Books: Sensational Blast from the Past ; Long before the Age of Hirst and Emin, Wyndham Lewis Had Turned Scandal into a Fine Art. Yet Private and Public Blunders Blighted His Brilliant Career

Article excerpt

Some Sort of Genius: a life of Wyndham Lewis

by Paul O'Keeffe

Jonathan Cape, pounds 25, 682pp

Wyndham Lewis:

painter and writer

by Paul Edwards

Yale University Press, pounds 40, 583pp

Artistic London is a-twitter these days. Journalists are scouring the fine-arts degree shows, eager to spot "the new sensation," to sniff out "the next Damien Hirsts and Tracy Emins," and to guess "What will Charles Saatchi be hanging on his walls this autumn?" Such reports confirm what many have long suspected: that the contemporary art world has capitulated to the culture of instant celebrity. Young students scarcely earn a BA before they discover they must take a crash course in public relations. One wonders, however, what their imaginary instructor would tell them to make of Wyndham Lewis, arguably the greatest British painter of the period 1900 to 1945. He could only be deemed an object lesson in failure. Never has a career been so spectacularly mismanaged.

Born in 1882 in Canada, Lewis moved to England with his family aged six. His American father soon left, and Lewis's English mother started a laundering business in north London. Lewis was enrolled in the Slade School of Art at 16. Though he received a prestigious scholarship, he proved a troublesome student. In a gesture of deliberate defiance, he lit a cigarette just outside the office of the director, violating the strict regulations against smoking. He was promptly seized, flung through the school's double doors and told never to return. No degree show for him.

For the next 10 years Lewis lived a bohemian life supported by his mother, much of it abroad in Madrid, Munich and Paris. He published his first short story in 1908, and by 1910 seemed poised to become more a writer than a painter. But in 1911 he contributed to his first group exhibition. His works were immediately noticed by critics. His taut draughtsmanship was unmistakable, and already by 1912 he was producing works that drew on the latest idioms of modernism to create a personal style: strange automatons, their faces locked in rigid grimaces, stagger through disturbing fields of piercing arcs and angles.

It was a propitious moment. In 1910 Roger Fry had staged his famous Exhibition of Post-Impressionism, while in early 1912 the first Exhibition of Futurist Painting took London by storm, prompting unprecedented debate about contemporary art. Lewis admired the polemical onslaught which the Futurists had mounted and resolved to be every bit as truculent in shaping a movement of his own. It was his good fortune to team up with Ezra Pound, whose canny sense of polemics and publicity served Lewis well. In 1914, they launched Vorticism with Blast, an avant-garde journal bristling with pugnacious manifestos and typography.

Lewis was becoming a celebrity. His room decorations for the Countess Drogheda had been highly publicised, promising access to the rich and influential; he was even making "cubist" fans for a dinner held by Lady Cunard, the celebrated hostess. His serious work also received acclaim. Roger Fry and Clive Bell had singled out his paintings for praise, and the wealthy New York collector, John Quinn, was waiting in the wings.

Unbeknown to any of these, Lewis was leading a double life. Olive Johnson, a sometime "shopgirl" and "waitress", gave birth to his first illegitimate child in 1911 and his second in 1913. Both were entrusted to Lewis's ageing mother, with Lewis promising what he could from his erratic earnings. In 1919 and 1920, he produced two more illegitimate children, duly sent off to a "Home for the Infants and Children of Gentlepeople", with Lewis undertaking to pay.

To conceal his private life, Lewis developed an elaborate system of rotating flats and studios. Typically he rented a single furnished room as his private abode; a second that functioned as a studio for painting; and a third or even fourth to store books or host social occasions. …