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: Wyndham Lewis

Homeric warfare: re-righting the Classics

The 'Betty' letters

The ‘Betty’ letters

As well as interesting marginalia, a bonus of buying second hand books is finding unexpected stuff tucked between pages, so I was chuffed recently on acquiring a set of the early ‘fifties poetry review Nine to find various fliers and cuttings hidden within, plus three letters to the original owner of the magazines from the classical scholar, translator and academic W F Jackson Knight (brother of literary critic Wilson Knight). One of these throws an interesting light on the methods of Nine and of its pugnacious and reactionary editor, the poet and self-appointed disciple of Ezra Pound, Peter Russell.

Eleven 'Nines'

Eleven ‘Nines’

The letters are to a “Betty”, probably an ex-student of Jackson Knight’s (though not, as I first thought, the classicist Betty Radice, later an editor at Penguin Classics). “JK”, as he signed himself, maintained a vast correspondence with ex-students and others, so it’s annoying but hardly surprising that my unidentified Betty makes no appearance in Wilson Knight’s exhaustive and exhausting 1975 biography of his brother, which I now plan to employ as a doorstop or flower press.

Much of the contents of the letters is shrill and slightly flirty chatter (JK never married), but in February 1950 he wrote to acknowledge a letter that Betty, who clearly had some close association with Nine, had inserted with a prospectus for the review:

“Naughty to put a letter in for 1d! How I liked it though. I wishd you were here.

Can I, if I subscribe, have the first issue of NINE? What chances to keep it going? Can you work together with The Wind and the Rain and be the Criterion, and get safer – you two the only two? What hope of getting hundreds and hundreds of my little friends into nine-print? No – only good ones, who deserve it – and only the pieces which should be printed. I don’t care about just another mag. I do care about the right one (prospectus looks good), which really serves the right causes and above all the divine niceness and brilliance of the sort of people you and I know who we mean by which. Grammar OK?”

'JK' in the early 'fifties

‘JK’ in the early ‘fifties

JK’s letters, wrote Wilson Knight, “drive the informality of epistolary writing to the limit.” No doubt Jackson Knight wrote as he spoke; it’s always a slight shock to realise that some people of a certain class really did talk like this. The Wind and the Rain, a rival literary review run by Neville Braybrooke, had recently printed a piece by Jackson Knight on his favourite author, Virgil. He did indeed go on to subscribe to Nine, to which he was also to make a single ill fortuned contribution. So was Nine to prove the right sort of mag, serving the right causes, and run by the right sort of people? Well, it was “right” in one sense.

“The Right is to-day, everywhere the Underground Resistance!” shouted Peter Russell in issue 2 of Nine. Reacting to what they saw as a poetic decade of undisciplined and introverted Leftist neo-romanticism, Russell and his editorial board – poets G S Fraser and Iain (later Ian) Fletcher, editor and classical translator Ian Scott-Kilvert and classical critic D S Carne-Ross, afterwards a Third Programme producer – banged the drum for a return to objectivity, order, tradition and form. In this post-war re-invigoration of the great literary tradition, translations from the Classics were to play their part. Even so, Nine was happy to print poems by Charles Madge, Ronald Duncan, George Barker and others positioned well outside its programme, though it was not always an unstrained fraternisation. For Russell, if not for his co-editors, these literary standards were of a piece with his maverick political rightism.

Peter Russell, drawn in 1950 by Wyndham Lewis

Peter Russell, drawn in 1950 by Wyndham Lewis

In the event, it wasn’t too long before the wheels fell off. Issue 1 of Nine had appeared in the Autumn of 1949. Oddly, all but one of the editorial board vanished abruptly from the title page after issue 7 of Autumn 1951, leaving Russell to manage the final four issues solo. What happened?

His ‘seventies collaborator William Oxley later recounted Russell’s version of the crash, given twenty years afterwards. Two highly unpleasant reviews by poet Roy Campbell, loose cannon and elder statesman of the maverick right, had “blown apart” the board; one of a book by Stephen Spender, the other of:

“… some translations done by an eminent professor of whom Campbell wrote: ‘We do not expect poetic talent from a translator, let alone a professor, but we are entitled to insist on elementary scholarship.’ The editorial board of Nine, apart from Russell himself, were ‘all aspiring professors looking for safe jobs in universities,’ and they refused to countenance the publication of Roy Campbell’s offensive review.”

