Wyndham Lewis, The Listener, and the Institutions

Alan Munton

Wyndham Lewis was one of the most important British artists of the twentieth century. He was also a major art critic, a novelist and short-story writer, a cultural commentator, a political theorist, and a philosopher.

We present here the art criticism that he wrote for The Listener magazine between 1946 and 1951.

Lewis ceased to write regular art criticism in 1951 because he had become blind. This experience is described in his final article, “The Sea-Mists of the Winter” – for what Lewis thought was mist in the streets of Notting Hill was an illusion caused by his declining eyesight.

The Listener was published weekly by the BBC (the British Broadcasting Corporation) from 1929 to 1991. It published the scripts of radio and television programmes, and commissioned original articles and reviews.

There is no weekly quite like it now, but a recollection by the left-inclined political commentator Alan Watkins catches a sense of what it meant for someone about to enter university in 1950:

The Listener did not have a political luminary [as a regular columnist]. As a BBC publication, it could scarcely have had one, certainly not at that time, when – it seems hardly believable today –discussion was prohibited of any topic which was due to be debated in Parliament within the next fortnight. It was known as ‘the 14-day rule’. But the paper was strong on the literary and arts side. It had Wyndham Lewis himself on art and the young Simon Raven on novels. Its chief function, however, was to reprint talks from the then relatively new Third Programme (Watkins 2000: 25).

Lewis’s art criticism was published under varied headings, but “Round the Art Galleries” and “Round the London Art Galleries” are characteristic, and suggest how centralised the art market was at this time.

Lewis’s opinions were sometimes controversial, and often generated a lively correspondence; the many critical letters, and his responses, are here published in full.

During his six years with The Listener, Lewis also wrote essays, book reviews – and one obituary, of his Vorticist colleague Edward Wadsworth. We have included an essay that Lewis wrote about the influence of Russian novels on his thinking, because this evokes the intellectual atmosphere of pre-First World War Paris, where he was an art student. Also included is Eric Newton’s Listener review of Lewis’s 1949 Redfern Gallery exhibition.

Lewis was never specifically appointed the Listener’s art critic. As so often in British culture, there appears to have been between him and the Literary Editor, J.R. (Joe) Ackerley an “understanding” that he would receive regular work In 1948, Lewis wrote to Geoffrey Stone: “The ‘Listener’ articles, by the way, are about pictures, not books, and I only do them occasionally” (Lewis 1963: 451)

Lewis’s 48 contributions to The Listener, 1946-1951

27 gallery reviews
14 letters
3 essays
3 book reviews
1 obituary notice
– and an essay on Lewis by Eric Newton, “The Emergence of Mr. Wyndham Lewis” (1949).

Lewis’s connection with The Listener was the only sustained connection that he had with any institution of culture in his lifetime. There was just one instance of contracted employment in Lewis’s career, when he was invited to join the academic staff (faculty) at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, for ten months between June 1943 and March 1944, at a salary of $200 a month (Meyers 1980: 276).

He lectured on “The Philosophical Roots of Modern Art and Literature”, and gave a series of six lectures on “The ABC of the Visual Arts”. In November and December 1943 he gave the twelve Heywood Broun Memorial Lectures on “The Concept of Liberty from the Founding Fathers of the USA Till Now”, from which emerged America and Cosmic Man, published in 1948. Marshall McLuhan “thought he was a dedicated, stimulating, witty and effective teacher” (277).

Culture and Institutions

Despite his limited experience of institutions, Lewis was fully aware of their impact upon culture. He was consequently critical of the Royal Academy of Arts, the Chantrey Bequest, the Arts Council, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). 

The 1949 essay entitled “Bread and Ballyhoo” addresses the question of how institutions affect the production and reception of art. This is a major theme in Lewis’s late art criticism. Here we find an unexpected side of Lewis, as he works his way through official reports, and quotes statistics about attendance, and the size of subsidies. His most important critique of the damaging effect of institutions occurs in “The Chantrey Collection at the Academy” (also 1949), in which he directs devastating critical attention upon the purchases made by the Chantrey Bequest. In the present edition, the Notes to that article have been written to emphasise Lewis’s concern with cultural institutions.

Lewis was doing an extraordinary amount of work during the years in which he wrote for the Listener, and he described this as it stood in January 1949:

Last week, for instance, I had agreed to write an article about the Royal Academy which has marshalled on its walls seventy years junk. [The Chantrey Collection discussion.] That entailed much reading of reports of Select Committees and so forth. The institutions of which I speak, if you are familiar with England, is one of the major curses of “cultural” life in England. [….]

