1882 – 1957
Percy Wyndham Lewis was born on his parents’ yacht on the coast of Nova Scotia 18 November 1882. His father was American, his mother was English. By place of birth, Lewis was Canadian. The family was wealthy, and this allowed him to go to Rugby School in England, followed by three years at Slade School of Art in London, which, whether by accident or by design, was a very important and life-shaping move. At the Slade, he studied drawing under Tonks (who is rather unfairly ‘blasted’ in Blast), the same tutor who taught Bomberg, Gertler, Carrington, Roberts – in fact everyone who attended the Slade in these pre-war years. Lewis was at the Slade between 1899 to 1902.
He was attracted to the idea of being an artist, so went to the natural contemporary artists’ hangout – Paris. It was here he met Picasso who was busy perfecting Cubism. We must assume that Lewis was there at first hand to witness the first flowerings of the Cubist epoch. While in Paris he also befriended the slightly older Augustus John, another graduate of the Slade. He was in Paris at this time, and there is no doubt that for a time, Lewis was captivated by this grand painters’ charisma; the two were great friends, and were to be for the rest of Lewis’s life – which was a rare thing indeed. It was here also that he started to write, and he decided that his pen was the equal of his brush. He was capable of leading this life of the wandering artist due to his private means – an income that gave him the chance to avoid paid work, and, at this time in his life, hunger. However, he was not a rich man. He knew that he would have to turn his hand at something soon, before the money ran out.
The Move to London
His private income was reduced in 1909. He moved to London, and it was at this point that he started to make moves to support himself. It is on record that his first port of call was at Ford Maddox Heuffers’ house. Lewis proposed that he would write some articles for Ford’s publication, the English Review. He found Ford in the bath, but, unabashed, read through the manuscript he had brought. Whether it was through being held a captive in his own bathroom by this apparition in a black coat and hat, or whether it was because Ford detected a genius at work, the article was printed and it represented Lewis’s first commission in London.
Lewis continued to expand his circle of artistic and literary colleagues working in London. This location had become the ‘new Paris’: many of these artists and writers were in fact foreigners, as Lewis himself was. Amongst his friends were the American poet Ezra Pound (who would later coin the word ‘Vorticism’), American Poet TS Eliot, and French/Polish sculptor Gaudier Brzeska. It was at this point, surrounded by these influences that Lewis started to develop a style of drawing and painting that would be one of the foundations of Vorticism. His style was linear, with dramatic, geometrically precise angles that was a world apart from the flaccid crypto-impressionisn of Sickert or Sargeant. The style was self-consciously modern – diametrically opposed to such traditional styles. Lewis was a lifelong rebel, and at this point in his life was rebelling against the current tastes in English Art. But with good reason: British art was still struggling to tear itself away from the Victorian era.
Lewis was becoming well known for his succession of highly original works from this period. During 1912 and 1913 he placed his works in several exhibitions, and during this time he was one of Britain’s most advanced painters. Although he had not yet evolved Vorticism, his work was moving towards a geometric style. For example, his large work Kermesse (which unfortunately does not survive) was favourably noted when hung at the Allied Artists Exhibition in 1912. He was noticed by Roger Fry, an art critic who also owned the Omega Workshop, an ‘Atelier’ set up to provide original, modernistic furniture and furnishings for clients. It was not ideal: Lewis wanted to be an artist not an employee, but he needed the money.
The Omega Workshop
He commenced work at Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop in July 1913, alongside other artists like Etchells, Hamilton, Wadsworth, Gaudier-Brzeska and Roberts, who would eventually become fellow Vorticists.
In October 1913, Lewis had left. There will always be a difficulty after all these years about what the circumstances were about his leaving, but it seems that there had been a misunderstanding about a commission. The client – the Ideal Home Exhibition, had specifically asked for Lewis to supply some decorations from the Omega Workshops. Lewis was on holiday, but upon his return, the decorations had been completed, and ready for installation. Lewis took this personally, left and wrote a ‘Round Robin’. It was signed by four dissenting ex-employees, who all felt that Fry had picked this commission up personally due to the prestige of the client. Lewis, Hamilton, Etchells and Wadsworth left the Omega.
Lewis was once again an independent force, but now he was at least secure in the knowledge that there were others around him who also felt the same frustrations. Confident of this support, he set up the ‘Rebel Art Centre’ in March 1914 with money provided by his close supporter Kate Lechmere. It was here that he unfurled the colours of the great English Artistic Rebellion. Two months later, Vorticism was announced in May 1914. Lewis was at the height of his powers. But this tidal wave of artisic rebellion was soon to be snuffed out in the most grotesque way. The First World War commenced barely three months later, in August 1914.
Lewis was dogged by illness at the beginning of the War, but on recovering, joined the Royal Artillery as a Bombardier (equivalent to a Private). He later took a commission, and became an Artillery Officer. His father had been a Union Army Officer in the American Civil War, and so army life was not so alien to him. He had an eventful time in the trenches, often having to be hazardously close to the fighting, whilst serving as the forward observation officer for his battery of massive howitzers. Eventually persuaded to do some War paintings, Lewis was seconded to the Canadian Army. Some of his masterful War paintings are held by the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth.
After the War, Lewis started the shortlived Group X, followed by a phase of painting ‘Tyros’. To help pay the rent, he wrote Blasting & Bombardiering an autobiography. He delved deeper into debt as the 1920s wore on, then in the 1930′s, with his health declining again, was reduced to painting society portraits, something he hated doing. Writing helped pay the rent, whilst it came easier to him than the portraits. His books are an interesting blend of opinion, political philosphy and invention. He is mostly known for the Childermass Trilogy, and his Wartime novel, Tarr.
He moved to Canada for a while, but returned to London, his spiritual home, the place of his greatest artistic victories. By the 1950′s he was blind. He died on 7 March 1957 in London. The flat where he lived for his last years was pulled down days afterwards, to make way for the A40M.