The Call of Wittenham Clumps

Samuel Hynes

  • Paul Nash by Andrew Causey
    Oxford, 511 pp, £35.00, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 817348 2
  • The Enemy by Jeffrey Meyers
    Routledge, 391 pp, £15.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0514 8
  • Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation edited by Jeffrey Meyers
    Athlone, 276 pp, £13.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 485 11193 4
  • Wyndham lewis by Jane Farrington
    Lund Humphries, 128 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 85331 434 9

Wyndham Lewis had a phrase for himself and those of his contemporaries whom he considered worthy of his company: he called them ‘The Men of 1914’. The phrase has a nice martial ring, and it is not surprising that critics have taken it up: but it implies a historical point that one simply can’t make. 1914 was the year the war started: but it didn’t start then for any of Lewis’s ‘Men’. Indeed, it never started at all for Pound, or Eliot, or Joyce, and for Lewis it had to be delayed for two years while he cured himself of the clap. It would be more accurate, and better history, to think of the Men of 1914 simply as members of the generation of the 1880s, along with Bartok, Berg, Braque, Epstein, Gropius, Keynes, Kokoschka, D. H. Lawrence, T. E. Lawrence, Picasso, Stravinsky and Virginia Woolf; and with Chiang Kai-shek, Hitler, Mussolini and Roosevelt, not to mention Sam Goldwyn and Charlie Chaplin. These are the men and women who made the modern world, and the Modernist expression of it: their identity as a generation is more important than 1914, a year in which some of them began to fight a war, but more of them didn’t.

To be a member of a generation is not, of course, to be identical with the other members: but it does imply certain common historical experiences. There will be similarities, and these are likely to be historically significant: there will also be differences. Consider, for example, the two best English painters of the Eighties generation – Paul Nash and Lewis. In their early careers there are some remarkable resemblances: in both cases public school was followed by study at the Slade, early recognition by older artists, exhibitions (they were both represented in the ‘English Post-Impressionists and Cubists’ show at Brighton in 1913), work with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop, and then the Army and the Western Front, first as combatants and later as official War Artists. But their responses to these common experiences were very different, for they were antithetically unlike as men and as artists. The opposition that they represent is not simply a matter of personal differences, though: it marks a dualism that runs through the art and thought of their generation in England.

In the summer of 1914 Paul Nash was a 25-year-old, somewhat naive painter of water-colour landscapes. Though Roger Fry’s two Post-Impressionist shows had only recently come and gone, Nash had apparently been untouched by them: in 1914 he seemed to know nothing of modern European art, and to be entirely content to work within the English romantic tradition to which he obviously belonged. He had begun as a painter-poet, like Blake and Rossetti, both of whom he admired, and though the poems stopped, he remained a literary painter. His early pictures were often influenced by the books he read (sometimes poems by Tennyson, Rossetti and Yeats, sometimes sentimental popular novels by writers such as W. J. Locke, E. F. Benson and Algernon Blackwood); and those that did not have literary sources were often literary in the other sense – they suggested stories, or hinted at situations and meanings beyond their literal subjects. One might argue that literary painting in this latter sense is at the centre of the tradition of English romantic painting, from Blake through Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites to Sickert: certainly it was Nash’s tradition.

When the war began, Nash enlisted at once, and after training and a commission he was sent to the Front, saw action in the Ypres salient, was injured in a trench accident, and returned to England. Though he went to war as a fighting soldier, he first saw it as a painter. On his first tour of duty the war seemed to him simply a new kind of landscape experience. He was excited by the ‘wonderful ruinous forms’ of the battlefields, and he wrote home ecstatically: ‘Oh, these wonderful trenches at night, at dawn, at sundown. Shall I ever lose the picture they have made in my mind.’

He never lost the picture, but it changed as the war went on, and the cruelty and terror of it invaded his imagination. When he later returned to France as a War Artist, he saw it in another way. ‘No pen or drawing can convey this country,’ he wrote home in 1917. ‘Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.’ This is a landscape painting in words, but it is also a kind of anti-landscape, as though the war, truly seen, had annihilated romantic nature and with it the whole romantic idea of natural benevolence, the something far more deeply interfused that Wordsworth saw there.

Nash’s war paintings are like that, too – empty, torn landscapes of broken trees, shell holes and mud, bruised clouds and black rain, pictures that read like elegies for the dead and violated earth. The lines are hard and geometrical, or shapeless lumpy curves; there are few human beings, and when they appear they too are geometrical and mechanical-looking. The mood is of a desolation that has entered the very method of the painting, as though war had destroyed even the living, natural line of landscape. (‘The Menin Road’, in the Imperial War Museum, is a powerful example.) Nash was still seeing the Front as a painter, but he was no longer feeling it as a painter. ‘I am no longer an artist interested and curious,’ he wrote to his wife from France. ‘I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.’