Well, last week I did that article, I completed the index for a new book [Rude Assignment, 1950]. Also I did [a] jacket-cover for the same book – the lettering too, at which I am no expert. After that I turned to get on with my pictures for there is a big show of my pictures […] in Bond Street at the end of March [the Redfern show]. And lastly there are the daily letters (Lewis 1984: 12).

Lewis was sceptical of the reputations of his predecessors, Fry, Clarke and Read. He makes his critique in The Demon of Progress in the Arts (1954), where he writes: “There was, first of all, Roger Fry [died 1934], the prophet of Post-Impressionism”. Lewis is generous, considering the adverse impact of Bloomsbury upon his career: “He possessed a considerable literary gift, and his books have an eloquence and grace which elevate them above the average of writers of this genre” (Lewis 1954: 49). About Sir Kenneth Clark he is not so sure: he is a lesser follower of Fry. Clarke had written five books by this date, but was not yet established in the public mind as an art historian. He was Director of the National Gallery 1933-46, and during the Second World War had chaired the War Artists Advisory Committee. In this role, he had dealings lasting several years with Lewis over the latter’s very slow delivery of the painting A Canadian War Factory. About Herbert Read – whom he had known since 1917, and who had got him the Listener job – he writes that he is “a Mister Abreast-of-the-Times for Everyman who paints or sculpts”, and indeed it is true that Read wrote many Introductions and Prefaces explaining new developments. Then an institution comes into it: “he [Read] is the writer who has led the Salvation Army into a Promised Land, into an Institute” (50). By this Lewis means that Read helped to found the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1946. That it was set up in opposition to the Royal Academy seems not to have softened Lewis’s criticism of it. The ICA set out to be radical, and Lewis objected to purposive radicalism in the arts.

In 1948 Lewis had a dispute with Read and the ICA committee when the latter chose the “posterish” (as Lewis thought) Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro (1921) for an exhibition at the ICA. Lewis preferred the Red Portrait (1937) of his wife, but it is not known if he succeeded in arranging the substitution. What is certain is that Lewis’s relationship with the institutions of culture at this time was often abrasive (Meyers 1980: 310; O’Keeffe 2000: 528-9). But if Lewis was often “difficult”, he was so on the basis of a certain view of art in the twentieth century, and his place in it.

The Royal Academy

Lewis was consistently opposed to the values of the art promoted by the Royal Academy. In 1922 he published in the Sunday Express (a popular newspaper) an article entitled “The Worse-Than-Ever-Academy”. He writes as the defender of a tradition which the Royal Academy only pretends to uphold, in contrast to what could be found in London’s National Gallery:”The pictures found in the Royal Academy bear no resemblance to anything that has ever been understood as great or serious art”. Anyone who admires Rembrandt or Giotto, or the classic tradition of Gainsborough, Constable, Hogarth, or Rowlandson could find only “the hardest censure for this appalling exhibition” (Lewis 1989: 83).

Written polemic was one thing, being heard was another. It was only in 1938 that the rejection of his T.S. Eliot (1938) by the selection committee for the Academy’s summer exhibition of that year caused an explosion of controversy and public debate in which Lewis participated vigorously.

There was an ironic aspect to this. As he wrote two years later, in 1940, to a publisher who had asked him to describe himself (hence his use of the third person): “[W]hen Mr Lewis attempted to force his way into the Royal Academy (2 years ago) he caused a greater disturbance than ever he did by planting [?] ‘bombs’ aloofly outside” (Lewis 1963: 274). Those “bombs” – the allusion is to the bombs of an artistic anarchist – were Lewis’s most radical art, Vorticism particularly. He means that the criticism implied by a transgressive work of art had no effect, but polemical outbursts were heard.

At the time of the controversy in 1938, Lewis wrote to The Times about how contemporary artists felt: “it is merely because the sense of their impotence to effect a change, combined with their ever more outraged sense of the necessity of that change, leads them into ‘something very like direct action’” (Lewis 1963: 254-5). The phrase between quotation marks was from a Times editorial which jeered at Augustus John for resigning over the issue. The Times had written: “A rebuff to one single portrait by a younger painter [Lewis was aged 55] has roused the great heart of Mr. Augustus John [aged 61] to action, to something like direct action” (255, n.1). One notices the implication that action in the sphere of art closely resembles political action in the wider world.

