William Roberts (1895–1980) demonstrated his talent for figure composition while still a student at the Slade School of Fine Art. He later became associated with Vorticism, an avant-garde movement expressing the dynamism of the modern world through machine-like angular forms. He exhibited with the group and published his work in Wyndham Lewis’s polemical journal Blast. In the 1920s he developed his distinctive simplified tubular figures and subject matter of people engaged in everyday urban activities. He observed such behaviour during his daily walks around London, recording it on scraps of paper. He then combined several of these visual notes in a detailed figure drawing which was squared up for transfer into watercolour and finally oil. He continued to pain religious and mythological scenes, with the same intense observation of human interaction, posture and gesture that informed his scenes of contemporary life. Roberts was a perceptive chronicler and critic of the art world. In 1956, when the Tate Gallery exhibited Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, Roberts issued a series of illustrated pamphlets challenging Lewis’s version of events.
Many of the drawings displayed here are recent acquisitions. They had been preserved in the artist’s studio and were accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate in 2007.
This display has been devised by curator Emma Chambers.