This “offensive review”, of J B Trend’s translations from the Spanish of poems by Juan Ramon Jimenez, eventually appeared in Nine 9, with a note by Russell explaining that it had been rejected by “the then editorial board”, and first printed in The Catacomb, the scurrilously reactionary (and loss-making) review run by Campbell and his son-in-law Rob Lyle, but bailed out by Tate and Lyle sugar money – “catacombs financed by saccharine,” as Christopher Logue put it.

“Though it is difficult to imagine what literary motive can have prompted the publication of this book,” fumes Campbell, “the political motive sticks out a mile.” His “review” then veers off into the familiar Campbell rant about the Spanish Civil War, “gun-shy poets” such as Auden and Day Lewis, the Iron Curtain and so on. It’s not hard to see why the board had cold feet.

On top of all this Russell’s co-editors, their suspicions aroused by an unpaid printer’s bill, had accused him of having his hand in the till, while a fire destroyed the contents of Nine’s office in 1951, postponing issue 7. Thereafter frequent appeals for renewals of subscriptions couldn’t prevent disastrous delays to later numbers. Nine finally gave up the ghost in April 1956.

'... the MS was altered ...'

‘… the MS was altered …’

But there may have been other behind-the-scenes unpleasantnesses that contributed to its break-up and decline. One is disclosed by Jackson Knight in a later letter to “Betty”:

“Re P[eter] R[ussell] – I did draw back a little. I didn’t seem to be much wanted. And when I’d done something asked of me actually during a week end of hundreds of miles, arduously, the MS was altered to make me disapprove when I’d approved of something – rewritten. So I couldn’t sign it. I don’t know if it was printed. I’ve never had this happen in 33½ years otherwise. I am not cross. I know something of the literary fight and literary code. I just keep away when I can, having seen the way the wind blows. Yet I received a N[ine] actually today.”

The “something asked of me” was a review of half a dozen Penguin Classics translations; this did appear in Nine 6 (Winter 1950-51), but under the pseudonym “Classicus”. (Clearly Knight was never sent a copy.) The books he had reviewed included two prose versions by E V Rieu, co-founder and editor of Penguin Classics, Homer: The Iliad and Virgil: The Pastoral Poems. (Rieu’s previous, ground breaking Homer translation, The Odyssey, had been the opener for the series.)

The offending article

The offending article

Of the Virgil, “Classicus”/Jackson Knight approves most warmly: “ … as felicitous as any modern English prose version .. can be expected to be … The most fastidious reader … will find nothing to blame.” And “Classicus” even heads off the predictable charge of dumbing down: “If this is ‘culture for the masses’ – and I think it is – we must have more and more of it …” All the other books are thoroughly approved, except for one, Rieu’s Iliad.

Here his opinion appears inconsistently damning: “Homer is eminently rapid, eminently plain and direct, and eminently noble … Dr Rieu’s prose Iliad satisfies the first two conditions … but fails to satisfy the third. Of the supreme grandeur of his original he manages to convey very little …” And that’s about all “Classicus” has to say on the book. This has to be the section altered by Russell to censor Knight’s original, more generous approval of Rieu’s Iliad. But why?

In our post-Classics culture it’s not easy to appreciate just what was at stake, and how threateningly communistic Rieu’s approach might appear to some. As Sun Kyoung Yoon explains in a 2014 article in The Translator:

Rieu … translated Homer in an egalitarian spirit, in line with a trend which was gaining ground in the aftermath of the Second World War. To bring Homer to the widest possible range of readers, Rieu chose to transform his epics into novels … emphasising narratives and characters … his Odyssey, in particular, was a major landmark in popularising the Classics: the huge success of Rieu’s Penguin edition proved that Homer could be made accessible to anyone.

img_0005Popularised perhaps, but hardly popular with Peter Russell. In a stand-off between accessibility and “grandeur,” his elitist instincts knew no doubts. The issue of Nine that carried the censored review by “Classicus” also promised forthcoming numbers on Latin and Greek literature, “to re-establish creative contact with the past.” Translations were solicited that should not “sacrifice poetic vitality to accuracy, nor accuracy to poetic vitality.” For Russell, Rieu’s egalitarian translations met neither criterion. In the event these special numbers did not materialise; in humiliating Jackson Knight by tinkering politically with his review, Russell made sure of that.