“The Rejected Portrait”

The rejection of the Eliot portrait was reported in the Daily Telegraph on 21 April, a Thursday. On Friday, Lewis himself was quoted in the Daily Mail (a newspaper of the right) and the Daily Herald (on the left). The former quoted him as saying that “the Royal Academy is – if you think this is suitable language – a ‘foul institution’”. To the latter he said: “The Royal Academy is a disgusting bazaar in which every sort of filth is accumulated every year”. To the Telegraph he explained his objections in terms of aesthetics rather than disgust: “last century impressionism, or coloured photographs which they call portraits” (O’Keeffe 2000: 381).

That Friday, Augustus John read of the humiliation of his friend of many years – they had met in 1902 – and on Saturday 23 April, without seeing the Eliot portrait, he resigned from the Royal Academy because “A picture by a person of Mr Lewis’s eminence should have been unquestionably exhibited”, as he was reported by The Star (a London evening newspaper) on Monday, 25 April. John speaks rather as if Lewis himself were an institution.

The resignation gave Lewis the opportunity to tell the Evening Standard (another London evening newspaper) that ”The Royal Academy can now be seen in all its gigantic platitude without a single name behind which to shelter. The name of Augustus John was its dazzling alibi. [...] There is no true artist in England who will not be profoundly grateful to Mr John” (382-3). Here, Lewis refers to the community of artists in Britain. It is a strategy of generosity written from below that he will pursue in his reviews for The Listener after the war.

On Friday 29 April The Star contrived to make Lewis its art critic for the private view at the Academy, and his devastating report appeared under the title “What I Think of the R.A.” on Saturday 30 April 1938. “Out of 1,587 exhibits, I am able to pass 32 as fit” he wrote. In particular, he described Russell Flint’s Spanish Civil War picture showing a firing squad in action as “a genuine atrocity” (384).

On that same Saturday, the Royal Academy held its Annual Banquet, at which the then Prime Minister, the appeaser Neville Chamberlain, spoke ironically about the dispute and said: “I should like you to remember that the Government is still pledged to a policy of non-intervention” (385). At this there was laughter, for he had only recently reasserted that ill-fated policy in public.

It was Winston Churchill who spoke at length, however, comparing artists who challenged orthodoxy to excitable horses, “highmettled palfreys prancing and pawing”, and setting the terms “tradition “ and “innovation” against each other, to argue that “The function of such an institution [as the R.A.] is to hold a middle course between tradition and innovation” (386). Although this is platitudinous, it is also a characteristic trope of political thinking in Britain, in that a “middle way” is preferred, with “concessions on both sides” considered a necessary reasonableness, independently of the merits of the case. Such a politics necessarily excludes what it defines as “extremism”.

Lewis continued to show considerable skill in responding to the needs of the institution of the press. The Times published letters from him on 2, 4, and 7 May, and in the second of these he replied to Churchill’s “passionate advocacy of platitude” by taking up the politician’s argument that “no large organisation can long continue without a strong element of authority and the respect for authority” (Lewis 1963: 255). Lewis meets this by proposing that “even in the political sphere” (Churchill’s milieu) “a small oligarchy [...] has never for long succeeded in holding down by force a restless population” (256).

Here, Churchill speaks from above, but Lewis from below: a plebiscite of artists would show “a 90 per cent majority for the abolition of the Royal Academy”. Again Lewis speaks for the generality of (good) artists, and he speaks democratically. The authoritarianism so often attributed to him is not apparent here, and indeed one is reminded of the early interest in anarchism that had informed his major political work with its significant title: The Art of Being Ruled, published in 1926. In 1938, confronted with an actual politician who has intervened politically in the politics of art, Lewis opposes Churchill’s authoritarianism with skill.

In the following year, Lewis reprinted these letters as the final item in a collection of his art criticism, Wyndham Lewis the Artist: From ‘Blast’ to Burlington House, pointing out that in practice he never got inside the building where the Royal Academy held its exhibitions. He wearily introduces his arguments as “the latest shots in a desultory engagement that has been in progress for a hundred years” (Lewis 1939: 374). The Royal Academy persists, meanwhile, as “the snobbish commercial symbol of British indifference to the arts of painting, sculpture, architecture and design. It is how our particular plutocracy expresses its patronizing contempt for the things of the mind, when those things take a visual form” (373). Here, the word “symbol” insists upon the Royal Academy’s representative power as an institution. The word “plutocracy” locates that power within a political structure whose effectiveness and final point of reference is confirmed by the timely appearance of Chamberlain and Churchill to ironise and patronise Lewis himself.

Six years later, when Lewis begins writing for The Listener, the politics developed in his commentary upon the “rejected portrait” incident reappear as the intrinsic politics of his reviews of the contemporary work he saw between 1946 and 1951.

