Wyndham Lewis



In Tate Britain

Wyndham Lewis 1882–1957
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 765 × 610 mm
frame: 910 × 760 × 70 mm
Purchased 1974

Display caption

Vorticism was a short-lived but radical movement founded by Lewis in London just before the First World War, proposing an art suited to the energy of the modern world. Here, Lewis uses angles and diagonals to suggest the geometry of modern buildings. Its harsh colours and lines echo the discordant vitality of the modern city in an ‘attack on traditional harmony’. The vorticists’ aggressive rhetoric, angular style and focus on modernity linked them to the Italian futurists. War demonstrated the devastating reality of pitting men against machines and Lewis’s attempts to revive the movement in 1919 came to nothing.

Gallery label, September 2016

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

T01931 WORKSHOP c.1914–15
Not inscribed
Oil on canvas, 30 1/8×24 (76.5×61)
Purchased from Anthony d'Offay (Grant-in-Aid) 1974
Coll: John Quinn (purchased from Lewis through Ezra Pound, August 1916); sold 1927 (Quinn Sale, American Art Association, New York, February 1927 (353); S. Hamilton; bt. Windsor Galleries, Baltimore, 1962; Edward H. Dwight, 1963; Anthony d'Offay, 1971
Exh: London Group, Goupil Gallery, March 1915 (85, as ‘The Workshop’); Vorticist Group, Doré Gallery, June 1915 (6d, in the ‘Pictures’ section as ‘Workshop’); Exhibition of the Vorticists at the Penguin, Penguin Club, New York, January 1917 (36); Vorticism and its Allies, Hayward Gallery, March–June 1974 (276, repr.)
Lit: Walter Michel, Wyndham Lewis. Paintings and Drawings, (California, 1971), p.336, repr. pl.30; Richard Cork, Catalogue of Vorticism and its Allies, op.cit, p.69; Richard Cork, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, 1976, pp.341–5, repr. p.343 in colour

Three times between 1915–17 Wyndham Lewis exhibited an oil painting entitled ‘Workshop’, of which, however, no contemporary photograph or description remains. The work was acquired-together with others by Lewis-by the American collector John Quinn, later appearing in the 1927 Quinn sale where it was catalogued as ‘Interior’, ‘attributed to Wyndham Lewis’ and described as ‘a Vorticist impression of a studio’. It subsequently disappeared and was believed lost, along with all but one of Lewis's early oils. (The other, ‘The Crowd’, also of 1914–15, is in the Tate's collection (T00689)).

In a letter to the compiler of 10 March 1976, Edward H. Dwight of the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, has supplied an account of its rediscovery. He states that in February 1963 he and his wife saw the painting in the Windsor Galleries, Baltimore, were struck by its ‘unusual colour and distinctive quality’ and without knowing its authorship, bought it for $61.80. At that time and for the next seven years he believed it to be the work of ‘an early American abstractionist’.

Although T01931 has recently been reframed and re-lined with the loss of all inscriptions, Mr Dwight goes on to describe its appearance in 1963: ‘When I got home from Baltimore, I copied down what was written on the brown paper backing. In addition to the word “Lewis” the number 353 appeared twice, both times crossed out’ (together with) ‘a torn red-bordered label on which appeared “#22” and a blank square auction sticker. I removed the paper backing and found WORKSHOP written on the back of the canvas. I took the frame apart and found this word had been written in pencil inside each of the four pieces of the narrow wooden frame.’ Two of the inscriptions were photographed by Mr Dwight and prints are in the Tate's possession.

Following the d'Offay Couper Gallery exhibition Abstract Art in England 1913– 15 in November–December 1969, Mr Dwight received (from Omar Pound, son of Ezra Pound) a copy of the catalogue, on the cover of which Lewis's ‘Red Duet’ 1914 was reproduced in colour. ‘In great excitement and anticipation, I carried the catalogue to the basement and on comparing it with my painting I felt certain the artist was Wyndham Lewis’. Stylistic considerations apart, the original inscription ‘Lewis’, the known connection of Ezra Pound with John Quinn, and the correspondence of the number 353 with the Quinn sale number, all pointed to Lewis's authorship. The attribution was subsequently confirmed by Walter, Michel, who included ‘Workshop’ in his catalogue raisonné of Lewis's paintings and drawings (op.cit).

Although undated, T01931 must have been completed by March 1915 when it was shown at the second London Group exhibition. On stylistic and iconographic grounds, it can be placed at or near the end of Lewis's 1914–15 Vorticist sketchbook series, a group characterized by Lewis's search for images to evoke the discordant vitality of the modern city. ‘Workshop’ shares the ‘architectural’ bias of this series, its use of shifting diagonal lines, harsh angles and repeated rectangles suggestive of girders, windows, ladders, etc, but it differs from the rest of the series in depicting an interior rather than a generalized ‘cityscape’.

As possible sources for such imagery, Cork (op.cit) has pointed to St Elia's revolutionary designs for a modern city (published in Il Messagio, 1914) and, closer to home, Alvin Langdon Coburn's photographs of New York skyscrapers exhibited as ‘camera pictures’ at the Groupil Gallery in October 1913.

As Cork has shown, Lewis's Vorticist paintings can be studied profitably in the context of his writings and somewhat ‘literary’ imagination. Both the title and composition of ‘Workshop’ encapsulate views Lewis was then expounding in

BLAST and in his early novels. So far as the title is concerned, a reference in BLAST No. 1, 1914, makes it clear that ‘Workshop’ is metaphorically (as well as literally) an image of industrial England. Thus ‘Bless England, Industrial Island Machine, Pyramidal Workshop, its apex at Shetland discharging itself on the sea’. Later Lewis expanded the concept, the hero in his novel Tarr asserting ‘All the world's a workshop, I should say’ (Tarr, 2nd edition 1928). The idea probably stems from the then still common description of England as ‘The Workshop of the World’.

So far as the composition of this painting is concerned, it demonstrates Lewis's ability to translate his quite complex ideas into visual form. Richard Cork has suggested, for example, that this uncomfortable, prison-like structure gives pictorial expression to the view (also published in BLAST No.2, 1915) that ‘men should be pinned and herded into their time’. Certainly there is no doubt that the harsh and jarring choice of colours was deliberate. Lewis believed (BLAST No. 1) that ‘even if painting remains intact, it will contain all the elements of discord and ugliness consequent on the attack on traditional harmony’. That 1914 saw the beginning of his own experiments in this respect, is confirmed by Pound in a letter to Quinn of July 1916: ‘After a period of concentration upon form, the artist undertook an almost deliberate, perhaps wholly deliberate, research into ugly colour, a couple of years ago.’ Pound went on to state that these experiments ‘were now over’.

Quinn evidently did not rate ‘Workshop’ particularly highly. On agreeing to purchase it he offered a figure (£25) well below Lewis's asking price (£35), telling Pound that he did not ‘care much for any of the paintings’. (Letter to Pound of 26 August 1916.)

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978

You might like