But we are in Cold War territory here. And the fracture lines of the times were as liable to appear in the pages of the little magazines as anywhere else, as this minor classical spat demonstrates.

Recommended for use as an anvil

Recommended as a flower press

Jackson Knight died in 1964, his reputation as a scholar and a gent unblemished, apart from an enthusiasm for spiritualism that led him to consult the shade of Virgil himself to advise on his 1956 Penguin translation of The Aeneid, the “Supreme Poet” even dictating answers to JK’s questions directly in Latin to his medium Theo Haarhoff; in séances Virgil appeared to Haarhoff’s niece clad in his laurel crown.

Peter Russell died in 2003 after a long, hugely prolific and generally penniless career as a professional poet. His later work, under the influence of his “mentor” Kathleen Raine, moved away from the vaunted objectivism of the Nine years to a gushy, “vitalist” and often confessional Neoplatonism. His anticommunism never wavered.

Hatted and piped: photographing The Enemy

“I hope you will forgive me for speaking plainly,” wrote artist and author Wyndham Lewis to an unnamed London photographer in 1949, declining to buy the publicity shots he had commissioned. “Several are unspeakable … One or two are what might be described as photographic insults. Needless to say, I can make no commercial use of them … Of course I am sure you produced these photos with the best of highbrow intentions. But there it is. I have not exaggerated the displeasing impression, and in some cases the horror induced … P.S. Probably you ought to have a bigger camera.”

It seems that getting your press photos done (essential for the artist or writer in the public eye) was not always trouble-free. In the past, Lewis had successfully used George Charles Beresford, noted society photographer and a mate of fellow painters Augustus John and William Orpen. In 1913 Beresford snapped Lewis as moody bohemian, fag dangling from lower lip; in 1917 he did him proud cutting a dash in uniform. And in 1929 he captured Lewis in his current Enemy persona, arsing about with a big hat, a pipe and a plaster pillar.

Big hats, of course, were a standard signifier of artisticness in this era, though the pipe was Lewis’s touch. His Tyro figures of the early ‘twenties all have hats, as do many of his self-portraits; the pipe appears in his last drawing of himself, from 1938, and had an outing in the newsreel of the T S Eliot Royal Academy scandal of that year. In the “Enemy Interlude” in Lewis’s fiercely rambling poem sequence One Way Song (1933), the Enemy persona is noted as “cloaked, masked, booted, and with gauntlets of astrakan,” but also in a “large black steeple-hat,” completing the association with cartoon anarchists and banditti.

I’ve noticed a few images from this shoot, but like best the full length studied-casual-with-faraway-gaze-and-column shot (left). Somehow it encapsulates modern but classical, ironic but serious, visionary but engaged. A cropped head and shoulders variant appeared in number 3 (1929) of Lewis’s one man review, The Enemy, captioned “A recent photograph of the Enemy, Mr. Wyndham Lewis,” while a similar image, minus column, was used in his Blasting and Bombardiering (1937). It’s a version of the former, ex some newspaper photo library, that turned up on eBay recently, finding its way to me for the price of a coffee (below, right).


But look closely: what I actually have is a photo of that photo. To “improve” Lewis’s riskily diagonal posture, the original print has been tilted and re-photographed, the re-photographer’s bench being clearly visible in the triangular gaps created at each corner. This, then, is a new photograph of a cropped print of an original photograph. (To push things a bit more in a John Berger direction, what you’re seeing here is a digital image of an upload of my scan of that photo of a print of a photo; the reader of the time would have viewed a grainy screened reproduction of it on newsprint.)

Now a final irony. For much of his career Lewis was plagued by frequent confusions between himself and his namesake, the humourist D B Wyndham Lewis, “Beachcomber” of the Daily Express and then Daily Mail columnist. At one point Lewis even claimed that Lord Rothermere of the Mail had “invented” DB to plague him, in revenge for a dinner party quarrel. On the reverse of my photo is a faint agency stamp and a picture editor’s typed label:

In the News.
D. WYNDHAM LEWIS.,
The wellknown author.
MAR 1940

The “wellknown” identity is confirmed in ink. I’ve no idea what DB was up to in 1940 to be “in the news,” but at the time our own P Wyndham Lewis, now eleven years older than his photo, was having a very grim time in a dreary mock-Tudor hotel in Toronto (a transatlantic wartime experience later mirrored in his harrowing novel Self Condemned ). A silver lining, perhaps, that he was thereby denied the opportunity to catch his own carefully constructed brand subjected to “photographic insult” in whichever English paper it was that carried this misidentified image.