Writing for The Listener

In November 1942, Lewis wrote a letter to John Rothenstein in which he appealed for help in terms intended to conceal the anguish he was experiencing during a Canadian winter in Toronto. He wants Rothenstein to get him a position of some kind: “Will they make me director of art education: could I secure the editorship of ‘The Listener’ or something like that?” (Lewis 1963: 340). It was not the editorship, but the position of art critic that eventually came his way.

Lewis owed his position at the Listener to Herbert Read, who in 1946 told J.R. Ackerley, the Literary Editor, that Lewis was “in London”. Lewis had been in London, and living in Notting Hill Gate, since his return from Canada in August 1945. Ackerley wrote: “I write to ask whether you could be persuaded to write an article for me on the Phaidon Press’s new volume Canadian Painters (25/-)”. He offered Lewis 900 words, or if he wanted more, “I am sure my editor would accord it to you if he can”. The Editor was Alan Thomas, who was evidently well-disposed towards Lewis, for the review as published is 1856 words in length, and has three illustrations. On this occasion, Ackerley wrote offering to “send the volume round by hand” if Lewis agreed to write the review within a week (Cornell: letter from J.R. Ackerley, 15 August 1946). On 22 August he wrote to say that the editor wanted to include a third illustration “to fill out to two whole pages”. It was an auspicious start to a project which gave Lewis great pleasure and provoked some of his best critical writing. Ackerley soon recognised the quality of what he was receiving from Lewis.

On 18 May 1949, Lewis wrote to Ackerley to acknowledge praise he had evidently received: “Your approval, I need hardly say, is a very different matter from mere editorial approbation. – I should be delighted to do the Bacon show.” This abrupt transition is interesting, and shows how arrangements for the bestowal of cultural approval took place. Lewis goes on: “He is one of the very best – he may be the best of ‘the young’. Details we can settle on Friday when we meet at ¼ to 1 at the White Tower”.

This shows the working of an informal cultural network. The White Tower in Percy Street is the same restaurant at which the Vorticists met in 1914 and 1915, when it was called La Tour Eiffel. It is the site of cultural continuity for Lewis, and of a cultural break for postwar painting. For Lewis was one of the first to recognise the importance of Francis Bacon – though he did not write about the Hanover Gallery show until 12 May, 1949, and only then in the future tense about an exhibition yet to occur. It was not until 17 November that he was able to praise Bacon: “I must not attempt to describe these amazing pictures”. The complex situation existing between Bacon and his gallery led to this delay, and the complexities are unravelled for the first time by Jan Cox in the essay “Wyndham Lewis and Francis Bacon” that is part of this website.

In that same letter Lewis acknowledges the Listener’s own tribute to him, Eric Newton’s “Emergence of Mr Wyndham Lewis” (19 May). “Thank you for the most impressive and terrifically useful display,” he wrote. “I’m damned if I don’t think even ‘The Armada’ looks well. Symons comes out very well indeed. Sincerest thanks from me Emergent!” (For the quality of reproductions, see the facsimile that is part of this website.) There is irony in “me Emergent!”, for Lewis had been, in a sense, an Emergent artist for far too many years – since the Vorticist revolt of 1914, in fact. That is why he describes the Listener’s display as “useful”: it was useful to him in a cultural-political situation in which his work was insufficiently valued by the institutions.

The Demon of Progress in the Arts (1954)

The arguments of this book are directly related to Lewis’s Listener art criticism. The Demon of Progress is usually understood to mark Lewis’s final break with the abstraction he had practised in his Vorticist period (c.1913-1915), but we should be careful not to assume that the younger painter was wholly committed to abstraction. It is the case that his watercolour Abstract Design of 1912 (Edwards 2000: no. 24: 61), or A Wall Decoration in the Cave of the Golden Calf, also 1912 (Michel 1971: 33 and 29) are abstract, but this is exceptional (and important). Lewis characteristically distorts, simplifies, and satirises the human figure at this time, particularly in the work resulting from his visits to Brittany, where he encountered the dancing, striding, or embracing “Wild Body” figures of the peasantry.

The major pre-Vorticist project was the illustrations for a projected edition of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, which were published separately as a portfolio. These too are works that make a critique: they identify Timon’s vanity, and the consequent social failure that leads him from his court to isolation in the wilderness. Lewis’s pictures tend to be about something, as well as being visual representations. In the case of Timon they are about a state of psychological or mental distress.

Vorticism too is about something: The Crowd (1914-5) is about being in the city, and about being constrained by it, and wishing to revolt against those constraints. This political impulse is embodied in a severe abstracting process applied to buildings which attempt to dominate the individual and the crowd. In all this work, a determinable visual referent is always present.

