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September 11, 2008

In Wyndham Lewis's portraits he is not Lewis the Vorticist - but if he had never been Lewis the Vorticist he would have been nothing like as good a portrait painter as he was, argues Christie Davies: Wyndham Lewis Portraits at the NPG

Posted by Christie Davies

Wyndham Lewis Portraits
National Portrait Gallery, London
3rd July - 19th October 2008
Daily 10am - 6pm (Thursdays & Fridays until 9pm)

According to Sickert, Wyndham Lewis was "the greatest portraitist of this or any other time". This extravagant comment was provoked by Lewis' 1932 pencil portrait of Rebecca West whose face is given a vividness it probably never had by the artist's skilful use of planes and angles. She had earlier strongly praised the literary work of the narcissistic Lewis which must have inspired his pencil.

Lewis could also be a savage caricaturist, notably in his pair of ink drawings of Sir Stafford Cripps and Sir Oswald Mosley for The London Mercury, 1934. He has given a brutal thrust to Mosley's face and a wonderful twist to that of Cripps which by chance brings out Cripps facial resemblance to Lavrenti P. Beria.

At this time Cripps was on the extreme left but his residual religious pacifism, cranky dietary fads and love of knitting would probably have precluded his becoming a dictator. Rather we should congratulate Lewis on capturing so successfully the Cripps' sneer, his utter disdain for all those he saw as less high minded than himself.

Mosley's face is that of the megaphone man I heard in Cambridge in 1961, when Mosley was invited there to speak by Ken Clarke. There was no light and shade, no high and low, no pause to let the audience reflect in Mosley's speech; he simply blared throughout, mainly in support of a future powerful EU.

Euro-sceptic Michael Howard resigned from the Conservative association in protest against the invitation to Mosley. I hasten to add that at the end Clarke asked the members of the Conservative association to vote to disassociate themselves from Mosley's views. Lewis captured well the essence of a man who really did have the essence of a dictator in him. He makes Mosley look like a cross between Mussolini whom Mosley admired and an anti-Semitic caricature of an unpleasant Jew, in a way turning against Mosley the very imagery he would exploit in his British Union of Fascists.

It is curious that the portraits by Lewis that are most memorable are those of men and women who are famous in their own right, notably his fellow modernists T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Is this because we are already familiar with them from the illustrations in our childhood encyclopaedias or because their fame and in some cases common outlook, really did inspire the egotistical and publicity hungry Lewis?

Here is the famous portrait of T. S. Eliot of 1938, rejected by the Royal Academy and now resting in exile in the Municipal Art Gallery in Durban, Natal. It is a wonderful combination of an intensity of face with the utter conventionality of Eliotís well-tailored suit, a study in lapels, and obsessively-parted hair.

Lewis was to return to the same sitter in 1949 when Eliot was made an honorary fellow of Magdalene (Cambridge), which required him to present that exceedingly stuffy College with his portrait. They wanted something neat and poised and they got it.

By contrast Lewis' Ezra Pound, 1939 places the sleeping poet slumped diagonally in the bottom right hand half of a horizontal rectangle, most of the rest of it being a view of the sea. Pound is as crumpled as Eliot is formal.

Yet the finest portrait in the exhibition is of his fellow-artist and Vorticist. Edward Wadsworth 1920 whose face is reduced to its basic, strong outline above bulky clothes rendered in white. Wadsworth had supported Lewis and like his other patrons was derided in Lewis' fiction The Apes of God. He is called

a horsy motorist in giant scotch-checks
whose speech has
emphatic traces of trenchant Yorkshireness with a false nail-driving heartiness.
With a little imagination you can see these images and stereotypes emerge from Wadsworth's portrait.

In his portraits he is not Lewis the Vorticist but if he had never been Lewis the Vorticist he would have been nothing like as good a portrait painter as he was; this is particular apparent in his portrayal of Sir Stafford and of Rebecca West.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.


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What a shameful attack on Mosley, a former Labour minister and the first Keynsian. He was no more anti-semitic than Pound and Eliot
It was Eliot who wrote of 'Burbank with a Baedeker, Bleistein with a cigar'.
"The rats are underneath the piles
The Jew is underneath the lot"

The fascist Pound of course became a traitor and the Americans , quite without justification, labelled him mad to avoid hanging a poet

What a whitewash too of Rebecca West who was H G Wells mistress and mother of his child.

They were a bad lot all of them

Posted by: Jack at September 18, 2008 06:00 PM
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