A vivid, dynamic and richly detailed vision of modern-day life in London, William Roberts’ large and striking Primrose Hill, The Playground was painted circa 1930, at the end of a seminal decade in the artist’s career, during which he had achieved increasing renown and critical acclaim. Depicting a group of men exercising in an outdoor gym in Primrose Hill, this painting encapsulates the central themes and distinctive figurative style of the artist’s post-war work. A unique figure within the history of Modern British art, throughout his career Roberts captured vibrant scenes of modern life. From depictions of the trenches of the First World War, to the riotous parties and overflowing music halls of the Roaring Twenties, his multi-figural paintings conjure the sentiment of an era; dynamic and energy-filled compositions that are wholly unique to 20th Century British art. Primrose Hill, The Playground was included in one of the earliest and most successful solo exhibitions of the artist’s work held at the Cooling Galleries in 1931, where it was met with great critical acclaim. Of the three preparatory studies that Roberts made for this painting, two now reside in museum collections across the world, including the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Set within a winter landscape, with leaf-less trees adorning the deep green landscape behind, in Primrose Hill, The Playground, a group of working-class men are depicted in a range of different activities – hanging from rings, swinging upside down or balancing on parallel bars – observed by a number of onlookers who appear to be cheering them on from the side lines. Still in situ today, this outdoor gym had been installed in Primrose Hill in 1847. Living in nearby Haverstock Hill at the time, Roberts would have been familiar with this energetic scene. In Primrose Hill, The Playground, Roberts, with an acutely perceptive gaze, has captured every gesticulating hand, straining face and lively movement of this group of exercising men, imbuing the scene with a sense of dynamism and vitality. Though the figures fill the entirety of the composition, each one is carefully defined and individualised, distinguished with a variety of rich, jewel-like colour, as the viewer is immersed in this energetic snap shot of daily life.
Modern life in all its varying forms had inspired the London-born Roberts from the very beginning of his career. Following his return to London after serving in France in the First World War, Roberts increasingly turned to the streets of the city as his artistic stimulus, capturing and celebrating the everyday life of London’s inhabitants. Bustling bus stops, crowded cafés, parks, boxing matches, street performers and a host of other settings and activities served as the subjects for the artist’s multi-figural compositions as he depicted life in the capital with what has been described as an unflinching Hogarthian eye. For Roberts, this was the central aim of painting, as he stated later in his life: ‘the artist who tells no more of his life and times, than a collection of abstract designs, might as well never have been born’ (Roberts, quoted in A. Gibbon Williams, William Roberts: An English Cubist, Aldershot & Burlington, Vermont, 2004, p. 82).
While Primrose Hill, The Playground is a scene that is inextricably linked to London and its inhabitants, this painting also demonstrates the importance of the European avant-garde within Roberts’ oeuvre. As a student at the Slade from 1910 until 1913, Roberts was a firsthand witness of the radical and pioneering avant-garde developments of his European contemporaries. Deeply influenced by Cubism and Futurism, at this time, Roberts, who was a member of the radical pre-war Vorticist group, began painting in a distinctly abstract style, fragmenting and dissecting his compositions in works that embody the dynamism and innovation of the era. Like his cubist counterparts, Roberts deconstructed the human figure, depicting it with angular, mechanical forms and facets.
The catastrophic chaos and unspeakable terrors unleashed by the First World War however changed the avant-garde art world. In the face of such destruction, artists turned away from the radical and reactionary styles of the prewar period and instead embraced the art of the past. This movement came to be known as the ‘return to order’: a revival of Classicism and the triumphant patriotism, tradition and harmony that this term embodied. The revival of the aesthetics, themes and subjects of Classicism emerged in the work of a wide range of artists: from Picasso’s monumental Neo-Classical nudes, to Léger’s mechanically inspired women pictured in classical poses. In the 1920s, Roberts’ art can be seen to reflect this aesthetic, as his figurative work became increasingly representational. His figures became less angular, abstracted and two dimensional, and increasingly stylised, rendered with rounded, tubular forms that are reminiscent of Léger’s monumental figurative works of the 1920s and 30s. Primrose Hill, The Playground exemplifies this softer cubist style, demonstrating the distinctive pictorial language that Roberts had developed in the post-war years.
Painted circa 1930, Primrose Hill, The Playground dates from a particularly prolific moment in the artist’s career, during which he began to receive critical acclaim and international renown. Throughout the 1920s, Roberts had gradually gained increasing recognition throughout Britain as well as Europe. Having had his first solo exhibition at the Chenil Galleries in London in 1923, the artist had begun to receive portrait commissions, cultivating a group of patrons that were to be crucial to the artist’s career. In 1925, Roberts had taken a teaching position at the Central School of Art where he would continue to teach, barring the years of the Second World War, until the 1960s. By the end of the decade, his paintings were travelling abroad, included in the Vienna Secession and Venice Biennale of 1928.
Indeed, as Andrew Gibbon Williams has written, ‘As the 1920s drew to a close, [Roberts] had every reason to feel optimistic about the chances of becoming a successful modern artist. He had acquired an impressive portfolio of collectors. The Contemporary Art Society was acquiring his works. One of his pictures was hanging in the Tate Gallery. Above all, as several tender portraits of Sarah [Kramer] testify, he was still deeply in love. Whatever life might throw at him, the bedrock of his existence was firmly in place’ (Roberts, quoted in ibid., p. 72). Painted at the end of this highly important decade, Primrose Hill, The Playground not only exemplifies Roberts’ unique figurative style, but encapsulates his distinctive and idiosyncratic vision of contemporary life in London.