In the immediate post-war years (1919-1920), Lewis formulated a way of approaching modernist (post-Cézanne) art. It is characteristically dualist. In “Prevalent Design” he wrote that Cubism, Expressionism, “or any of the current movements in painting” should be understood as a “cleavage” between “the design wrought on the body of Nature itself, and the designs given to the forms of Nature after they have passed through a formularizing process within the artist’s mind”. He simplifies further: “Work done ‘from Nature’, and work done ‘out of your head’: those are the extreme rough figures of this conflict” (Lewis 1969: 118).

The difference between the Lewis of the Vorticist period and the Lewis who wrote the Listener reviews is that the latter has moved from the second position to the first: from a preference for work done “out of your head” to work deriving directly from “the body of Nature itself”.

Vorticism was a European movement, shaped by Cubism and Futurism; but so too is the painting that emerges in the aftermath of the Second World War, in Lewis’s view. Vorticism was the work of extremists; so too is this work “extremist”, if in a carefully-defined and limited sense.

In The Demon of Progress Lewis names Michael Ayrton, Francis Bacon, Robert Colquhoun, John Craxton, Henry Moore, Ceri Richards, and others, who constitute together “actually the finest group of painters and sculptors which England has ever known”. This is a strong statement, and Lewis immediately qualifies it: “I do not refer to achievement; I refer to the existence of so many people who understand painting. […] [T]his group is European”. Except for Moore and Sutherland, they are still young, so that “perhaps the maximum effort has not been put forth” yet (Lewis 1954: 4).

This position is based on the work Lewis saw as Listener critic:

In looking back upon my weekly tour of the shows at the time of my Listener articles, hundreds of canvases are crowded together in my memory, from each of which I received authentic delight, which only work of the first order is capable of producing.

He specifies particular artists:

I remember with what enchantment I came upon a group of paintings by Trevelyan at the Galleries of Gimpel Fils […]; Ceri Richards’ pianoforte pieces; Craxton’s tank for bathing at the foot of a steep hotel; Ayrton’s superb portrait of William Walton composing, the striations of the figure rhythmically associated with the vertically striated cliff – a portrait that should find its place in the National Portrait Gallery (5).

Lewis reviewed Julian Trevelyan’s show in the Listener of 23 March, 1950: it was in fact his third commentary on the artist. Richards’s “pianoforte pieces” are not mentioned in any review; but Craxton’s “tank for bathing” is evidently Bathers Near the Hotel, mentioned in the review of 23 March 1950. Ayrton’s portrait of Walton – he is lighting his pipe, not composing, but Lewis’s blindness would have inhibited a check – was part of an exhibition reviewed on 9 June 1949, and is illustrated here.

Lewis goes on to say that “for the average gallery-goer, each and all of these painters is an extremist – an authentic extremist” (5). This might strike us now – and indeed readers then – as improbable (as well as being unkind to gallery-goers): but Lewis is making a different point. He means by inauthentic extremism the empty abstractions of such a group as the Salon des Réalités nouvelles, founded in 1939, re-founded after the war in 1946, and still in existence today.

The “new reality” of this art was based on the facile idea that “it does not refer to or imitate any existing reality”, in the words of the Tate Glossary. Lewis had dealt with the complex question of abstraction and reference long before, notably in the “Prevalent Design” articles of 1919-20. His response to the post-1946 resurgence of Réalités nouvelles was to reproduce in Demon of Progress two particularly vapid examples of this non-referential abstraction, one by Bombelli (not identified, possibly Lanfranco Bombelli Tiravanti), and one by the Belgian painter Engel-Pak (born Ernest Engel, 1885-1965).

Together they exemplify “the terrible pictorial aberration whose idiot name Real cannot be tolerated outside of the pathologic clinic” (51). Clearly Lewis’s emotions were deeply engaged by this radical simplification. For him, the Real was complex, overdetermined, and shaped by ideological forces. The difficulties of the Natural and the Real had preoccupied him for decades, and taken many forms, for as well as the articles already mentioned, there is his 1939 discussion entitled “Super-nature versus Super-real”. Here he concedes that “The vorticist, cubist, and expressionist movements” which “aimed at a renewal of our artistic sensibilities” “have not succeeded” (Lewis 1939: 18). This concession may or may not be a truth; but by asserting the failure of the modern movement, Lewis prepared himself to value the work that he would be discussing after the war in the Listener.

