Lewis's designs for Timon of Athens were produced for a portfolio, published in late 1913 by the Cube Press, and sold through bookshops for 10/6d. The sixteen sheets (six with coloured and ten with black and white subjects) were unnumbered and untitled. The present work has been identified as A Masque of Timon. Previously only two works, The Thebaid (sold at Christie's, South Kensington, 4 March 1998, lot 51, £51,000, private collection) and A Feast of the Overmen (The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Connecticut, U.S.A.) were known to have survived from Lewis's ten exhibits at Roger Fry's Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in 1912. The recent rediscovery of the present watercolour increases the number of extant works to three.
Paul Edwards (op. cit., pp. 86-92) comments on the appeal of the character of Timon to Lewis, and the Timon series: 'the contrast between Timon as reckless benefactor and vituperative misanthrope attracted him as it has attracted few others. Timon begins the play utterly profligate with his wealth, unconcernedly dispensing entertainment and gifts on those who present themselves as friends. These friends desert him when financial difficulties strike, and Timon becomes an outcast, living in a cave. Hence his misanthropy. He finds gold, but instead of resuming his old life, gives it to Alcibiades, the exiled general come to take over the city. Lewis is likely to have found Timon sympathetic in both roles, since in both he contrasts with the moderate and self-interested Athenians who batten on him. In The Lion and the Fox, published fifteen years after his first engagement with Timon, Lewis emphasises the grandeur and naivety of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. They are fitted for an ideal world (the world of art) but discover that they are in a real one. Their 'madness' (Lear's for example) is simply an anguished disillusion, and their misanthropy is actually an expression of the truth about the world in which we all live. The Shakespearian tragic hero thus begins as a fool among knaves, though his folly indicates at least a vision of a more generous or grander world.
Six drawings from the Timon series were exhibited at the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in the autumn of 1912, 'by courtesy of The Cube Publishing Co.' ... The Timon project, like so many of Lewis's works, developed and transformed itself, finding new meaning in Lewis's mind as he returned to it. A significant factor was the technology of printing, which meant that the drawings reproduced in photographic colour had to be produced on expensive coated paper. This would mean that they could not simply be inserted at the beginning of every act as Lewis probably originally intended. (All the watercolour drawings were probably originally conceived as half-title pages, headed with the kind of lettering that remains on the Masque of Timon [the present work] but has been replaced with extra strips of drawing on the other three). So a set of half-title pages that could be printed on ordinary paper stock had to be produced. Lewis did these in Dunkirk, in September.
The project is Lewis's only major engagement with a literary text in his visual art (the results of an earlier project on Paradise Lost do not survive). The earlier drawings show Lewis's dazzling mastery of the 'compromise' idiom he developed from Cubism and Futurism, retaining the expressive power of the feel of the body, yet showing it as snagged in the material world which its energy transends. The theme of Shakespeare's play is reconstituted in an altogether novel use of the Modernist visual signs, so that the 'illustrative' or literary element in the pictures becomes almost fortuitous ... What we have here is a coherent visual world expressive of a range of possible relationships with the real world and a corresponding range of emotions associated with them. The new pictorial vocabularies developed by Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism are made use of in a critical spirit by a painter of enough maturity and independence to create an art that proposes an argument with these dominant modes of painting in contemporary Europe by making them functional components in a fundamentally metaphysical critique of life. The role of Bergson and Nietzsche was to supply the philosophical and 'biological' starting-points from which Lewis could develop these meditations. They were meditations of a kind unlike anything else that was being produced on the English art scene'.