonks’s poems the urge to ‘escape’ had already motivated her urban wanderings:

‘It is among the bins and dormitories of cities …
That one goes to gormandise upon Escape!’

But this lifestyle was marked by a deep and growing self-disgust –

‘… if you knew the exotic disgust that grips me
After another bestial night
As we come in, broken …’

– and a consequent crisis of the sense of self:

‘And afterwards you’ll live in no man’s land,
You’ll lose your identity, and never get yourself back, diablotin,
It may have happened already, and as you read this …
Ah, it has happened already.’

The urge to escape the existing self – whether through boredom, despair or disgust – can visit any of us. In this Age of Choice we believe that it is our right to be free of it, and are furnished with a variety of means to that end, ranged along the safety spectrum: a new hair style, moving house, body modification, transvestism, multiple personality disorder, dissociative fugue, suicide. While for the writer there is the option to write about something different in a different way, to become a different writer and so a different person. Or even to reject writing itself.

bedouinIn Tonks’s case a double standard seems to operate. With the best will in the world Neil Astley’s introduction to Bloodaxe’s new Tonks Collected, Bedouin of the London Evening, betrays some pejorative assumptions about Tonks’s post-writerly life – ‘self torturing’, ‘socially challenged’ and so on. OK then for Rimbaud, Tonks’s model as a poet, to abandon writing and disappear into an African sunset when gun running or whatever he got up is seen as modishly edgy. Not so acceptable somehow for the elderly Mrs Rosemary Lightband neé Tonks to be handing out translations of the Bible at Speaker’s Corner, or (most unforgiveable of all)  incinerating her priceless collection of Oriental artefacts, which she had come to regard as dangerous and undermining idols. But what do we really want here – a miserable writer or a happier human being?

As Astley reveals, Tonks’s single minded reliance on the love of God freed her from healers and mediums, from sleeping tablets, from depression and from fear. So what if she characterised her bouts of depression as Satan’s attempts to undermine her? Perfectly reasonable, for such they were and are, if the term ‘Satan’ is to have any useful meaning. And birdsong and great music were for her positive influences direct from God? Well, that’s undeniable.

Though if the gain was hers and the loss is entirely ours, it is, to be fair, a real loss. An apposite message about Tonks arrived recently from Robert Worby, of Radio 3’s Hear and Now:

‘Last night I had a powerful, resonant dream about her. I found myself in a disused library that seemed to be part of something like a church institution: a WI meeting place maybe. It was dilapidated with books and papers scattered about the floor. As I wandered around I found copies of Tonks’s books and what seemed to be handwritten manuscripts. I was flabbergasted; I couldn’t believe my luck. I collected them together with the intention of taking them away but an elderly lady politely announced that I wouldn’t be able to do that; all the materials had to stay in that room; they weren’t being thrown away.’

I can’t deny that I very much recognise this dream narrative of recovery. We are all antiquarians these days. In the disused and labyrinthine libraries of our longings lie scattered the many dusty manuscripts of our misplaced desires. But they don’t all bear our handwriting. It is the writer alone who owns the absolute liberty to jettison or burn her own pages, without fear of retrieval.

‘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.”

A little gallery for Helen Saunders

Rounding off a recent preoccupation with Vorticism, here (or via the tab above) is a thumbnail gallery of all the Vorticist pieces I can find by the annoyingly under-rated Helen Saunders, mentioned in a couple of recent posts. We usually come across her work in two’s and three’s, but assembled in bulk (or at least as much bulk as I can manage) it certainly impresses, though surviving pieces can only be a fraction of what she actually produced.

A great colourist, and clearly (at that period) a woman for the Machine Age.

Images © Estate of Helen Saunders

Mashing up the Vortex

While I’m in the business of blessing Blast, a short thought or two about the “lost” number three of the Vorticist mag.

“I think your idea of … the launching of a fresh number of Blast, which you could call an American Number, is an excellent notion,” Wyndham Lewis wrote from his army training camp at Weymouth to Ezra Pound in late April 1916. “You would have to conduct it largely, I expect. I personally should be very pleased to see Blast do another lap.” As Lewis envisaged it, the contents of a third number might have included “a drawing or two & a little writing” of his own, reproductions of works shown at the Vorticist group show in New York (including one in colour), Pound’s Byronic satire “L’Homme Moyen Sensuel” (which eventually appeared in the Little Review in 1917), and a contribution of some sort by Eliot.

Even after the “American Number” proved a non-starter, Lewis was still proposing a third issue as late as 1919. Writing to John Quinn, he confidently described the likely contents as his own essay on art and architecture, The Caliph’s Design: Architects! Where is your Vortex? (separately published the same year, in the event), “fifteen or twenty designs” by half a dozen contributors, a story by himself and “a long, new poem by Eliot”. Pound (“vanished into France and … in a mist of recuperation and romance”) was not expected to be involved. Publication was anticipated in November. (The “long, new poem” from Eliot is curious: does anything in his 1919 Poems qualify? Or does this mean that a preliminary draft of part of The Waste Land was already in existence at this early date?)

In the event there was of course no third lap, though the “American Number” was eventually reanimated, after a fashion, as the hefty mish-mash of academic criticism, modern creative writing and associated bits and bobs put out in 1984 as Blast 3 by diehard Lewis re-publishers Black Sparrow Press of California. Lots of fun, but, inevitably, not kwite the bisnez, as Ezra might have put it.