The question of “extremism” in the arts is one to which Lewis returns shortly before his death in 1957. In an unpublished novel entitled “Twentieth Century Palette” he traces the life of an artist called Evelyn Parke, who sometimes resembles Lewis, and sometimes does not. Parke founds an art school rather resembling the Slade School, and one day addresses the students. (This is a late work in the sense that Lewis was ill when he wrote it, and there is often an air of unreality, and an expressive awkwardness, that had not been present in his writing even a few years before.) Parke says:

“I would at this point stress one very important fact, and one almost entirely neglected by the so-called Art Historian. It is this; the furnishing of the artist’s mind at the moment of creation is of the first importance. The artist is not a savage, or a brute, he is the expression of a culture. But if he has no culture, he ought not really to start being an artist. The first step is to train the artist culturally” (Lewis 2002-3: 17).

Lewis himself was largely self-taught, because he was asked to leave the Slade in 1901, at the age of eighteen. Now Lewis is asking the institutions to provide a formal, wide-ranging cultural education to art students. The artist must be “culturally fit to paint” (17), and: “We hope [at the Parke Academy] that we shall be the shadow of a university as well as an art academy. We are behindhand, but we shall achieve this complex end” (18). It is a proposition showing remarkable imagination.

Lewis then makes Parke go on to explain what it means to live, as an artist, in the twentieth century. This explanation helps us understand Lewis’s opposition to abstraction in The Demon of Progress. We are time-bound insofar as we must live in that century, Parke says. But because we live in the twentieth century, it does not follow that we must be committed to progress. Parke gives his students an image:

It is a man walking along a street, which is called Twentieth Street; not a man walking along a street, and sticking a feather in his cap   because it is called Progress (18).

He tells the story of Francis Younghusband, the explorer, who when faced with a barrier of ice, feels that his porters, afraid themselves, look to him to move forward because European explorers always move forward. There is no need to do that, Parke explains. For artists there is no “necessity […] to wear a progressive look, whatever they may feel. It is this necessity to which I object” (19). Lewis objected whenever he felt its appearance in the art which he reviewed for the Listener. And it is this necessity against which he argues in The Demon of Progress: “All I am saying is that there is such a thing as driving too near the edge of the cliff” (Lewis 1954: 32).

Lewis’s Institutions, 1946-1957

The Listener was not the only journal for which Lewis wrote at this period. In 1946 he contributed an article to the Sewanee Review in the United States, and to Contact Books in Britain. There were two letters to the Times Literary Supplement in 1947, and two more in 1948. In 1948 he published in Art and Reason, Wales, and Geoffrey Grigson’s The Mint. In 1949 he appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature, Time magazine, and The Quarterly Review of Literature. Apart from a review of Ayrton’s work in Nine, he appeared solely in the Listener in 1950, and 1951 was exclusively committed to the Listener.

Lewis began writing short stories after his blindness set in from 1951, and published them in The American Mercury in 1952, Shenandoah in 1953, and Encounter in 1954. In 1954 he reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement and for Time and Tide. In 1955, parts of The Human Age appeared in The Hudson Review and Shenandoah, and in 1956 another story appeared in Encounter. In that year he was interviewed in the Daily Mail, wrote on the Vorticists for Vogue, and on T.E. Lawrence for the Hudson Review. In the year of his death, Spectrum published an article on Ayrton.

Altogether, in addition to his forty-eight Listener contributions, Lewis published twenty-six articles, stories, criticism, letters, or interviews in fifteen different journals, newspapers, or magazines between 1946 and 1957, both in Britain and in the United States.

To this can be added the seven essays that appeared variously with the publishers Duckworth, Editions Poetry London, Peter Nevill Ltd, Penguin Books, Hermitage House in New York, and Methuen in London. There were catalogue introductions for the Redfern Gallery and the Tate Gallery exhibitions. The latter exhibition, held in 1956, was substantial evidence of Lewis’s acceptance by the institutions of art of his time.

Finally, there are the eight separate books he published in these years: America and Cosmic Man in 1948, Rude Assignment in 1950, Rotting Hill (short stories) in 1951, The Writer and the Absolute in 1952, Self Condemned (a novel), The Demon of Progress in the Arts in 1954, and The Human Age in 1955. He concluded a life of book publication with a minor fiction, The Red Priest of 1956. “Twentieth Century Palette”, a novel about the life of a painter who taught at the Slade remained unpublished at his death.

Since four of these books were published both in both the United States and Britain, this means that as well as appearing with Methuen – from 1951 his main publisher – Lewis was published in London by Nicholson and Watson and Hutchinson, in New York by Doubleday, and in Chicago by Regnery (Morrow and Lafourcade 1978: passim).