Nash returned to England in 1918 to resume his career as a painter: but he knew it would have to be a different career, because he was a different painter, ‘a war artist’, as he put it, ‘without a war’. He knew, as everyone must have known then, that there could be no going back to the world before the war, neither in life nor in art: a man who had painted No Man’s Land could not return to landscape painting in the old manner. Nash’s notes for Outline, his unfinished autobiography, show how much the necessity of change was in his mind in those post-war years: ‘New life in a different world,’ he wrote. ‘New kinds of work ... I begin to learn about painting. New inspiration. Modern French art.’ The new kinds of work included ventures into industrial design (he even designed a famous bathroom – Tilly Losch’s, in 1934), book design and photography. The new inspirations came from the great French Modernists: at various times in the Twenties and Thirties he tried to assimilate the manners of Cézanne, Picasso and De Chirico into his own style; for a brief period he painted pure abstractions, and later on he was considered the leading English Surrealist. Andrew Causey considers the paintings of these years to be Nash’s ‘contribution to modernism’, and I can see what he means: these are the paintings in which Nash most resembles European Modernists. No doubt it seemed necessary and in-evitable to him to paint such pictures in the post-war world: but the borrowed styles conflicted with his native gift, and the paintings of those years are not his best or most characteristic. When the Second World War came, he turned, with what seems relief, to the role of War Artist, and painted some extraordinary pictures of combat aircraft, and he also returned to his own kind of visionary landscape. He was painting brilliantly when he died in 1946.

Two qualities characterise Nash’s work throughout his career: his capacity for change, and beneath the changes the stubborn constant – his romantic feeling for nature. ‘As you know,’ he wrote to a friend in 1934, ‘I am far too interested in the character of landscape and natural forms generally – from a pictorial point of view – ever to abandon painting after Nature of some kind or other. But I want a wider aspect, a different angle of vision as it were.’ The angle of vision was constantly changing, right to the end of his life, but his awareness of the mystery in nature remained.

One can see this constant in his pictures in his repeated use of Wittenham Clumps in landscapes. The Clumps are two dome-like hills near Shillingford, each with a thick clump of trees at the top, which mark the site of an ancient British camp. ‘Ever since I remember them,’ Nash wrote in Outline, ‘the Clumps had meant something to me. I felt their importance long before I knew their history ... They were the Pyramids of my small world.’ Nash valued the Clumps for their formal composition: but he also felt in them an immanence, something ancient and English that gets into the paintings. He first drew them in 1912 and 1913; they appear again in ‘landscape of the Megaliths’ in 1934, in wartime symbolic works such as ‘Landscape of the Vernal Equinox’ and ‘Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase’, and in his last completed oil, ‘Solstice of the Sunflower’. These pictures differ from each other in method, but they belong to one visionary world. That world consists of natural things, charged with mystery the quality that critics are identifying when they call the pictures ‘metaphysical’ or ‘transcendental’ (though ‘romantic’ seems the most direct term). There are virtually no human beings there: Nash said he didn’t care for human nature, ‘except sublimated or as puppets, monsters, masses formally related to Nature’. When he felt the need for some ‘drama of being’ in his work, he introduced megaliths into his paintings, not people: in his world objects were personages, but persons weren’t – it is this sense of the personalities of objects that makes his airplane paintings so powerful. Aside from the planes, there are scarcely any references to contemporary reality in Nash’s pictures; even structures like the Dymchurch sea-wall and St Pancras Station are assimilated into the vision, and assume the quality of ancient, dateless monuments.

If an imagined world is emptied of human presence and denied location in time, what makes it modern? The forms, one would say at once: Nash’s paintings transform reality, they draw on geometry, on disjunctive space, on symbols without referents – they compose the same sort of disorienting modern world that The Waste Land does. But I think they are modern in another sense, too: they are the paintings of a man trying to hang on to the landscape of England as a subject, while rendering truly his sense of existence in nature in his own time. War had changed the modern sense of what that existence was like: a modern vision of the world would have to acknowledge the reality of violence and death, and the absence of natural benevolence. And yet if the tradition of English landscape painting was to continue, painters would have to find ways of affirming the persistence of value in nature, and in life itself. In his finest paintings Nash found the symbols that would express this tension of violence and vitality in the world: the sea breaks against the sea wall, dead trees stand like monsters on the earth, fallen German aircraft lie like dead creatures on English fields. Yet the English earth persists: the megaliths stand, the ancient earthworks remain, the trees of Wittenham Clumps still crown their hills. And life itself persists, in the sun, and in the flaming sunflower of his last picture.