All of which reminds me that I’ve been meaning to do a piece here claiming Lewis and One Way Song as an early progenitor of hip hop. Yes, from The Enemy to Public Enemy … One day before too long, perhaps.

‘NUTS’: Julian Symons annotates Stephen Spender

Having in my time bought a few too many second hand books that turned out to disappoint, it’s rewarding when the reverse happens.

img_0001Some years ago, I forget where, I picked up for a quid a damp-buckled copy of Stephen Spender’s Life and the Poet, 1942, in which Spender attempts to reposition the role of the progressive artist and intellectual post-Spain, post-Popular Frontism. This was published by Secker & Warburg as Searchlight Book No 18, a series edited by George Orwell and T R Fyvel, billed as broadly popular, patriotic and anti-fascist. (Of the 17 projected titles listed here, only ten actually appeared before the printer’s paper stock ran out.) Searchlight Books were hardback with a dust jacket, but mine has paper covers, so must be a review copy.

And indeed, a reviewer has made his or her reactions known in some enjoyably bad tempered annotations, summarised inside the front cover:

Mr Spender wrote but apparently never went “Forward from Liberalism”. This is a wretchedly poor book, illogical, disconnected, apologetic & generally unsound.

Life and the Poet does indeed seem hastily shoved together, sloppily thought through and in places just badly written. Spender dedicates it to “Young Writers in the Armed Forces, Civil Defence and the Pacifist Organisations of Democracy”, which by covering all options avoids offence, but indicates something of the hand wringing equivocation he feels obliged to deliver.

“Before finishing the last chapter of this book,” he confesses, “and while revising the first five chapters, I have already been called up into the Fire Service. Yet I may stimulate in the minds of a few people the urgent necessity of a faith in poetry, or, rather, the poetic attitude …”

Our reviewer is not impressed by this excuse. Here are a few passages he/she found objectionable, with his/her reactions transcribed in italics:

Spender: 'Generally unsound'

Spender: ‘Generally unsound’

Without saying that Tolstoi, Turgenev or Henry James were socialists, one might draw revolutionary political conclusions from the life which they describe in their novels. Yet to believe … that the true picture of life in fiction today would inevitably have a socialist political implication is entirely different from preaching that … novels should preach socialism and see everything through red-coloured spectacles.
NUTS

In the case of a really great novelist or poet there might even be no difference, because his observation and his conclusions would be indivisible. But in the case of those lesser artists, there is a tremendous difference.
If the political conclusions were sound then the Novel will be too. The rest of Spender’s thesis is nonsense.

Listening to these [Left Wing] lectures on literature, it seemed to me that the principles were right, but their application was always wrong.
Well what the hell?

The ultimate aim of politics is not politics, but the activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State. Therefore an effective statement of these activities – such as science, art, religion – is in itself a declaration of ultimate aims around which the political means will crystallise.
Aim? Politics has no aim, any more than evolution has. 

So the political agitator is driven to deny that there is anything in life outside the struggle for power … Therefore you must pretend that everyone on your own side who is killed is a hero gladly giving his life for your cause without indulging in any feelings as a separate individual which might be irrelevant. Indeed, you go on to deny that anything in the nature of an individual really exists or has ever existed.
Oh do I?

Politics then become the only reality, and … [Artists, thinkers and scientists] make a merit of stifling the light that is in them: to become scientists who deny that scientific enquiry can ever be objective, poets who deny their own individuality, who show no curiosity about man’s situation in the whole of life and the universe, novelists who have no interest in human beings except to prove that one race or class is superior to others.
Mr Spender appears to have all the intellectual’s concern for his own piddling little individuality. What does he mean by superior? Dominant? Obviously no class is “Better” – No one suggests any one is.

Political evils must be met by other, greater political evils until the war is won. Yet, just because of this, it is all the more important that the “happy few” who uphold values of art, poetry and science should state as clearly as they can what the function of those values in life is, in order that new social patterns may grow around such an understanding.
Ha! Ha! Spender & Co, world-lovers & leaders.

Politicians establish a Sabbath of institutions which petrify, until at last they are shattered by revolutions. Yet to the revolutionaries, who are also politicians, Man … is still only made for their new Sabbath, which, they are determined, differs from the old Sabbath in that it will never be destroyed.
Nonsense. If Mr S will tilt at Marxists he should get to know some Marxism, which denies the possibility of a fixed, static, immutable policy.

