Superlatives and expletives in the life of Wyndham Lewis

PUBLISHED: 18:08 24 July 2008 | UPDATED: 15:14 07 September 2010

BY ALISON OLDHAM The iconoclastic artist-writer Wyndham Lewis drew superlatives - and undoubtedly expletives - from those who knew him. TS Eliot said he was the greatest prose writer of my generation . Walter Sickert described him as the greatest portra

BY ALISON OLDHAM

The iconoclastic artist-writer Wyndham Lewis drew superlatives - and undoubtedly expletives - from those who knew him. TS Eliot said he was "the greatest prose writer of my generation". Walter Sickert described him as "the greatest portraitist of this or any other time".

Yet Lewis's portrait of Eliot, probably his most famous, was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1938. It's back in Britain after almost 30 years for the first ever exhibition focusing on Lewis's portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery.

When the RA rejected the Eliot portrait, Augustus John resigned. Lewis commented that this should have been "a mortal blow to the Academy, if it is possible to use the expression 'mortal blow' with reference to a corpse".

He had a way with words that he exploited not only in writing, as a novelist, critic and political commentator, but in his personal life. The writer Naomi Mitchison, a close friend, said she slept with him so she wouldn't have to listen to his opinions - although Lewis expert Cy Fox says she was joking.

The official objection to the Eliot portrait concerned the background scrolls which include a phallus and a bird on a nest, symbols of the male and female creativity. Lewis sold the portrait for £250 - around £9,500 in today's prices.

He was chronically poor and dependent on selling his work - unlike the upper-class "amateur" artists he knew in the 20s and satirised in his novel Apes of God. These included Edith Sitwell, subject of a haunting portrait in which the poet's elegant hands are curiously absent.

Sitwell claimed that, starting late in 1921, she sat for him daily except Sundays for 10 months but before he got round to painting her hands - the only part of her anatomy she liked - she could take no more. Lewis recalled doing a moonlight flit from his studio before finishing the portrait. He painted the background - unusually complex for his early style - 12 years later.

Lewis moved house about every month in his early years in London, initially favouring north London, with addresses in Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill. Born to an English mother and American father in Amherst, Massachusetts - not on a yacht off Nova Scotia, as he spuriously claimed - he attended Rugby School and the Slade School of Art.

His literary mentor as a student was Thomas Sturge Moore who lived in Hampstead. Lewis's first novel, Tarr, depicted his own bohemian life in Paris in the 1900s following his expulsion from the Slade in 1901.

Back in London, he joined the Camden Town Group in 1911, the year he painted the cubist self-portrait which is the earliest work in the exhibition. In a review of the group's recent Tate exhibition, Iain Sinclair blamed him for their demise. "The quiet ambitions of the tenants of Fitzrovia and Mornington Crescent would soon be trumped by shock tactics, the inspired upper-case demagoguery of Wyndham Lewis and the vorticists."

He is best known as the founder of this radical movement which pioneered geometrical abstraction in Britain. It lasted from 1914 to 1916, when he joined the Army. Their headquarters, the Rebel Art Centre, was in Great Ormond Street in Holborn and from there he published the avant-garde journal Blast.

"Terrific typographical layout," commented Paul Edwards, the other curator of the exhibition. He said that Lewis had the reputation of being good at satirising others but not himself, but his witty Portrait of the Artist as the Painter Raphael - made when artists were being urged to discover their classical roots - showed nothing was further from the truth.

There are tender, sometimes mystical, portraits of his wife Froanna, and remarkable paintings and drawings of modernist writers, including Ezra Pound seething with aggressive energy, and James Joyce, a drinking partner in 1920s Paris.

Edwards observed that Lewis made the poet Stephen Spender, a long-time St John's Wood resident, "look like a frightened rabbit".

Explaining his method, Wyndham Lewis said: "I go primarily for the pattern of the structure of the head and insinuate rather than stress the 'psyche'." His portraits, however geometrically severe, have a strong undercurrent of human sympathy. Real people appear through near abstract compositions.

Daily until October 19 at the NPG, St Martin's Place, WC2. Thursdays and Fridays 10am to 9pm, otherwise 10am to 6pm. £5, concessions £4/£4.50. Catalogue £15. Visit www.npg.org.uk.

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