The symbols, you might say, are literary (Blake and Hardy seem the most immediate sources); and certainly Nash did remain a literary painter. But I don’t see that as a pejorative statement, when the literary elements function formally, as they do in Nash’s pictures. It is simply one kind of painting – perhaps not the dominant kind in modern painting, but a possible kind, in a particularly English tradition. And Nash did it better than any other modern English painter has.

Nash’s achievement will be a good deal easier to assess with Andrew Causey’s handsome volume to hand. The purpose of the book, Causey explains in a preface, ‘is to clarify the pattern of Nash’s imagery in the context of his life and ideas and the evolution of contemporary art’: that is, it combines art-history, iconography and biography (though the biography is of the imagination rather than of the man). This purpose is achieved in a modest, lucid text, and more vividly in the fine illustrations – ten in colour, and nearly 600 more in black and white.

One way to describe Wyndham Lewis would be simply to say that in every way he was the opposite of Nash. Nash was romantic, literary and symbolist: Lewis was violently anti all of that. Nash was a vitalist: Lewis wrote that ‘deadness is the first condition of art.’ Nash painted natural forms: Lewis announced early in his career that ‘all revolutionary painting today has in common the rigid reflections of steel and stone in the spirit of the artist.’ Nash was entirely English, of a family which had lived in the same part of Buckinghamshire since the 15th century: Lewis was born in Canada of an American father and an English mother, and so shared the émigré status of the other ‘Men of 1914’. Nash’s subjects were primarily landscapes: Lewis painted geometrical abstractions and portraits, never, so far as I can discover, a natural scene.

But perhaps the most fundamental difference between them was that Nash was a painter and only a painter (though Outline and the occasional essays and letters show that he could write with grace and eloquence when he wished); while Lewis was, by his own account, ‘a novelist, painter, sculptor, philosopher, draughtsman, critic, politician, journalist, essayist, pamphleteer, all rolled into one, like one of the portmanteau-men of the Italian Renaissance’. That was one of his problems: he saw himself as a Renaissance man, a sort of modern da Vinci; but the world distrusts portmanteau-men – surely they can’t be that gifted, some of the tricks must be done with mirrors. In Lewis’s case, the world was right: he was only a Renaissance man manqué.

Lewis appeared in London in the years before the First World War, and was quickly recognised as the most avant-garde painter in town. In 1914 he made his advance position official by announcing, with his friend Pound, a new movement called Vorticism, and by issuing the first number of his first periodical, Blast. Neither the movement nor the magazine had any very precise principles to offer: Vorticism was a mixture of Cubism and Futurism which celebrated mechanical energy and deplored representational art; Blast was violently against the past, and in favour of machines, movement, and various friends of the editor. Together the two can now best be seen as the first shots in the war against Victorianism which constituted such a substantial part of English Modernism (‘BLAST years 1837 to 1900,’ Lewis’s journal shouted). The magazine ran only to a second issue, in 1915, and then died; the movement faded at about the same time.

In Lewis’s account, Vorticism was killed by the war. And perhaps it was. In 1914 in London there were some gifted abstract painters – Lewis, Bomberg, Nevinson – and at least two fine Modernist (though not primarily abstract) sculptors – Epstein and Gaudier Brzeska. And there was Pound, not yet launched on the Cantos, but busy in the cause of whatever was advanced. Maybe if war had not intervened these men might have managed to become a coherent Modern movement: but it did, and they didn’t. By the end of the war the group had been dispersed, and the collective impulse dissipated.

Like Nash, Lewis went to the war first as a soldier, and like Nash he saw war with a painter’s eye. But in Lewis’s case it was an abstract eye that looked, and saw that war was Vorticist. ‘War,’ he later wrote, ‘and especially those miles of hideous desert known as “the Line” in Flanders and France, presented me with a subject-matter so consonant with the austerity of that “abstract” vision I had developed, that it was an easy transition.’ Nash had had the same sort of reaction, though he had felt less cheerful about it: ‘I begin to believe,’ he wrote from the Front, ‘in the Vorticist doctrine of destruction almost.’

On his second trip to the Front Lewis went as a War Artist, and he put his abstract vision to use. His war paintings are Vorticist in their geometric, hard-edged composition, though they are also, in a highly stylised way, representational. Unlike Nash, Lewis filled his war pictures with human figures: but he dehumanised them, made them insect-like, or mechanical-looking. And he included guns, and the explosions of their shells. Heavy artillery pieces, he said, were ‘a stimulus to power’, and he was already drawn to power for its own sake. After the war, his exhibition of war paintings was called ‘Guns by Wyndham Lewis’.

