Lawrence Atkinson (1873-1931)
Lawrence Atkinson (1873-1931)

Vorticist Composition

Lawrence Atkinson (1873-1931)
Vorticist Composition
oil on canvas
41 7/8 x 33 ½ in. (106.5 x 85 cm.)
Painted circa 1914.
with Redfern Gallery, London.
The Hon David Bathurst.
with Mayor Gallery, London.
Sebastian Walker.
His sale; Sotheby’s, London, 20 November 1991, lot 1, where purchased by the present owner.
R. Cork, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the Machine Age – Volume 2 Synthesis and Decline, London, 1976, p. 409, illustrated.
K. Orchard (ed.), exhibition catalogue, Vortizismus - Die erste Avantgarde in England 1914-1918, Hannover, Sprengel Museum, 1996, pp. 155, 310, no. 2, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Blast to Frieze: British Art in the Twentieth Century, Wolfsburg, Kunstmuseum, 2002, p. 318, pl. 8, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Blasting the Future: Vorticism in Britain 1910-1920, London, Estorick Collection, 2004, p. 95, pl. 15.
Exhibition catalogue, British Surrealism and Other Realities: The Sherwin Collection, Middlesbrough, Institute of Modern Art, 2008, p. 77, no. 18, illustrated.
S. Levy and T. Pirsig-Marshall (ed.), exhibition catalogue, British Surrealism in Context: A Collector’s Eye, Leeds, City Art Gallery, 2009, p. 116, illustrated.
London, Dore Galleries, Vorticist Exhibition, June 1915, no. 2.
Hannover, Sprengel Museum, Vortizismus die erste Avantgarde in England 1914-1918, August – November 1996, no. 2: this exhibition travelled to Munich, Haus der Kunst, November 1996 – January 1997.
Wolfsburg, Kunstmuseum, Blast to Frieze: British Art in the Twentieth Century, September 2002 - January 2003, exhibition not numbered: this exhibition travelled to Toulouse, Les Abattoirs, February - May 2003.
London, Estorick Collection, Blasting the Future: Vorticism in Britian 1910-20, February – April 2004, exhibition not numbered: this exhibition travelled to Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, May – July 2004.
Middlesbrough, Institute of Modern Art, British Surrealism and Other Realities: The Sherwin Collection, May – August 2008, exhibition not numbered.
Leeds, City Art Gallery, British Surrealism in Context: A Collector's Eye, July – November 2009, exhibition not numbered.

Brought to you by

William Porter
William Porter

Lot Essay

Although he never went to art school, Lawrence Atkinson benefited immensely as a painter from his early involvement with music. It was, for a while at least, an obsession. After studying music in both Berlin and Paris, the young Atkinson taught singing as well as giving concert performances in Liverpool and London. So he was ready, like other emergent artists at the beginning of the 20th century, to explore the whole notion of painting with the freedom enjoyed by composers. Kandinsky, who exhibited his pioneering abstract art in London between 1909 and 1914, was described by Roger Fry as the creator of ‘pure visual music’, and another critic declared that ‘we are justified in saying that Mr Wyndham Lewis plays Bach to Herr Kandinsky’s Chopin.’

When London’s defiantly controversial Rebel Art Centre opened in the spring of 1914, the interior of this notorious house in Great Ormond Street was filled with outspoken avant-garde decorations. Atkinson became very involved in designing them, and one astonished newspaper reported that in his startling abstract designs it was ‘impossible to find the slightest trace of any regularity in the symmetry, the tonality, the colouring or any other ordinary antediluvian practice!’ By now, Atkinson felt determined to break away entirely from his previous affiliation with the British Fauves. He had exhibited with them at the Stafford Gallery in October 1912, and a decade later Horace Shipp’s book on Atkinson revealed that ‘at the commencement of his career’ he had produced many ‘landscape studies’ which were ‘much nearer to that of Gauguin, a statement of his subject in terms of bold colour patches. Often he would emphasize the decorative value of these by definite, heavy outlines, seeing his subject as a mosaic of beautiful colour and rhythmic form.’

By the time he became committed to the Rebel Art Centre, though, Atkinson had transformed his work. Kate Lechmere, the artist who generously paid the rent for the Centre in 1914, recalled later that ‘Atkinson was a regular visitor at the Rebel Art Centre, and Lewis took a special interest in him.’ Atkinson taught Lechmere music as well, but most of his energies were now devoted to visual art. In the summer of 1914, he joined the newly-formed Vorticist movement when Lewis invited him to sign the manifesto in its belligerent magazine BLAST. And Atkinson may well have painted Vorticist Composition around this time, intending it as a coolly confident manifestation of his commitment to extreme formal simplification.

At first glance, it looks uncompromisingly abstract. Everything in this large and impressive painting has been reduced to very minimal elements, far removed from the Fauvism which had previously fascinated him. But the longer we look at Vorticist Composition, the more we feel tempted to speculate about Atkinson’s possible starting-point in a representational subject. The pale green form at the base of the painting may well be a table-top, from which a still life rises up almost to the top of the canvas. Although the forms themselves resist easy identification, they might be an abstract sculpture. Atkinson did, after all, concentrate on making sculpture after the First World War, and was awarded a Grand Prix for his carving L’Oiseau at the 1921 Milan Exhibition.

In Vorticist Composition, however, these sculptural forms are more akin to the mechanistic subjects which inspired so many of the Vorticists. Gazing at Atkinson’s painting, we realise that he must have agreed with BLAST’s description of Britain as an ‘industrial island machine’. But his still life refuses to be pinned down. At the centre, a small bright red form glows out from the painting, radiant with energy. Yet it is positioned very close to some controlling black bars, redolent of a slender metallic structure as they stretch up towards the highest point in the canvas. They seem aspirational and insistent, demonstrating their rigid strength while thrusting through space. There is undoubtedly a suggestion of defiance in this painting, as if Atkinson wants to stress the combative spirit running through the rebellious pages of BLAST.

In June 1915 Vorticist Composition was probably included in the Vorticist Exhibition, held at the Dore Galleries in London. And by that time, the First World War had already claimed an appalling number of young soldiers’ lives, proving just how devastating machine-age weaponry could be. In this respect, the sense of struggle and tension explored by Atkinson’s painting turned out to be eerily prophetic. Both he and the other Vorticists were right to insist on investigating the fast-changing machine-age world, and Atkinson was equally perceptive in hinting at vulnerability throughout his painting as well.

Ultimately, though, Vorticist Composition counter-balances all this tension with a more luminous, stable alternative. The slender vertical forms ranged in an orderly row across the upper half of his painting introduce a more lyrical mood. It is echoed in one of the poems which the multi-talented and adventurous Atkinson published in his 1915 book called Aura, where he describes how,
The blue
Of the moment
Envelops me
In her silent
And guides my
Rudder-less boat
To undiscovered Countries ...'

We are very grateful to Richard Cork for preparing this catalogue entry.

More from Modern British Art Evening Sale

View All
View All