Who were the Vorticists?

As the largest collection of works by Vorticist artists ever offered at auction comes to Christie’s, Alastair Smart traces the brief history of what was arguably Britain’s most avant-garde art movement

The year 1914 is best remembered for the outbreak of the First World War. However, it also saw the launch of Vorticism, Britain’s first — and arguably most radical — avant-garde art movement.

Founded in London by the artist Wyndham Lewis, it consisted, broadly speaking, of a repudiation of Victorian values (which were deemed old-fashioned) and an acclamation of the machine age, in the form of a bold new visual style.

Lewis claimed that ‘all revolutionary painting today has in common the rigid reflections of steel’.

He also provided the movement with its own base, opening the aptly named Rebel Art Centre at 38 Great Ormond Street. This gave him and his fellow Vorticists a meeting place in which to share ideas, hold lectures, hang works, and even produce their own magazine.

Wyndham Lewis at the Rebel Art Centre, the Vorticists’ headquarters on Great Ormond Street, London

Wyndham Lewis at the Rebel Art Centre, the Vorticists’ headquarters on Great Ormond Street, London. Photo: TopFoto. Artwork: © Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust. All rights reserved 2023 / Bridgeman Images

For reasons that are explained below, relatively few Vorticist works were made, even fewer survive, and their appearance on the market is rare. The set from a private collection being offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening and Day sales at Christie’s on 21 and 22 March 2023 is the most extensive ever to appear at auction.

The term ‘Vorticism’ was coined by Lewis’s friend, the American poet Ezra Pound, who had moved to London in 1908. It referred to a vortex, in its sense as a whirlpool. As Lewis pointed out, ‘At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated. And there, at that point of concentration, is the Vorticist.’

The movement was characterised by what might be called a vigorous, mechanical vocabulary: one of hard edges, vertiginous perspectives, sharp diagonals and overlapping planes. It is occasionally compared with the contemporaneous Italian movement, Futurism, but a key difference is that Vorticism steered closer to abstraction.

The group’s initial works date from the latter part of 1913. They were followed by the Vorticists’ manifesto, which was published in the first issue of their magazine, Blast, on 1 July 1914. With its bright pink cover and sans-serif type, Blast  was every bit as startling as its contents.

Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex, 1914, the short-lived magazine edited by Wyndham Lewis

The front cover of the first issue of Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex, the short-lived magazine edited by Wyndham Lewis. It is dated 20 June 1914, but publication was delayed until July. Photo: © 2023, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

The manifesto was written by Lewis, who was also one of its 11 signatories. Others included William Roberts, Helen Saunders, Edward Wadsworth and Jessica Dismorr (all alumni of the Slade School of Fine Art), as well as Pound and the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Though not formal members, the artists David Bomberg and Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson were also associated with the movement.

Lewis stated in his manifesto, with typical bombast, that ‘the Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius… Machinery, trains, steam-ships — all that distinguishes externally our time — came far more from [Britain] than anywhere else.’ Lewis thought, however, that the nation had hitherto lacked an art movement worthy of its stature.

On 4 August 1914, this stature was suddenly challenged with the declaration of the First World War. Initially, the Vorticists — with one notable exception — carried on with their careers regardless. Their debut exhibition was held at the Doré Gallery in Mayfair in June 1915.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Charm, 1914. Irish green marble

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915), Charm, 1914. Irish green marble. 4¼ in (10.8 cm) high. Sold for £113,400 on 21 March 2023 at Christie’s in London

Among the works on show was Gaudier-Brzeska’s alluring sculpture Charm, carved from green Irish marble. The artist is known to have worn it on a string around his neck before giving it to his friend, Pound.

Charm  consists of an enigmatic figure, its upper part an oval face gazing back at us, with two large cavities below suggesting arms thrust out left and right. A third cavity lower down represents a space between the figure’s legs, which taper towards what appears to be a set of bunched toes at the bottom.

