Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: Herbert Read

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?

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Mr Gartsides and the Giles-like gnomes

I didn’t have much of an art education. My secondary school (a hopelessly narrow Direct Grant Grammar) had just the one part time art teacher, Mr Brown, who taught the first couple of year groups only, and spent most of his time carving memorial tablets or fabricating ambitiously elaborate box sets for school plays. But at least he (alone of all the staff) had a great beard.

I later had reason to be personally grateful for his support of my extra-curricular artistic leanings, but I was perplexed at first by his scrupulous, near total abstinence from any direction in lessons. “Boys,” he would suggest, “you’ll have seen the Lord Mayor’s Show on television the other day; do me a lively painting of the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Lots of colour.” Or he would chalk up some brief topic – “A Picnic on a Sunny Day” or “A Storm at Sea” – and after the briefest discussion of its possibilities would bugger off to the back of the art room and chip away at a piece of granite while we got on with it. Pupils were unavoidably distracted under this lax regime; a friend and I once experimented to see how far we could shoot the cap off a fat, unopened tube of white by “accidentally” dropping it on the floor and lowering a chair leg onto it. (It went a long way, and an impressive trail of rich white paint went with it.) But Mr Brown handled any mischief or spilt paint with experienced patience.

Marion Richardson

Marion Richardson

Was he a uniquely lazy teacher? I admit that I thought so. Only many years later, encountering the art education theories of Marion Richardson and her many followers, did I realise that this was the progressive orthodoxy of the times. The good Mr Brown would rather have chiselled off his own drawing hand than interfere with our intrinsic creativity by presuming to direct and advise, or even, within the limits of practicality, quell our chatter. His duty was to set the ambience, to provide sugar paper and paint, and to present a neutral stimulus; our childish and privileged urge to self expression would do the rest.

art and the childMarion Richardson pioneered her child-centred art teaching at Dudley Girls’ High School from 1912, winning the attention and approval of Roger Fry, no less, though her book Art and the Child was not published until 1948, posthumously. By then her spontaneist methods, in various degrees of exaggeration or dilution, had become mainstream, and were not challenged until the plodding sub-Bauhaus “basic design” approach came along in the ‘sixties.

In a chapter of Rotting Hill (1951), his entertaining chronicle of post-war drabsterity, the ageing writer and painter Wyndham Lewis encounters an apostle of Richardson (filtered via Herbert Read) in the unlikely shape of Walter Gartsides, pugnacious Geordie and ex-Indian army sergeant, now demobilised and retrained as a slum school art teacher:

“A thigh thrown over a desk, an arm akimbo, his utility shoe dangling, the children were addressed by Gartsides; and their fidgety little eyes popped out of their curly little heads. They were told that what was spontaneous was best. Spontaneous meaning what spurts up, free and uncontrolled,  not fed out by a nasty tap … They would get no direction from him, his role was that of a helpful looker-on. Ready to give a hand, that was all …

… The children – typical Giles-like gnomes from the neighbouring sooty alleys and crapulous crescents – were of course alarmed and excited. Then he appeared one morning with a number of tins of house-painters’ colours and a couple of dozen suitable brushes … He pointed dramatically to the walls of the classroom crying: ‘Here’s paints and brushes and there’s the old wall! Attaboy! Paint me some pitchers on it!’

His petrified class suddenly saw the light. With squeaks of rapture they went to work. Soon the walls, part of the ceiling, as well as the cupboards and doors and even some areas of the floor of the class-room were as rich with crude imagery as the walls of a public lavatory. Some of the children were smeared from head to foot with paint.”

When school inspectors view the outcome, Gartsides escapes dismissal by feigning imbecility.

