Few artists have been more reclusive than William Roberts. When I began researching my book on vorticism in the early 1970s, he was still vigorously producing monumental paintings at his house near Primrose Hill in north-west London. As one of the few eyewitnesses surviving from the crucial pre-1914 period, Roberts could have provided me with invaluable memories of his fellow vorticists. But he always refused to see me or even answer my letters, and I soon realised that he treated every one else with the same stubborn hostility. One journalist who was rash enough to ring Roberts's doorbell ended up kneeling on the front step, struggling in vain to conduct a conversation with the retiring artist through his letter box.
Now, in a very funny memoir written for the catalogue of a major Roberts retrospective, the curator Anne Goodchild recalls her bizarre encounter with him on a number 74 bus. Fascinated to gain a sighting of the octogenarian recluse, she followed him to the top deck. Aided by "the chutzpah of youthful inexperience", she respectfully asked him if she were addressing Mr William Roberts. After what felt like an interminable pause, and with his gaze defiantly averted, he replied: "I really do not know."
Roberts was so secretive that he would not even let his own son John into his studio. Decades ago, he turned down a request to stage a large exhibition of his work at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, where the present excellent show is being held. So he must have been his own worst enemy, obstructing the growth of his reputation by preventing the public from viewing the pictures he had produced with such commitment and care. The sad truth is that Roberts worked in a void for the latter part of his career, after the Arts Council mounted his retrospective at the Tate Gallery in 1965. From that year until his death in 1980, he hardly spoke to anyone except his devoted wife Sarah and John.
But by an extraordinary paradox, the paintings of his later years are largely devoted to celebrating the communal delights of London life. Far from focusing on isolated individuals, caught up in an obsessive protection of their own privacy, Roberts defined groups of gregarious, beefy figures shopping at street markets, feeding seagulls by the canal, chatting in the local pub and cheering at a football match. Like his French contemporary Fernand Leger, Roberts was an intensely social artist, determined to invest the most everyday scene with statuesque dignity and significance.
Among the late canvases displayed in the new exhibition, a tall painting called The Lake stands out. Probably based on a scene he knew well, at the Regent's Park boating lake near his home, it is dominated by the stiff verticality of massive foreground figures feeding the ducks or waving. We are aware of the overall flatness of the picture surface, and Roberts gave even the most distant boaters as mush linear clarity as their largest counterparts on the water's edge. A commotion breaks out towards the top of the canvas, where angular arms stretch, bend and strain with almost as much geometric severity as the triangular sails floating beyond them. But the overall mood is genial.
The son of a Hackney carpenter, Roberts grew up in a working-class community. He began by drawing portraits of his immediate family, and the Newcastle show opens with some stern yet affectionate studies of his brother and sister. Their gazes seem watchful to the point of defensiveness, and Roberts must likewise have felt guarded when he entered the predominantly middle-class world of the Slade School of Art. Only 16, he was younger than most of his fellow students. But he found himself part of an exceptional Slade generation, including David Bomberg, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and the soon-to-be vorticist Edward Wadsworth.
Pre-war London was alive with intense, often virulent controversy about …