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, A.R.A. (1889-1946), On the Road to Ypres, 1916. Ink on paper. 4⅜ x 8¼ in (11 x 21 cm). Offered in the Modern British and Irish Art Evening Sale on 21 March 2023 at Christie’s in London

Gaudier-Brzeska volunteered to join the French Army as soon as war broke out, and a letter he sent from the front back to London appeared in the second and final edition of Blast  in July 1915. He shared his belief that ‘this war is a great remedy. In the individual it kills arrogance, self-esteem and pride.’

Tragically, it also killed Gaudier-Brzeska, aged 23. He was struck down by German machine-gun fire on 5 June 1915, near Arras, less than a week before the opening of the first Vorticist exhibition. One of the most promising art careers was cut short before it had even really begun. (His letter was published in Blast  posthumously.)

Pound went on to organise the second and final Vorticist exhibition — with the help of the leading American collector John Quinn — at the Penguin Club in New York in 1917.

Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), Protraction, 1913. Pencil, watercolour, gouache and crayon on paper. 5⅞ x 12¼ in (14.9 x 31.2 cm). Sold for £63,000 on 21 March 2023 at Christie’s in London

Smaller than the first show, it included Lewis’s 1913 painting Protraction. This work may appear abstract at first glance — a jagged assortment of geometric forms — but it actually contains two angry creatures leaping towards the picture’s right.

The larger one has an open mouth, as if hungrily waiting for the chance to devour an enemy; the smaller one seems built of elements that suggest a rocket hurtling through space.

David Bomberg (1890-1957), Figure Study (Racehorse), circa 1913. Oil on panel. 16 x 12½ in (40.6 x 31.7 cm). Sold for £378,000 on 21 March 2023 at Christie’s in London

Also being offered at Christie’s is Bomberg’s painting Figure Study (Racehorse), a stunningly energetic rendering of a rider on a galloping horse; and Roberts’s semi-abstract drawing St George and the Dragon. The latter served as an illustration on the front page of the Evening News, a London newspaper, on St George’s Day 1915. His adversary, the dragon, isn’t easy to spot, but England’s patron saint takes the form of a mechanistic modern fighter, thrusting downwards with bold diagonal force towards the picture’s bottom right.

William Roberts, R.A. (1895-1980), St George and the Dragon, 1915. Pencil on paper, squared for transfer. 10 x 8 in (25.4 x 20.3 cm). Sold for £239,400 on 21 March 2023 at Christie’s in London

As the First World War dragged on, more and more of the Vorticists joined the fray. Bomberg enlisted in the Royal Engineers in 1915. Roberts and Lewis enlisted in the Royal Artillery in 1916. Wadsworth joined the Naval Intelligence Division in the summer of that year, around the same time that Dismorr left for France to volunteer as a nurse. Another important figure in Vorticism’s story, the philosopher and critic T.E. Hulme, one of the movement’s great champions, was killed in action in Flanders in September 1917.

A limited amount of Vorticist art survives today partly because the movement was so short-lived (most of the group traded London for the Western Front); and partly because, when the artists finally returned home, much of their work had been lost or destroyed.

Edward Wadsworth, A.R.A. (1889-1949), Study for Cape of Good Hope, 1914. Ink, watercolour, gouache and crayon on paper. 13 x 9⅞ in (33 x 25.1 cm). Sold for £100,800 on 21 March 2023 at Christie’s in London

One painting that disappeared was Wadsworth’s Cape of Good Hope — a reproduction of which appeared in the first issue of Blast, and an impressive study for which is coming to auction. It offers an aerial view of a harbour in what purports to be the eponymous African cape. The ships there may be moored, but their jostling shapes suggest that they might sail off at any moment.

Once the Armistice was signed in November 1918, signalling an end to the First World War, there was no way back for Vorticism. Over the course of four bloody years, the artists had seen at first hand that the machine age was nothing like the utopia they had imagined. Artistically, they all moved on. As a chastened Lewis put it years later: ‘A bigger blast than mine had rather taken the wind out of my sails.’

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What Vorticism amounted to was a short, sharp shock to British art. Few shocks have been shorter, and almost none has been sharper. A major exhibition devoted to the movement, The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, was held at Tate Britain in 2011. All the Vorticist works in the current sale featured in that show.

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