This dramatic and dynamic drawing provides an important link in William Roberts’s development from Vorticist and war artist to an extraordinary chronicler of everyday British life. When exhibited with other early works at the Hamet Gallery in 1971, it was one of ten drawings which the catalogue dated to ‘1916-18’, although it is more likely that it was made a year or two after the end of the First World War. Roberts saw active service with the Royal Field Artillery from 1916 to 1918, and there was little opportunity to draw. In the spring of 1918 he returned to London to work on a large canvas for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, before serving as a war artist for the British Ministry of Information. He was demobilised in October 1919.
In a series of powerful watercolour drawings reflecting on his experiences on the Western Front (now in the Imperial War Museum collection), Roberts had developed an effective way of blocking in complex compositions by means of simplified geometric figures. Applying this semi-abstract approach to post-war subjects enabled him to work rapidly to capture the drama of everyday life, while also introducing an angularity that was characteristic of his idiosyncratic take on cubism. A Demonstration is an excellent example of this style, and may well have been a study for a more developed drawing, The Riot (whereabouts unknown), that was exhibited at the Independent Gallery in February 1921, though no visual record exists to confirm this.
Three mounted police are shown at a moment when they appear to be struggling to control an unruly crowd. Roberts uncharacteristically uses a low-angle viewpoint that places the viewer behind the crowd and gives a feeling of immediacy suggesting that the scene was actually witnessed by the artist. Strikes had been prohibited during the war, but labour disputes returned to Britain towards the end of 1918. By the middle of 1919 there was a national bakers strike and threatened strikes on the docks and among transport workers. The newspapers were reporting that a Bolshevik revolution had arrived in Britain. There had also been race riots in a number of cities, and there were two widely reported riots in London involving clashes between stranded foreign troops and the police.
Albeit in a very different style, Roberts had previously tackled the subject of civil unrest in 1913, with Factory Agitation – a highly finished drawing now in the Tate collection (where catalogued as Leadenhall Market). His East End working-class background and his friendship with talented radical artists from Jewish immigrant families, such as David Bomberg and Jacob Kramer, made him no stranger to political struggle. For a short time at the beginning of the war he had lived in an artists’ commune run by Stewart Gray – described in his Times obituary as ‘the original “hunger march” leader in this country’ – who had led a march of unemployed men from the north of England and later fasted near Windsor Castle to draw attention to their plight. There is a clear element of social criticism in a number of Roberts’s works from the early 1920s, such as The Poor Family (c.1921, Private collection); At the Hippodrome (1920, New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester); The Slum Park (1924, whereabouts unknown); and Newspapers (1926, Private collection). This aspect of Roberts’s work was not pursued beyond the mid-twenties as he adopted an increasingly wry, satirical stance towards life in general and the art world in particular.
With regard to A Demonstration, it was probably the subject’s opportunity for a complex composition that most appealed to Roberts. Alongside The Riot, he exhibited three other drawings at the Independent Gallery in 1921: The Boxing Match, (Private collection); Travelling Cradle (Southampton City Art Gallery); and The Cinema (Bradford Art Gallery) – all eye-catching, complex and original works. Sharing some formal elements of these drawings and with the added interest of a dramatic political subject, A Demonstration – an almost unknown work – is an exciting contribution to the redefinition of Roberts as one of the most important British artists of the inter-war years.
We are very grateful to David Cleall for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.