Into the vortex

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 27

Into the vortex

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 27

Into the vortex

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 27

Into the vortex

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 45, Winter 2015

Page 27

William Roberts was one of the trailblazers of modern British art, but he was also his own worst enemy. Mark Hudson speaks up for a reclusive genius

There are artists who have hugely enhanced their reputations through personal charm, an ability to work the system or simply by being nice people. Then there are those who stymie their progress at every turn through misanthropy, social ineptitude or simple shyness. William Roberts belongs very much in the latter category. In 1961, he included himself in a monumental composition, The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring 1915, as he had appeared 46 years earlier: an eager 19-year-old surrounded by the luminaries of Britain's first great modern art movement, including the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis and the poet Ezra Pound. At that moment, Roberts couldn't have been closer to the center of British Modernism.

By the time he painted the gathering, Roberts was an almost forgotten figure who had barely spoken to anyone outside his immediate family for decades. Yet in the 1950s and early 1960s his art was at the peak of its mature phase, in a series of monumental canvases which are only now receiving the attention they deserve. One of these, The Rape of the Sabines (1953), is featured in Bonhams Modern British and Irish Art sale in November.

The Rape of the Sabines tackles in ambiguously modern terms a great classical theme explored by masters from Rubens to David. The clothes appear for the most part mundanely contemporary, while the desert setting evokes a timeless antiquity. Roberts' transposition of the mythological and the biblical into the everyday world recalls his contemporary and fellow student at London's prestigious Slade School of Art, Stanley Spencer. But the visual treatment couldn't be more different. The angular compression of the struggling figures harks back to the Cubistic experiments of Roberts' pre-First World War Vorticist period, while the rounded stylisation is characteristic of his mature style. Once he had established this in the late 1940s, Roberts seemed hardly to develop or depart from it until his death in 1980.

This stylisation, combined with a delight in portraying the pleasures of ordinary people – football matches, cinema outings and seaside holidays – has seen Roberts dubbed the 'British Léger'. Yet where the great French modernist embraced humanity in a utopian socialist vision, Roberts appeared to reject his fellow man.

"He wasn't someone who knew how to make himself liked," Pauline Paucker, a family friend and long-time neighbor in Camden Town, north London, told me when I interviewed her a few years ago. "He was paralyzed by shyness, and painfully aware of himself as a carpenter's son from Hackney living among middle-class people."

Despite his modest origins, Roberts, born in 1895, enjoyed a meteoric early career. He was awarded a scholarship to the Slade at 15, where he rubbed shoulders with leading lights such as David Bomberg, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer. He briefly joined the Omega designers workshop, founded by Bloomsbury Group member Roger Fry, and signed the Vorticist manifesto alongside Lewis, Pound and the artists Edward Wadsworth and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska – all before he was 20.

Taken up by Vorticism's flamboyant founder, Wyndham Lewis, when they were working at the Omega Workshop, the teenage Roberts became central to a movement that set out to blast the comfortable certainties of Edwardian England. While Vorticism was short-lived, its veneration of the machine rendered nonsensical by the First World War, echoes of its jagged forms and jarring colors can be found in Roberts' later work.

During the war, he served in the Royal Artillery and as an official war artist, producing some of the toughest and most truthful images to emerge from the conflict. His work then became gradually less abstract, and despite an initial burst of commercial success, from 1925 he found it increasingly difficult to sell.

While he continued to produce paintings at an astonishing rate, Roberts, his wife Sarah and son John spent decades moving between one-room lodgings, before settling in the then rough Primrose Hill area of north London, where they were eventually able to buy a house. By that time, Roberts had withdrawn from almost all human contact.

Visitors were forced to use the side entrance for fear of disturbing him. He taught at Central School of Art for 35 years, where he famously refused to speak to his students, preferring to scribble on their work. Even favorable journalistic comment was met with rebuttal through his fiercely articulate, self-published pamphlets.

In his memoirs, the playwright Alan Bennett, a neighbor and a great admirer of Roberts' work, recalled often seeing the artist in the streets of Camden Town during the 1970s. He was, according to Bennett, "an apple-cheeked man, like a small, rotund farmer, but he wasn't at all amiable and if one got in his way on the pavement he would unleash a torrent of abuse".

When Bennett went for tea with Sarah Roberts, he was made to beat a hasty retreat before the artist returned from his afternoon stroll. Yet, while this all contributes to an impression of a curmudgeonly character, it isn't an image that Pauline Paucker recognizes. On the two occasions she heard Roberts speak over many years of close family involvement, she found him almost incapable of getting his words out. "He felt the critics had turned against him, and he withdrew into himself. It wasn't malicious, he just didn't want to speak to anyone. And why should he?"

Alongside his distinctive figure compositions, Roberts also produced unsparing portraits of notable figures, such as T. E. Lawrence and the economist J. M. Keynes – and also of Sarah, who was almost his only bridge to the outside world. Lively, vivacious and five years his junior, Sarah met Roberts when she was 15. She strenuously protected him, maintaining a lifestyle of austere bohemianism, rejecting all electrical appliances, even when the couple found relative affluence in the 1970s.

Yet hearing about the way Sarah would shoo visitors from the house as Roberts watched from the garden with what Paucker describes as a "curiously impish expression", you can't help wondering if, far from shunning the world, Roberts was actually a chronic attention seeker. "There was certainly a mischievous side to his character," says Paucker. "He could see the humor in the situation he'd created for himself, but then there's a lot of humor in his paintings too."

It's time we looked again at this absurdly under-rated figure, who is too often written off as a quasi-outsider artist. Roberts's work may be quirky, but it is very far from naïve. There's a sophisticated intelligence behind the paintings which are firmly rooted in the Modernist ethos, but can be as idiosyncratically British as a John Betjeman poem. Roberts is often described as having been being lucky to be part of a glittering generation at the Slade. He may yet prove to have been the most brilliant of the lot – even if he was, as staunch defender Pauline Paucker concedes, "very much his own worst enemy".

Mark Hudson is chief art critic of the Daily Telegraph.

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