I’m surprised that there haven’t been countless other attempts at a Blast 3, if only at the cover. Or have there? All I can find is a Blast 3 cover “remake” thread from 2010 at the “Whitechapel” website run by “Freakangels” webcomic creator Warren Ellis. There are five pages of entries from various digitty-comicky-graphicky people, though few of them really hit the mark, to be honest. But here’s a half dozen that I felt made a real attempt to be true to the spirit of the original while dragging it a few decades into an alternative future; the low-tech design of the first two seems particularly apposite.

Oxbrow

J Garrattley

Kuru93

David Bednarski

Luis Fuentes

Paul Sizer

Though at the end of the day, this sort of thing doesn’t amount to much more than deco-punk game-play. As steampunk subsides comfortably into commercial neo-Victorian whimsy, the modernist era might appear to offer an edgier source for retro-futurism. Having said that, the Tate Vorticist show last summer was flagged up here for the dieselpunk community, but apparently with little interest; in these circles, film noir cosplay, vintage vehicles or closet stormtrooperdom seem a bigger pull than modernist art. But pickiness about the real culture of the fetishised past might actually indicate a developing boredom with it – hence, our mash-up version of the ‘thirties or whenever is expected to be more interesting than the real thing. Besides being a convenient laziness, a refusal to engage for real. In our parodic, superficial, postmodern charades we really are becoming The Dancers at the End of Time.

BLAST-pieces (2): some Vorticist colophons

Throughout the two issues of Blast, the Vorticist journal of 1914-5, are scattered small decorative head or tail-pieces that, like standard printer’s motifs, serve to fill in a blank space at the close of an article etc.

Blast 2:47 – design by Dorothy Shakespear

These designs are interesting, in that they condense, contain, and even simplify the often unbounded, map-like expansions of shapes that form larger Vorticist compositions. They are not excerpts from the latter, but are self-contained, without relying on a rectangular frame. (A clear exception is a small rectangular design on page 47 of Blast 2, signed “D S” for Dorothy Shakespear, which, while used as a tail-piece, may not have been intended originally for quite this purpose.) In certain respects they resemble the hand held ornaments or “talismans” of Gaudier-Brzeska, though they are more classically Vorticist than these, by-passing his reliance on “primitive” natural forms.

Their existence raises the interesting issue of Vorticist ornament – though maybe this should properly be thought of as a contradiction in terms? There are antecedents in the motifs used by Wyndham Lewis in his interior decorations for the Countess of Drogheda, though these appear more compact and “African”. The Rebel Art Centre never quite got its act together in competition to the Omega, but what might Vorticist fabrics and lampshades have looked like?

Blast 1:4

The largest design, used once only on page 4 of Blast 1, opposite the “Contents” page, seems separate to the others in its style and intention. This is clearly an announcement – a stylised (almost cartoonish) explosion, a cubistic “blast”, but here the blast is that of an anarchist bomb, rather than the icy blast of the north wind signified by the storm cone motif discussed in my previous post.

The other eight colophons are more of a match. A few of those in Blast 1 had earlier been used on stationery and publications for the Rebel Art centre. One is used twice in Blast 1, while three from that volume are repeated in Blast 2, which also introduces four new designs. All are unsigned. But who drew them? Did Lewis dash them all off himself? Richard Cork (on what evidence?) states that they were “executed by Lewis and others”. (It has to be said that few of them show much resemblance to Lewis’s usual more attenuated style, though the first three shown below are broadly compatible with a similar small design by him used on the cover of the catalogue for the Dore Galleries Vorticist Exhibition of June 1915.) Did he invite a contribution from each of his collaborators? (Maybe not such a practicable process, in the circumstances.) Or are they all or mainly by another hand?

Helen Saunders, ‘Vorticist Composition in Black and White’
© Estate of Helen Saunders

In her write-up for the 1996 catalogue of the Helen Saunders exhibition (Ashmolean and Graves, Sheffield), Brigid Peppin asserts that all the colophons in Blast 2 “are clearly by different artists”, but attributes that on page 16 to the sadly eclipsed and highly under-rated Saunders, on the reasonable grounds of its similarity to some of her known pieces in which overlapping, irregular, trapezoid enclosures fold and unfold. To make the point, the catalogue itself uses as a colophon a similar drawing from the exhibition, listed as no. 10, “Vorticist Composition in Black and White”.

For that matter, it seems to me, none of the colophons in either volume are entirely incompatible with aspects of Saunders’ known work, with the possible exception of the exploding “Blast”. Certainly, those used on 1:125, 1:127, 2:10, 2:14 and 2:16 clearly show approaches that echo aspects of her other work, while they are far less of a match for Hamilton, Roberts, Etchells or Wadsworth.

1:8, 126; 2:82

1:118

1:125; 2:49

1:127; 2:69

2:10

2:14

2:16

2:74

I’d suggest that most (or maybe all) of these were very likely done by Saunders; in her role during the Blast era as unpaid amanuensis and general dogsbody for Lewis, it seems perfectly conceivable that she may have made this important but typically modest contribution. All of these eight small designs are worth leisured consideration. They are not hasty Vorticist doodles: each is in itself a satisfying composition, founded on a separate idea and entirely balanced within the laws of its own development.

Overall, Saunders’ Vorticist work is still easily neglected, and too often assumed to be “derivative”. It’s not easy to appreciate its worth when it is seen piecemeal, as it always is. A fuller view might do her more justice – perhaps a project for a future post.

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.)

He is born! Emmanuel!

Jacob Epstein, drawing (birth), in 'Blast' 1, 1914