What is important is Man. The creative mind must never entirely subscribe to any kind of Sabbath – Pharisaic, Jewish, Christian, Roman, Communist or British Imperialist.
How nice for the creative mind.

Part way through chapter two our annotator loses patience with the chore of annotation, but has made his or her position pretty clear. The book’s owner did not think to add a name, so who was this irascible Marxist?

As it happens, the sentiments chime rather well with “A Poet in Society,” a review of the book by Julian Symons in the first issue (1943) of the second series of Now, the anarchist political-literary review edited by George Woodcock at Freedom Press. (See here for another aspect. As it also happens, the handwriting of the annotations is not incompatible with the very few samples of Symons’s writing I can see online, though I can’t pretend that the similarities are absolutely conclusive.)

Symons: acerbic

Symons: acerbic

Symons is best known as a writer of crime fiction in later life, but was then the founder of Twentieth Century Verse, an independent Marxist (usually tagged a “Trotskyist”), and a reviewer of clinical and acerbic penetration. While Woodcock aimed to align the new series of Now with an “anarchist point of view,” contributors did not necessarily “subscribe to anarchist doctrines,” and in an editorial intro he carefully separates himself from the “hard things” that Symons has to say, defending “a certain virtue” in Spender’s “doubt of the value of politics as a means of social action.” Maybe he was anxious to avoid offending Orwell, later a contributor to the magazine.

In his review Symons tackles both Life and the Poet and Spender’s latest poetry collection, Ruins and Visions. The poems he finds “fine” and “moving”, but with Life and the Poet he finds himself “in violent disagreement,” denouncing it as “a high, thin and cloudy view of the poet’s nature and function,” marked by “the confusion of thought and frequent clumsiness of phrase which we have learned to expect and regret … Sometimes,” he adds, “this leads him into sentimental rubbish … It is impossible to comment usefully upon writing at this level.”

His critique follows the annotations at a distance while, naturally enough, losing some of the immediacy of his anger. One or two of our annotated passages in particular are fastened on.  Spender, who believes in no absolute, is criticised for setting up “the creative mind” (see the final passage above) as a kind of absolute. The fourth annotated passage above, on the “ultimate aim of politics,” comes in for particular scrutiny:

Man is a social animal: and his creative activities – “activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State” – are part of his social life. It follows that to talk about a statement of artistic aims round which political means will crystallise is to talk nonsense. A new view of society must precede a new view of art: society fashions art, art does not create a society. It is therefore a delusion to believe that any artistic aims are ultimate, since no state of society is ultimate: artistic aims are instead fashioned out of the social life of the time, which is in turn influenced by the tradition of social life and art which it has accepted as a heritage. “Eternal aspirations,” loneliness, and yes, the “creative mind” itself vary in form with the society that contains them. A society gets the art it deserves.

The heavy stress placed on “life” in this book is occasioned by an irrational dislike for the logic which binds the poetry written today inside our routine of living; a routine which exists as much for those who try to be “free” and who write from a position of freedom which is in fact false, as for those who are consciously and even willingly bound.

This is all excellent common sense, and seems to me highly relevant to today’s facile, commodified and over-valued art scene, still lubricated by persistent notions of art and poetry as magical, “alternative,” special or visitation from without.

Symons was surely one of the sharpest minds at work on the Left during this period. In a contribution to Now 5 on “The End of a War: 8 Notes on the Objective of Writing in our Time,” he references, interestingly, Wyndham Lewis’s Men Without Art, making entirely valid use of the perceptions of a writer working “from an attitude very different from mine.” (Symons knew Lewis well, and respected him.) In Now 6 his demolition of Cyril Connolly (“The Condemned Playboy”) is a pleasure to read.

img_0003

The darker side of Sonny

Theodore Garman at work

Theodore Garman at work

The New Art Gallery at Walsall is currently showing off its new Auerbach – a version of To the Studios from 1983, once owned by Lucien Freud, and now at Walsall via the Accepted in Lieu tax scheme. And here it is. In my humble opinion it’s not quite his best – a bit muddy and muddled in the middle – but still worth showing off, of course.

