William Roberts
The Temptation of St Anthony 1950–1

Artwork details

William Roberts 1895–1980
The Temptation of St Anthony
Date 1950–1
Medium Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 1527 x 1149 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1998
Not on display


The Temptation of St Anthony is a large oil painting by the British artist William Roberts. The work depicts six partially clothed women in a desert-like setting who appear to be moving with great force and speed towards a semi-nude male figure seated in the right of the composition. In the foreground one of the women is shown as if toppled over, lying on her back with her knees and feet in the air, while another leans forward to squeeze the nipple of her right breast with her left hand while reaching her right arm towards the man. Despite being almost naked, the women are wearing make-up, nail polish and jewellery and seem to be offering the work’s male subject a series of gifts, including a basket of fruit and a golden bowl. In the background one figure is seen grooming her hair with a decorative red brush while looking into a handheld mirror. The male figure, who has a markedly darker skin tone than the women, seems to be shielding himself from their advances. His arms and hands are raised in front of his face and chest and his expression is one of surprise and fear. Positioned on the ground to the side of the male figure’s left foot are two thick books and a short whip, while to his right is a large black vessel. The painting is signed ‘William Roberts’ in the bottom right corner.

The Temptation of St Anthony was made in 1950–1 in the artist’s home studio at St Mark’s Crescent in Primrose Hill, London. It was executed on a single piece of medium-weight, pre-primed linen canvas supplied to the artist by the Arts Council, London. Roberts used oil paint to make the work, which he thinned with solvent and applied by brush using a wet-on-dry technique. The number of paint layers varies in the painting, from a single application in some areas to a build-up of several in others, but due to the thinning of the paint the weave and texture of the canvas is almost consistently visible throughout. Roberts followed a set procedure in the production of his works that involved the execution of several preliminary sketches and watercolours prior to the completion of the final painting, and the preparatory process for this particular work can be seen in Study for ‘The Temptation of St Anthony’ c.1950–1 (Tate T12702).

In 1948 Roberts began exhibiting at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and shifted the focus of his work from war imagery and scenes of London street life to a series of large oil paintings based on religious and mythological themes, of which The Temptation of St Anthony is one of the first (see also The Revolt in the Desert 1952, Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, The Birth of Venus 1954 and The Rape of the Sabines 1955–6). The painting depicts the biblical St Anthony the hermit, an affluent Egyptian who relinquished a substantial inheritance in favour of living in poverty and abstinence in the desert. As a result of his asceticism Anthony is generally accepted as the founder of modern monasticism and is reported to have resisted intense spiritual and physical temptation. St Anthony is conventionally presented surrounded by demons, but Roberts’s painting focuses on Anthony’s temptation by lust. Ordinarily Anthony protects himself with a crucifix or by prayer, but here is seen shielding himself with his arms alone, his prayer books by his side.

Roberts’s painting also departs from historical depictions of the subject in his combination of a realist and a cubist style of figuration, in which he crowds the composition with figures and often distorts their proportions and the scene’s perspective. The inclusion of conspicuously modern elements such as make-up and nail polish in the work may also be an attempt by Roberts to modernise the story of St Anthony and make it relevant to 1950s audiences. As the artist and critic Andrew Gibbon Williams has noted, ‘Here Roberts is satirising the many Old Master treatments of the subject, spicing up a Classical dish for modern tastes’ (Williams 2004, p.116). Roberts’s biblical and mythological works were, Williams claims, ‘distinguished by their sheer virtuosity of compositional invention, brilliant colouration, exaggerated stylisation and dramatic chiaroscuro effects, and they obtruded magnificently from the mass of pedestrian work on display at the Royal Academy’s summer show where most of them first appeared’ (Williams 2004, p.116).

In 1964 Roberts explained the importance of storytelling to his works and discussed how his narrative and figurative style of working was at odds with 1950s and 1960s abstraction and the anti-narrative art theory being espoused by critics such as Clive Bell and Roger Fry. Objecting specifically to this approach, Roberts wrote that ‘these composers of catalogue Forewords endeavour to give the most banal Abstracts, or an almost blank canvas, significance and meaning’, lamenting further that ‘the canvas becomes empty of all subject matter except the dabs, smudges, and trickles of paint itself, interest shifts from the work to its producer’ (Roberts in William Roberts A.R.A Paintings and Drawings 1909–1964, London 1964, unpaginated).

The Temptation of St Anthony was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1951 and was shown again at the Tate Gallery in London in an exhibition dedicated to Roberts’s work held in November–December 1965.

Further reading
Andrew Gibbon Williams, William Roberts: An English Cubist, Farnham 2004, reproduced p.117.
An English Cubist: William Roberts 1895–1980, Catalogue Raisonné, undated, http://www.englishcubist.co.uk/, accessed 23 November 2015.

Judith Wilkinson
November 2015

Supported by Christie’s.