William Roberts 1895-1980


Private Collection, UK

William Roberts was born into a working class family in the East End of London in 1895, winning a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art in 1910 where he studied under the tutorship of Professor Tonks. Upon leaving the Slade in 1913, he travelled to France and Italy before working for Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops. During his travels he was strongly influenced by Post-Impressionism and Cubism, and upon his return to Britain became associated with the Vorticist movement headed by Wyndham Lewis, signing the first manifesto Blast in 1914. During the war he served in the Royal Artillery and as an Official War Artist, producing some of his most iconic paintings such as 'The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel', 1915, now in the Tate Collection. After the war, Roberts turned his attention to portraiture and urban scenes, which developed into monumental, multi-figure works in his mature career. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1966, and died in 1980. With his distinctive stylized and rounded sculptural figures, and humorous depictions verging on the grotesque or caricature, Roberts’ work looks both to previous artists such as Cézanne and Picasso while evolving from an innovative and uniquely British modern style informed by his Vorticist colleagues including C.R.W. Nevinson and David Bomberg.

In 1956 the Tate Gallery held an exhibition entitled ‘Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism’ with 150 works by Lewis and a small selection of his Vorticist compatriots. William Roberts, enraged by the suggestion that Lewis was superior to the rest of the Vorticists retaliated with a series of five publications: The Vortex Pamphlets, published between 1956 and 1958. The third of these, titled A Press View at the Tate Gallery was illustrated with a frontispiece depicting a group of self-important critics studying abstract paintings, with one peering studiously at a ‘No Smoking’ sign. This frontispiece became the starting point for a series of drawings, studies and paintings relating to the art gallery, of which 'The Avant-Garde' (1970) is an outstanding example.

Among Roberts’ most biting satires on modern life, 'The Avant-Garde' shows a group of ape-like figures gesturing towards a generically abstract painting. With their identical outfits and synchronized reactions, these foolish admirers, desperate to be fashionable and seen to appreciate the ‘right’ artist, are mocked as much as the art on the wall itself. A watercolour and pencil work on paper, complete in composition and colour, 'The Avant-Garde' may have been intended as a watercolour before a later oil painting. Compositionally, 'The Avant-Garde' strongly relates to an early painting in the Tate Collection, 'The Cinema', from 1920. In this painting, a classic work from Roberts' inter-war output depicting modernity in all its glamour and coarseness, a group watch transfixed as men and women fight (or dance) violently on a film projected onto a screen above them. Perhaps Roberts is suggesting that, fifty years on, man is still just as transfixed and seduced by his own image, be that as a cinematic hero or an art-world poser. With this retrospective gaze, the present work ultimately emphasises Roberts's importance not only as a progenitor of a now immortal modern style at the beginning of the twentieth century, but also as a figure who evaluated and structured subsequent interpretations of that style through subsequent decades.