Lewis returned to London after the war, but not to a position of leadership in the avant-garde. The posture that he assumed was rather that of the hostile, suspicious outsider, as exemplified in the title of one of his short-lived journals, The Enemy. All the world was his enemy, and he was the enemy of the world. He continued to paint well in those years – when he painted at all – but his energies were more and more taken up by the writing of the Enemy’s opinions; he had no exhibition of his paintings between 1921 and 1937.

One wonders what exactly went wrong with Lewis’s career. Was his alienation from English art and artists simply a consequence of the dislocations of war? Had he been boycotted by his old enemy, Roger Fry, as his wife believed, and forced to turn to writing in order to exist? Or had he been seized with a messianic urge to change men’s minds, for which pictures were inadequate instruments? His own explanation was simple, if somewhat unconvincing: ‘I had found from bitter experience,’ he wrote, ‘that an artist in England is compelled to sacrifice so much time explaining why he is an artist at all, that the necessary time for the donkey-work, to do the stuff, is not available.’

Whatever the reason, Lewis’s post-war years were largely devoted to polemical prose. During the 1920s he wrote the six satiric/philosophical/polemical works that were to compose his one ‘megalo-mastodonic master-work’, to be called ‘The Man of the World’. Since the whole book would be considerably longer than War and Peace, and a good deal less readable, Lewis failed to find a publisher for it, and eventually broke it into its constituent parts: The Art of Being Ruled, The Lion and the Fox, Time and Western Man, The Childermass, Paleface and The Apes of God. Or so Lewis’s story goes, though it’s hard to see how six such different parts could ever have coalesced in one book, even in Lewis’s odd imagination.

Anyone who has read even one of these books has come into contact with a cranky but brilliant mind. It is a mind of extraordinary aggressiveness, more given to arguing, denouncing, ridiculing and asserting than to reasoning or explaining. Pound described it precisely: Lewis’s mind, he said, was ‘volcanic and explosive’. And what it poured out was like a volcano’s flow – heated, forceful, destructive and formless. None of the books seems finished, or even revised. And the style is appropriate to the volcanic mind: impatient, often coarsely abusive, abrupt, unsubtle, without nuances. It is the voice of the Enemy.

In the Thirties, Lewis turned to international politics, and wrote the first English book in praise of Hitler, followed by Left Wings over Europe, The Jews, are they human? and, in 1939, The Hitler Cult (in which he recanted his pro-Fascist views). His politics were the predictable ones of a man who was stimulated by big guns and took the world to be his enemy: that is, they were authoritarian, racist and violent. Inevitably, his political writings further alienated him from the society in which he demanded a place of honour.

These years of on the whole quite regrettable books were, paradoxically, the years of some of Lewis’s finest paintings. In the Thirties he painted the striking series of imaginary scenes, inhabited by sinister, doll-like figures, to which he gave titles such as ‘Group of Suppliants’, ‘One of the Stations of the Dead’ and ‘Inferno’ – pictures which suggest both a personal vision of Hell and a surreal vision of the mood of the day. And at the same time he painted the portraits – of Eliot, Pound and Spender among others – that must rank with the greatest of modern English portraiture.

During that decade, Lewis changed. Perhaps it was his literary and legal troubles (two books were suppressed under threats of libel suits, and Lewis was sued for breach of contract by a publisher), perhaps it was continuing ill-health, perhaps it was the public reaction to his politics, or all three. Whatever it was, the Enemy calmed down a bit, his prose style moderated, his fiction became less satiric and more naturalistic, and his paintings addressed the actual human face. To Auden and MacNeice (in Letters from Iceland) Lewis was ‘that lonely old volcano of the Right’ – but the volcano was not erupting the way it had.

When the Second World War started, Lewis moved to Canada, not, apparently, in flight from danger, but in a desperate search for portrait commissions, or a teaching Job, or any other employment that would support him and his wife. The move was a mistake: it further isolated him from the intellectual world of London, and from the common life of wartime England. He made no contribution to the record of the war experience, and he painted no pictures of any distinction during those years: he simply wasted half a decade in a frozen, Philistine place that he hated. After the war he returned to London and resumed his hand-to-mouth life of painting, writing and occasional broadcasting. But his vision was beginning to deteriorate, and by 1951 he was blind. He accepted the approach of this affliction with a calm, even cheerful courage: ‘I shall then have to light a lamp of aggressive voltage in my mind,’ he wrote, ‘to keep at bay the night.’ And so he did. He continued to write until his death in 1957: Self-Condemned, his autobiographical novel of the Canadian years, and his most human book, was written during those dark years.