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A “fine, rough artlessness”: ‘Fenland Couple on the Costa Brava’ by Melville Hardiment

Did this apocalyptic outbreak of infantile spontaneity actually take place? One hopes so. But “Gartsides” is Lewis’s semi-fictionalised caricature of the real Melville Hardiment (1915-1996), painter, poet, teacher and editor. Hardiment was indeed an ex-regular sergeant but was from the Cambridgeshire Fens, not Durham, studied  at Camberwell under Victor Pasmore, and taught at Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, not in the slums of Bermondsey. He visited Lewis several times, finding the older man’s “faded flat” suggestive of  “decayed gentility”, and conversed much. For his part, Lewis approved of Hardiment’s no-nonsense attitude:

“I rather liked Mr Gartsides. I even secretly wished him luck …  That that day to this I have breathlessly followed his career. He has grown to be a somewhat different person: but he retains, to the full, his fine, rough artlessness.”

A somewhat different person indeed. Hardiment was already a Second World War poet. (Three remarkably brutal pieces are anthologised in the Oasis collection of 1983.) He went on, among many other things, to champion school magazines, co-editing (with Caroline Benn, wife of Tony) a failing periodical on the subject, Antiphon, but he is best remembered for being the man who introduced William Burroughs to LSD (or tried to). He is stated to have been “familiar with the London underworld” and to have had five wives and nine children. There will simply have to be a proper post devoted to Hardiment here shortly (or to as much as I can currently trace of him).

School art lessons pre-Gartsides, as seen by Giles

School art lessons pre-Gartsides, as seen by Giles

Likewise a post or two on the vexed history of school art in the 20th century, drawing from my dusty accumulation of vintage manuals of art teaching. The Giles cartoon reference by Lewis was spot on, by the way. In Giles’s world of school, even post-war art lessons were still reduced to silent Victorian copying exercises under the dreadful gaze of the cadaverous “Chalky”. Only rarely (in particular in woodwork) might real mayhem break free …

Four Vorticistic pieces

More of Helen Saunders

Design for a Book Jacket small

© Estate of Helen Saunders

My Helen Saunders gallery, which seems to get more hits than any other page these days, has been extended by the addition of images of the two fine Saunders pieces in the Victoria & Albert, thanks to the kindness of Saunders authority Brigid Peppin, who in the meantime has sorted out the confusion in the HS entries in the V&A online catalogue. I’ve also put in a reference, with links, to the dodgy Wadsworth oil in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, of which Brigid has made an excellent case for an attribution to Saunders. All down at the bottom end of the page. The more Saunders we see, the stronger her work appears in its totality. And how humane and life-affirming it seems too, compared for example to the colder, more cerebral Vorticism of Wadsworth.

Good to see a single Saunders from Chicago, Canon, currently in the MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction show, as on the exhibition website here. Though the gigantic “social networking” diagram produced for the show is a bit problematic, to say the least, given that it is restricted to artists selected for exhibition and to proven face-to-face contacts or direct correspondence – two pieces of filtering that rather distort the actual nature of “influence”. Wyndham Lewis, in particular, looks unfairly marginalised in the process. But that’s nothing unusual.

Herbert Read, Vorticist painter?

Browsing the pavement slab-sized catalogue for the RA’s 1987 British Art in the 20th Century exhibition, I was surprised to come across this, in an essay by Andrew Causey, on Herbert Read, critic, educator, be-knighted anarchist and retailer of modernisms:

“For a brief moment Read had been a Vorticist-influenced painter and an admirer of Lewis, and had declared an early allegiance to Nietzsche. He laid heavy stress … on Expressionism. For Read this was … a recurrent Northern trait …”

Nietzsche, Expressionism and Northernism, OK. And though their later relations appear to have been somewhat – er – rocky, it’s true that Read and Lewis were in cahoots from around 1917. But Read a “Vorticist-influenced painter”? Read’s “brief moment” as such must have been very brief, as I can’t find any sign of it. Or of Read as any kind of painter, come to that. But I’d be fascinated by any evidence to the contrary.

naked warriorsAmong other things contributed by Lewis to Read’s and Frank Rutter’s short-lived review Art and Letters, was a cover design for the Winter 1918-19 issue, shown by Walter Michel in his magnum opus on Lewis (Michel 260). In late 1918 Lewis agreed to do 8 or 10 small drawings for Read’s book of poems Naked Warriors, to be published by the Beaumont Press. But this didn’t happen, Lewis writing to Read that “people like [Cyril Beaumont] arouse all my worst passions.” Instead, he offered “a stamp or design such as Art and Letters has for its cover, I should be delighted to do it free of charge.”

