William Roberts

The Art Gallery


Not on display

William Roberts 1895–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 489 × 591 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate 2007


The Art Gallery is a figurative oil painting on canvas by British artist William Roberts. As the title suggests, the painting depicts a group of people visiting an art gallery. In the background of the scene are two framed paintings hanging on a wall, each featuring a composition of abstract shapes. In the foreground, seated close together on a central brown bench, is a small crowd of figures. They are depicted in a stylised manner, with distinctive tubular limbs, stocky bodies, large eyes and hairstyles formed from blocks of colour. The group consists of an array of different types of gallery-goer and their interactions: two women are in conversation at the upper left, in front of one of the paintings, while another woman, seated next to them, is reading. Two sets of couples embrace and a mother is seen playing with her child. In contrast to these figures is a man who stands at the back of the bench, between the two paintings on the wall. Wearing a hat, scarf and glasses, he gazes directly forwards, possibly looking either at the group in front of him or out towards the viewer. None of the figures in the scene look directly at either of the artworks hanging on the wall. Roberts has used a palette dominated by browns, flesh-coloured tones and the pale yellow of the gallery wall in the background. These are offset by more colourful, though muted, hues, such as purple, blue and red for some of the figures’ clothing and shoes, and blue for the right-hand painting on the wall.

The Art Gallery was made in London in 1973, in the final decade of Roberts’s career. Daily metropolitan life had long been a feature of his work: he spent most of his life in London and painted what he saw around him, visiting cafes, cinemas, parks and pubs to capture the leisure activities of his fellow Londoners. Roberts did not use a sketchbook; instead, he would make notes on scrap pieces of paper about the incidents, types of people and gestures he observed on his walks. He would subsequently use these notes to work up detailed and finished drawings in the studio. These drawings would then be squared up on paper and transferred to a larger scale for painting (Martin 2007, p.15; see, for example, Study for ‘The Card Players’ c.1937–8, Tate T12727).

Roberts’s compositions are often elaborate, encompassing complex groupings of people with blocky, muscular, tubular-limbed forms, as seen in The Art Gallery as well as The Horse Dealers 1955 (Tate T00174) and The Lake 1964 (Tate T00660). In his paintings, Roberts distributes figures and colour in a balanced way, creating a coherency and rhythm across the canvas. The scenes are often stripped of extraneous details, placing the focus on gestures and interactions between the depicted figures (Martin 2007, p.15).

The Art Gallery appears to be satirical in tone, in that the visitors seem interested in everything other than the two abstract paintings on display behind them. This type of satire can also be seen in other works by Roberts in which he mocks elements of the art world, for instance the appreciation of abstract art in Distinguished Visitors at the Tate 1965 (Tate T12740), as well as other gallery practices and behaviours (see Study forGuarding the Masterpiece’ 1978, Tate T12636, in which the guard and his dog are shown sleeping). According to art historian Andrew Gibbon Williams, Roberts had a fear of being misinterpreted or unfairly criticised, and viewed the art world with deep suspicion and cynicism (Williams 2004, p.7). In response to a statement by artist and writer Wyndham Lewis that ‘the writer is cleverer than the artist because he knows so much more’, Roberts reportedly commented with sarcasm:

This refers, I suppose, to the painter who does not write, and is labelled by the critics as ‘inarticulate’. However, it is not only the writer who is ‘cleverer’; almost everyone has more ‘know-how’ than the artist.
(Quoted in Williams 2004, p.8.)

Roberts began his career as an abstract artist, experimenting with cubism in the 1910s and becoming a member of the vorticist group founded by Wyndham Lewis in 1914 (see Roberts’s The Return of Ulysses 1913, Tate T00878). After returning from service in the First World War, Roberts moved away from his earlier cubist and vorticist styles, turning instead to a more figurative approach and focusing on everyday urban life for the remainder of his career (Williams 2004, p.8).

Further reading
Andrew Gibbon Williams, William Roberts: An English Cubist, London 2004, pp.7–8.
Andrew Heard, William Roberts (1895–1980), Newcastle upon Tyne 2004.
Simon Martin, William Roberts: England at Play, exhibition catalogue, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester 2007, p.15.

Emily Boyle
July 2018

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