What Walsall rarely shows off are two fine Auerbach-ish works they already have by a less known painter on whom they hold a virtual monopoly – Jacob Epstein’s son Theodore Garman. Find him on the Art UK site and 23 paintings come up, all but one at Walsall.

'The Blue Girl' 1948

‘The Blue Girl’ 1948

Theo Garman, born in 1924, was Epstein’s son by his partner Kathleen Garman, though Epstein never publicly acknowledged the relationship. Due to his cheerful childhood disposition he was known as “Sonny”, but in his adult years he suffered grievously from depression, and was given a disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia. Later, as his instability deepened, he required considerable care from his mother Kathleen. As a painter he moved in an artistic environment, but was essentially a self-taught loner, admiring Matisse and Matthew Smith but dismissive of “the Sutherland-Piper-Moore claptrap”.

Exhibitions at the Redfern in 1950 and 1952 were applauded, Matthew Smith expressing “wonder, admiration, and even astonishment”; Wyndham Lewis, always an acute critic in The Listener, was more wisely measured, finding himself “overwhelmed by a rancid vegetation, tropically gigantic,” but judging nevertheless that Garman’s painterly vitality “assures this artist of a high place among his contemporaries.”

GrayThere’s no denying that the so-so landscapes and still lives of Garman’s earlier years had toughened up admirably by the late ‘forties, and his Matissean looseness had become more of a freedom than a weakness. Jennifer Gray, whose M Phil thesis on Garman sits unpublished in Walsall’s archives, but who authored the 2004 booklet on him, speculates that “his illness, far from inhibiting his creativity, may have enhanced it, allowing him to be liberated and able to explore new ideas and techniques.” Maybe so, though one wishes to avoid slipping into the suffering genius narrative here.

The two late paintings that best exemplify this late development are The Old Forge Chelsea I and II, produced in 1953, shortly before Garman’s tragic and early death. In these his deepening impasto is matched with tangled, angular, linear shapes and rich, dark, dense colours, reminiscent of Auerbach and Leon Kossoff and of their teacher David Bomberg. Auerbach and Kossoff were still students in 1953, and I’m not aware of any direct connections here, but it certainly looks as if Garman had had second thoughts about some aspects of modernist style.

The Old Forge, Chelsea I

The Old Forge, Chelsea I

These two paintings are in the care of Walsall but are part of the Beth Lipkin collection, rather than the Garman Ryan, and are infrequently shown. A pity. (Click on images to enlarge.)

The Old Forge, Chelsea II

The Old Forge, Chelsea II

In January 1954 Garman, in something of a disturbed state, borrowed a small statue for a still life from Chelsea School of Art and was promptly accused of stealing it. The police were called. Stephen Gardiner’s 1992 biography of Epstein gives a bare but careful account of what happened next: Kathleen, to prevent his arrest, arranged for his hospital admission, but when the ambulance arrived Theodore, thinking himself kidnapped, was overwhelmed by panic and died of a heart attack while struggling with the male nurses after injections of sedative. He was 29 years old. Despite an anonymous letter to the police complaining of “the barbarous manner in which he was virtually hounded to death” the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of death from natural causes. Later the same year Theo’s sister Esther committed suicide.

In an appendix to her rather gushy 2004 boho-romp The Rare and the Beautiful. The Lives of the Garmans, Cressida Connolly rakes over the circumstances and their associated rumours, but in the process discovers precious little.

It’s too easy to suggest that the dark angularity of these paintings is somehow expressive of Garman’s suffering or reflects the appalling tragedy that overtook the family. But the two works do seem to indicate a deepened and more complex sensibility, and may suggest something of what Garman might have gone on to achieve and sustain if he had lived. Today he is largely forgotten, his “high place among his contemporaries” sadly unassured.

A couple of Vorticist angles

Following my previous post and new page on Cuthbert Hamilton, a couple more scraps relating to the Great English Vortex …

Helen Saunders, ‘Study for The Island of Laputa’ © Estate of Helen Saunders

In 1969 the d’Offay Couper Gallery put on Abstract Art in England 1913-1915, which claimed to be the first attempt since 1915 to display a comprehensive collection of Vorticist work. I’ve just acquired a copy of the catalogue, which reveals that the show was surprisingly rich, if a bit Bomberg-heavy. It also allows me to make a couple of small amendments to my “galleries” for Helen Saunders and Lawrence Atkinson (tabs above) by adding images of Saunders’s study for The Island of Laputa, and of the original version of Atkinson’s very beautiful Vital.