In the event, Naked Warriors appeared in 1919 under the Art and Letters imprint, with the very same cover motif that Lewis had already provided to the review. Could the appearance of this rather fine design above Read’s name be the origin of the notion that he had once been a Vorticist painter? Or is there something else I’ve missed?

Amazingly, an Amazon search for Naked Warriors brings up the inscribed copy sent by Read to Lewis (no longer for sale). Blimey.

Arnold Auerbach, Vorticist sculptor?

auerbachIn his piece on modern British sculpture in the same RA catalogue, Richard Cork hailed Vorticist Head by Arnold Auerbach as “a belated homage to the movement,” bracketing its maker in with Epstein, Atkinson and Dobson. This piece (or one of its edition) had popped up the year before in a Fine Art Society revisionist survey of British sculpture between the wars, dated rather broadly as “c 1920 – 1930”. One is entitled to ask: Arnold who? No relation to painter Frank, Arnold Auerbach (1898-1979) turns out to have been a Liverpool born etcher, architectural sculptor and teacher, usually of naturalist or neo-classical inclination, who dallied for a while in the ‘twenties with a pseudo-cubist Deco style. This work is skilful, pleasing and very much of its period, but it isn’t Vorticist. At best, it is a folk memory of Vorticism, akin to, and contemporary with, the retro-Futurism of the Grosvenor School lino cuts of Claude Flight and others. Though these do suggest that somewhere, at another level to the avant-garde, there were postwar currents working in quite different directions to the neoclassical return to order. (Just how much of a informed, conscious absorption of Vorticism was there in the succeeding generations of British artists? Certainly in the case of Merlyn Evans, though that’s another story.) Vorticist Head is elsewhere called Mechanised Head; was there an opportunist tweaking of the title somewhere along the way?

The remarkable rediscovery of David Wilde

david wildeHere’s something you don’t see every day: the recent emergence of a considerable cache of paintings, many said to be influenced by Vorticism, by a previously unrecognised British painter whose earlier career was in erotic illustration, and who died in mysterious circumstances while preparing an exposé of secret societies. But such is the story of David Wilde (1913-74, or 1918-78 in some sources), born Norman Shacklock, as told in the 2011 monograph by Chris Kirwan, David Wilde: Manchester’s Hidden Artist:

” … it was possibly the artist and writer Wyndham Lewis who had an early influence on Wilde’s painting style … Vorticism is evident in some of Wilde’s landscapes, where geometric shapes lean into the centre of the picture … There is, in Wilde’s work, some of the alienation or mechanical dystopia usually associated with Lewis’ paintings and with his prophetic attack on the way modern life was evolving in the early part of the twentieth century.

Wilde’s work is also akin in some aspects to another member of the Vorticist movement, David Bomberg. There is a similar kaleidoscopic energy …”

To be honest, the influence, such as it is, is very much diffused, Wilde’s “Vorticism” generally consisting of multiple shards of flat, gaudy, primary colour, suggesting rock formations or architectural elements, that topple into the composition in a more or less disorganised way, but serve as prominent signifiers of modernism. Wilde canvases – tipped as an investment here – are said to have been selling strongly at various galleries and auction houses specialising in “Northern art”, and turn up even on Ebay.

It’s quite a story! But all most convincingly documented, along with Wilde’s poetry, his collages of Marilyn Monroe and so forth, in Mr Kirwan’s book  and on the galleries’ websites …