Lewis, Wyndham Percy
The painter and writer Percy Wyndham Lewis was born at sea off Nova Scotia, Canada, son of an American father and a British mother. He moved to London with his mother, and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1898 to 1901. From then until 1909 he often traveled and worked abroad, in particular in Paris and Munich. His companions included Spencer Gore, Augustus John, and Ambrose McEvoy. In 1909 and 1910 the influence of early Cubism and German Expressionism became apparent in his work, while his designs for the portfolio Timon of Athens exhibited at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912 revealed his assimilation of Futurist idioms, and the beginnings of a personal style.
In 1913 Lewis arrived at an original Abstract style derived from a synthesis of Expressionist, Cubist and Futurist ideas that was subsequently termed “Vorticism”; Composition (1913; Tate Gallery, London) and his folio of 20 drawings on modern life entitled Timon of Athens (1913) are typical works. His paintings of 1913 to 1915 were the first sustained body of Abstract work to be produced in England. In 1913 he also joined Roger Fry's Omega Workshops, but withdrew with others amidst controversy later in the year, to found the rival Rebel Art Center which became the seedbed of Vorticism. Most of the “rebels” contributed to the first issue of the Vorticist magazine Blast in 1914.
Lewis' verbal and visual concerns came together in this publication, not least in the aggressive typography and design. Blast, inspired by Futurist publications and intended to shake up the English art establishment, was very largely the expression of Lewis' attitudes. His were practically the only works illustrated in the magazine to match the strident prose; indeed Ezra Pound, a fellow-contributor, considered Vorticism itself to be “nine-tenths Lewis”. His paintings of 1913 to 1915 were so individual and assertive, and of such clarity and dynamism, that it was inevitable that his work should shape the style of the other Vorticists.
By 1915 the conviction of his Abstract works began to wane. Workshop of 1915 (New York Public Library), for example, has lost much of the tightness and internal rhythm of the paintings of 1913 and 1914, such as Man of War and Red Duet (private collection). In 1916 Lewis eventually joined the Army, and was seconded as a war artist in 1917. The paintings that resulted, such as A Battery Shelled (1919; Imperial War Museum, London), were figurative but tightly organized, and were some of the finest works of their kind. Apart from a brief episode in the early 1920s he never approached total abstraction again.
Lewis' linear gifts were subsequently evident in an increasing number of uncompromising portraits, both drawings and oils, from Ezra Pound (1914 - 15; now lost; 1938 version in the Tate Gallery, London) to T.S. Eliot (II) (1938; Durban Museum and Art Gallery). He also painted some ambitious but rather unsuccessful literary and historical compositions in the 1930s. The general tendency of his work after the crystalline Vorticist paintings was towards a more organic kind of composition. The latter can be linked with English neo-Romantic art of the Second World War. Lewis' vision deteriorated, and he finally went blind in 1950. Thereafter he concentrated all his energies upon writing, with which he had been engaged spas-modically for over 40 years. He died in London.
Further reading Cork, R. Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, London (1976). Handley-Read, C. The Art of Wyndham Lewis, London (1951). Rothenstein, J. Modern English Painters: Lewis to Moore, London (1962).
We're sorry this article wasn't helpful. Tell us how we can improve.