Lawrence Atkinson, ‘Vital’

In 1969 Dorothy Shakespear and Kate Lechmere (among others associated with the movement) were still alive. Blimey. But then, 1969 was only four years after the mid point between 1915 and now. And, as it says in BLAST 1, the Future is distant, like the Past, and therefore sentimental.

Meanwhile, it’s been two years since we looked in on the prolific craftsmanship of eBay seller Raymond of Mortlake, aka “mortlakeunion2009”, who is still feverishly banging out pastiches of Vorticist works, as well tackling the cubisms of Leger, Marcoussis, Popova, Gleizes and a dozen more, and who shows no signs of fatigue. (See previous posts here and here.) In his six years on eBay, Raymond has racked up nearly 1500 sales of paintings and drawings, often in batches to repeat buyers Europe-wide. Feedback shows that 99% are happy with what they know full well to be fakes, though in a few cases the penny seems to have dropped after the event:

“Too new for Saunders, but a nice composition in her style”

“art works are fake, reported to ebay”

“The watercolour was sticked on a carton with a sticked frame. Good for trash”

“faux authentique. Attention !”

“Foot[sic] tooth and nail to avoid giving a refund for substandard workds[sic]. Avoid”

“bad imitation, fake and FALSE PAINTING on cardboard modern replica”

(To this last, Mortlake has responded in bristling self-defence: “PAINTED ON OLD PAPER AND ATTACHED TO MODERN CARDBOARD”.)

Among the many hundreds of positives, one buyer has commented, apparently without a trace of irony, “love this sellers detailed provenance”.

I imagine Raymond perhaps as an embittered shop steward of the Communication Workers’ Union or TGWU (both have offices in Mortlake), burning away the midnight hours cranking out his decorative fakes as an act of social revenge. Or perhaps not. But anyway, here are a few more of his old Vorts, and some newer ones, just for the record or just for fun … (Click for slide show.)

David Bomberg


William Roberts


Wyndham Lewis

 

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 …

A little gallery for Jessie Dismorr

small self portraitAs we move into the centenary year of Blast, it seems like a good time to present a page of work by the uncommonly interesting Vorticist (and much else) Jessie, or Jessica, Dismorr. (To view the page, find the tab above or go here.)

So far I’ve managed to scrounge up 66 images of paintings and drawings from all periods, including what appears to be an image of James Joyce, and two likely Vorticist designs, among the papers of American sculptor John Storrs, that for all I know may previously have been overlooked.

As and when other images turn up, they will be added without announcement.

Dismorr was also a poet, and the (uncollected) texts of her Vorticist period are well worth reading – the stuff of a future page, no doubt.

Some crap Vorticist forgeries

Hardly a revelation that enterprising eBayers have hit on modernist art as a rewarding field for forgery; after all, if a child of five could do that, it should be simple enough for you and me. And so the eBay art listings are spammed to overflowing with drawings by Picasso, Cocteau etc, “in the manner of” or simply sans provenance, a few with a hint of skill, but most hilariously inept. (Though Lowry is a gift for the amateur pasticheur, given that he did draw like a five year old. Fake Lowries probably outnumber all the rest put together.) It’s doubtful that buyers are fooled any longer; more that they hope that their friends might be fooled when they see it on the wall.

Fancy a Bomberg for £50? Vorticism looks a doddle, given that all you need is a sharp pencil and a decent ruler. I’ve noticed these four in recent weeks (click on them to enlarge) – a “Bomberg” drawing and oil, a “Saunders” watercolour and a “Lewis” drawing. The “Bomberg” drawing wouldn’t fool the mythical five year old, but the other three – all by the same hand, as the digital gold frames indicate – show a superficial familiarity with their targets. But the babyish primary colours of the “Saunders” hardly do justice to her skill as a colourist, and the composition, which attempts to employ her typical boxed shapes, is neither dynamic nor convincing. The “Lewis” pastiches some familiar shapes in the lower half, but the composition unravels towards the top, where shapes fight against the general movement. In the “Bomberg” oil, positive and negative shapes seem oddly out of proportion with each other. One could go on. Hah! Not quite so easy, is it?

With such weaknesses, are these remotely dangerous? You wouldn’t think so, but looking at what some top auction houses get away with these days …

(More Vorticist forgeries in the follow up here.)