A career like Lewis’s, so various and so full of anger, is difficult to assess, or even to describe. One might begin with a remark from Childermass: ‘The trouble is,’ Alectryon says to the Bailiff, ‘that only your hatred is creative.’ He forced the creative power of hatred as far as it could go: in his books everything is the enemy, to be attacked by satire, burlesque, parody, ridicule or simply by direct assault. To a degree, this is also true of the paintings. Certainly, the war paintings and the Infernos of the Thirties contain a cold hatred: but even the portraits manage to diminish their subjects – look at the cruel treatment of Edith Sitwell, look even at his portrait of his friend Eliot.

When a man hates and distrusts the entire world, one is tempted to call him paranoid. If he also wears disguises, makes mysterious appointments in out-of-the-way places, and sits always with his back to the wall, paranoia seems a likely explanation. Jeffrey Meyers argues that in fact this was all a role that Lewis consciously assumed as a judgment of society, and therefore concludes that all of the many people who described Lewis as paranoid, or worse, were deliberately distorting his character and misrepresenting his motives. But since all testimonies agree, and since the writings support them, it seems more reasonable to conclude that he did see the world around him as engaged in a vast conspiracy to suppress his art and destroy his livelihood.

The books that record his paranoia are an impressive monument to his convictions. But not a readable monument. Though the books sometimes flash and roar, and dazzle with the violence of their aggressive voltage, the philosophical ones don’t sustain their arguments, and the fictions achieve what Lewis said all art should aspire to – deadness. They deserve to be where posterity has put them, in the dust of the merely historically significant – evidences of the connections between Modernism and the political Right between the wars, and demonstrations of the truth that hatred is simply not a sufficient creative force.

Jeffrey Meyers has written the first biography of this difficult, gifted man, and it is a book well worth having. With immense industry Meyers has gathered together a coherent account of a life that Lewis went to some trouble to conceal; and he has managed an even more difficult thing – he has written about his subject with sympathy. Too much sympathy, I sometimes felt as I read the book: Meyers seems never to have seen what an awful person Lewis sometimes was. But perhaps only a partisan could have endured the long intimacy that writing a biography entails, and sympathy is never a grave defect.

Meyers, who is a professor of English, is, not surprisingly, better and more accurate in dealing with Lewis’s literary life than he is on the art-history side. The contributors to his collection of essays are also mostly in Eng. Lit., and they deal entirely with Lewis as a writer. Like Meyers, they are partisans of the Enemy; only one is firmly anti-Lewis, and he, poor fellow, gets his name misspelled – a bit of revenge that Lewis would have approved.

It is fortunate, therefore, that the catalogue of the Lewis show held last autumn at the Manchester Gallery should appear at this time to represent the other Lewis, in eight colour plates and 158 black-and-white reproductions. I can’t imagine that anyone who first read Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation, and then looked through the exhibition catalogue, could reach any conclusion but mine: that a genius painted the pictures, but a less gifted, and far less controlled man wrote the books, and that it would be well worth consigning the entire prose works, and the dreary doggerel poems as well, to the shredder, if by doing so we might recover a single one of the paintings that have been lost.

I said at the beginning of this piece that Nash and Lewis represent both a common experience and a significant dualism. What they shared was the experience of reaching maturity, and finding a style and place in the art world before the war, and then having to return after the war to an altered world to make a new start. The war was surely the crucial formative event in both lives. It dislocated their careers, but it did something else more deeply disturbing: it dislocated the society in which before the war even their avant-garde art had had a place. One feels that the Camden Town Group and the two Post-Impressionist shows stood on the stout foundations of the Edwardian bourgeoisie: after the war those foundations were shaken, and the place of the avant-garde was unclear. Nash managed the transition back into art better than Lewis did, perhaps because the England to which he returned from the war retained a continuity with the past. Lewis never found a way of connecting with the post-war world, and so he took it as his enemy.

The Nash-Lewis dualism can be defined in various terms – as romanticism v. something colder, for which classicism isn’t the right term but for which there isn’t any other; as Englishness v. Internationalism; as Nature v. the mechanical; as country v. city; as continuity v. historical disjunction. Together the two comprise a sketch of the history of English Modernism from the years just before one war to the years just after another. The sketch needs both of them, if it is to be just: perhaps that necessary dualism is what is most English about English Modernism.