It is clear that in the concluding eleven years of his life Lewis had ready access to the institutions that disseminated culture in Britain at this time. No sooner had he ceased to write art criticism for the Listener (because he could “no longer see a picture”) than he was taken up by the BBC in its central function of broadcaster. Six dramatized versions of his fiction were broadcast between 1951 and 1957 (one posthumously). The most striking aspect of this was the broadcast of three separate plays in five days in May 1955 (see text box). The instigator of this arrangement was D.G. Bridson, who financed the plays with BBC money so that the books might be written.

Broadcast Dramatizations of Wyndham Lewis’s fiction 1951-1957


‘The Childermass’, with Donald Wolfit. 18 June 1951.90 minutes. Third Programme
24 May 1955
‘The Human Age: Part 1: The Childermass’, with Donald Wolfit. 90 minutes. Third Programme
26 May 1955
‘The Human Age: Part 2: Monstre Gai’, with Donald Wolfit. 90 minutes. Third Programme
28 May 1955
‘The Human Age: Part 3: Malign Fiesta’, with Donald Wolfit. 120 minutes. Third Programme
‘Tarr’. 18 July 1956. 150 minutes.
Third Programme
‘The Revenge for Love’. 23 June 1957. 120 minutes. Third Programme. Posthumous

Remarkable as this was, it was only the culmination of a history of broadcasting activity that went back to 1928, when the BBC – founded in 1922 – was only six years old, and broadcast as 2LO. Lewis became sufficiently well known to be asked to contribute to the talks series so popular at this time, such as that on ‘Freedom’ in 1935, or ‘A Crisis of Thought’ in 1947. Lewis might have become better known as a broadcaster if he had not been so nervous before the microphone: the confidence of the words is sometimes in conflict with the speaker’s hesitant manner. The totality of Lewis’s broadcasts is listed in the text box. There were ten in all, one posthumous.

Wyndham Lewis's BBC Broadcasts 1928-1957

‘Writers of Today’: 21 January 1928, 15 minutes – 2LO
‘Freedom’: 30 April 1935, 20 minutes – National Programme
‘Art and Literature’. The part of the Martian is played by G.R. Schjelderup: 21 June 1935, 15 minutes – National Programme
‘When John Bull Laughs’, 15 minutes – National Programme
‘Modern Art’: 23 May 1939, 40 minutes – Television service
‘The Visual Arts’, with Anthony Blunt: 31 October 1946, timing not known
‘Liberty and the Individual’: 3 January 1947, 15 minutes – Midland Home Service
‘A Crisis of Thought’: 16 March 1947, 20 minutes – Third Programme
‘Cafe Royal: A study in conversation and reminiscence’ – participant among many. 28 December 1955, 45 minutes – Home Service
‘Satiric Verse’, including Lewis reading from One-Way Song. 9 July 1957, 30 minutes – Third Programme. Posthumous.
Source Omar Pound and Phillip Grover, Wyndham Lewis: A Descriptive Bibliography, 1978

Lewis’s acute sensitivity towards the institutional context in which any artist must work probably began with the Omega dispute of 1913, when a disagreement with Roger Fry over a stolen commission led him, Edward Wadsworth and two others to leave, and form the Vorticist group. His own contra-institution, the Rebel Art Centre, lasted only a few months. In 1920, Group X (ten painters) held only one exhibition, and dissolved itself. But these were improvised institutions: there were greater forces at work, and deleterious ones.

In an interview with The Times in 1921, Lewis urged, no doubt semi-seriously, that Members of Parliament should be educated in the arts, and attend lectures held at the Palace of Westminster. In some prescient remarks, he foreshadowed the founding of the National Health Service in 1948 when he said that “It is scandalous that hospitals should be neglected as they are; they should be subsidized”. But so should the arts: “it is scandalous also that art should not have subsidies and pensions, so that people could proceed with their work.”

He says this in the context of the Royal Academy. In an interesting move that situates him on the left of art politics, he urges that there be “some powerful offset to the Academy” from the cultural left: “The Opposition must get more recognition in art, and more opportunity to oppose. […] Look at the administration of the Chantrey Bequest at the hands of the Academy! It is not only out of date but in many cases unjust” (Lewis 2005: 4-5).

This is essentially the agenda of the Listener reviews, as far as the institutions of art are concerned. Indeed, it is exactly so, for in 1950 Lewis returned to precisely his ideas of 1921. Writing about the then recently opened Room 13 in the Tate Gallery, he proposes a ‘Four Year Plan for Art’ financed at the rate of £10,000 a year for the four years. He writes:

Art galleries, like hospitals, ought to be taken over by the State, and be provided with the wherewithal for growth. To suppose that they can survive, as living and growing organisms, on a voluntary contribution basis, is absurd. The Arts should be regarded as a branch of Health – the nation’s health.

