William Roberts

The Port of London


Not on display

William Roberts 1895–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 533 × 748 mm
frame: 735 × 946 × 78 mm
Presented through the Friends of the Tate Gallery, Helena and Kenneth Levy Bequest 1990


The Port of London marks a key transitional period in Robert's work. Moving away from the radical abstractions of the pre-war years, he combined in this work angular, distorted proportions with the sort of pared-down naturalism that distinguished his monumental figure compositions of the late 1920s. In its subject matter too The Port of London points to Roberts's growing fascination with communal social activity in the urban environment, a subject that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life. Whether depicting people playing chess, gossiping, riding bikes or loading and unloading ships, his interest was always in the observation of modern life and the characterisation of its players.

Roberts himself later described his reaction against abstract art in terms of the artist's moral responsibility to record the world around him. As he put it, 'the artist who tells no more of his life and times, than a collection of abstract designs might as well never have been born' (William Roberts, Commentary, Paintings and Drawings by William Roberts RA, London 1976, unpaginated). Despite his later misgivings about abstraction, Roberts was not a straightforward realist. In this work, for example, he combined naturalistic figure painting with skewed, cubist perspectives which distorted viewpoints and confounded the sense of distance between objects. The rowing boat at the foot of the steps thus appears excessively small in relation to the man who tugs it to shore; similarly the boat moored to wooden stilts in the centre of the canvas seems tiny when compared with the standing figure being rowed to the jetty, or the hulking ship at the right which occupies the same middle ground. In the twilight of his Vorticist years Roberts, who had exhibited with such radicals as Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) and Jessica Dismorr (1885-1939) as recently as March 1920 in the Group X exhibition at London's Mansard Gallery, had clearly not forsaken all of his earlier proto-cubist concerns.

The coherence of this crowded painting is sustained through the assiduous use of colour. The bright red of the load being lifted by dock-workers on the left is balanced by the scarlet inner trim of the vessel at the bottom right which just slides into view, while the murky green which pervades the canvas is contrasted with the burnt orange of ships on the horizon and the boat at the far right. Roberts was an equally bold draughtsman. After winning a scholarship to London's Slade School of Art in 1910, at the age of only fifteen, his drawing had quickly become confident and fluid. As Muirhead Bone observed in the catalogue to Roberts's first solo show at the Chenil Galleries in 1923, 'he presents to us his memories of life in a sharp manner, odd, vivid, and quite his own, whose foundation is a really sterling draughtsmanship' (Paintings and Drawings by William Roberts, exhibition catalogue, The Chenil Galleries, London 1923, pp.3-4). Drawing was a practice he never relinquished, using visual notes that he had jotted down on scraps of paper as the basis for detailed pencil sketches which would then be squared up for transfer into watercolour and finally oil.

After 1919, when he left his attic abode at 32 Percy Street, Tottenham Court Road,
London, Roberts changed addresses frequently until the mid 1920s. Painting port scenes numerous times during this period, he may have identified with the peripatetic life of men at sea. As well as his 1919 squared-up Sketch for a River Painting (reproduced William Roberts, Paintings 1917-1958 by William Roberts ARA, London 1960, p.19), which bears a close compositional resemblance to The Port of London, he also produced the teeming canvas Dock Gates in 1920 (Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, Lugano, reproduced William Roberts: Some Early Abstract and Cubist Work 1913-1920, London 1957, fig.12), and exhibited a work entitled River Scene at his Chenil Galleries exhibition in 1923.

Further Reading:
The Helena and Kenneth Levy Bequest, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991, reproduced p.4 (colour)
William Roberts, Paintings and Drawings 1909-64, London 1964
William Roberts ARA, exhibition catalogue, The Arts Council, London 1965

Jacky Klein
May 2002

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Display caption

One aspect of urban life which interested Roberts was life on the river Thames and the people that worked on the ships, barges and docks. This picture of the London docks in the 1920s, with ships loading and unloading, is less angular and stylised and emptier of people than many of Roberts's compositions of that time, for example 'The Cinema' 1920, also on display. By the late 1920s, his figures had begun to be more rounded and monumental. The beginnings of this change of style can be seen in this work.

Gallery label, August 2004

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