At the National Portrait Gallery
Wyndham Lewis’s Modernism refuses a provincial label. His intellectual toughness and taste for self-promotion and polemic were foreign to the amateurishness that, he believed, vitiated Bloomsbury’s insular Post-Impressionism. Vorticism, the movement he set up with Pound and others around 1913 after a break with Roger Fry, would probably have had a short life even if the war had not intervened. Lewis was not a team player; looking back he said: ‘Vorticism, in fact, was what I, personally, did, and said, at a certain period.’ Other surviving Vorticists were, with reason, displeased. It is hard to see how any movement could have been sustained by someone so liable to bite the hand that fed him. His novel The Apes of God doesn’t just mock the artistic competition, but also some of those who had given him money when he sorely needed it.
Vol. 30 No. 19 · 9 October 2008
Peter Campbell claims that Wyndham Lewis’s portrait of T.S. Eliot was rejected by the Royal Academy because the selection committee ‘spotted phallic references in the hangings’ (LRB, 11 September). There is no evidence for this. The Star reported at the time: ‘The artist departed from convention by introducing behind the sitter a light green screen with scrolls of figures which he intended to be symbolic, to suggest that the portrait is the portrait of a poet. It was apparently to these scrolls that the Academy selection committee took exception.’ A spokesman for the Academy, however, said that the picture was rejected because it wasn’t as good as those that were accepted. By their ‘strict criteria’ it was not a good portrait; just as by Campbell’s criteria Lewis did not produce ‘great portraits’.
I am sure, however, that Campbell is right that Sickert would not have committed his telegraphed praise of Lewis as ‘the greatest portraitist of this or any other time’ to public print (it was John Rothenstein who did this).