That was published on 10 March 1949. The National Health Service had come into existence nine months before, on 5 July 1948.

In 1921 Lewis had spoken in the context of a radical modernism that still had a great deal of energy in it. By the time he came to write for the Listener, that impulse had worn itself out. Representational art had returned with confidence after the Second World War, and European abstract art had descended into the vacuity of Les Réalités nouvelles.

In this situation Lewis chose the artists he most valued, from amongst those he had seen as the Listener art critic. The Tate, he urges, should purchase work by Vaughan, Bacon, Colquhoun, Ceri Richards, amongst the already established painters. Or they should buy the young John Minton and Merlyn Evans, “to mention a few of the best” (10 March 1949).

Lewis’s choices are perceptive and prescient. These are indeed the artists that the Tate Gallery should have bought, but in too many cases, did not. If Lewis’s suggestions had been followed, the Tate collection of British art would have been much better than it is. The relative absence of Bacon is a particularly conspicuous failure, for Tate Britain has only three post-1944 paintings, when it could have had so many more.


By 1950 Lewis had achieved cultural authority as a public critic of art and culture. In some respects, he was an example of the public intellectual, if on a limited scale. His advocacy of particular artists emerged from a complex group of arguments based on artistic practice, and on the recognition of the importance of institutions for the development of art in Britain. There was no nationalist element because the best British artists were (in his view) European in outlook and impulse.

Technically, he admired work that possessed a firm line; impressionism was anathema to him, as it had been from the earliest days of his career. No descendants of Impressionism received Lewis’s approval, any more than did the empty abstractionists. “The whole theory of French Impressionism”, he wrote in The Role of Line in Art (c.1938) “was by way of being antagonistic to form” (Lewis 2007: 25). Yet Impressionism’s “slovenly linear habits” persisted “in so-called ‘academic’ circles, where you would least expect to encounter them”. Impressionism survives institutionally, “in the Royal Academy, in Bloomsbury, and elsewhere” (28). There was an alternative, and it was work possessing a distinct strength of line that Lewis championed in his Listener reviews.

Lewis’s immediate recognition of the importance of Francis Bacon, and his enthusiasm for a quite different kind of painter, Dennis Williams, together with his critical support for many others, shows him seeking out the best art of his time, even if it was apparent to him (as it is to us) that this was not the greatest achieved work that the century had seen.

Above all, none of the work to which Lewis committed himself would have been seen at the Royal Academy. If the traditions of British and European art persisted, it was in the London galleries to which he hurried at the behest of J.R. Ackerley, the Listener, and – ultimately – the BBC. Lewis had become, after a long career, someone who could be accepted by the institutions without allowing his integrity as a critic to be compromised.


Cornell. Letters between Wyndham Lewis and J.R. Ackerley held at the Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University.

Edwards, Paul. 2000. Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Lewis, Wyndham. 1939. Wyndham Lewis the Artist: From ‘Blast’ to Burlington House. London: Laidlaw and Laidlaw.

Lewis, Wyndham. 1954. The Demon of Progress in the Arts. London: Methuen.

Lewis, Wyndham. 1963. The Letters of Wyndham Lewis, ed. W.K. Rose. London: Methuen.

Lewis, Wyndham. 1984. ‘The Vita of Wyndham Lewis’, ed. Bernard Lafourcade. Enemy News 20, 10-15.

Lewis, Wyndham. 1989. ‘The Worse-Than-Ever-Academy’ in Creatures of Habit and Creatures of Change: Essays on Art, Literature and Society 1914-1956, ed. Paul Edwards. Santa Rosa CA: Black Sparrow Press.

Lewis, Wyndham. 2002-3. “Twentieth Century Palette”, ed. Alan Munton. Wyndham Lewis Annual IX-X, 4-23.

Lewis, Wyndham. 2005. ‘“Art in Common Life”: Lewis in The Times, 1921’, Wyndham Lewis Annual XII, 4-5. Reprinted from The Times of 28 April 1921: 13.

Lewis, Wyndham. 2007. The Role of Line in Art with Six Drawings to Illustrate the Argument, ed. Paul W. Nash. Witney: The Strawberry Press.

Meyers, Jeffrey. 1980. The Enemy: A Biography of Wyndham Lewis. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

O’Keeffe, Paul. 2000. Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis. London: Cape.

Watkins, Alan. 2000. A Short Walk Down Fleet Street: From Beaverbrook to Boycott. London: Duckworth.

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