PERCY WYNDHAM LEWIS, Woman with a Cat, 1919
Woman with a cat is a remarkable example of Wyndham Lewis’s graphic work dating from a period where his ideas on paintings and drawing were undergoing serious revision, primarily in light of his experiences during the Great War. The supremely elegant line and subtle application of muted washes are entirely typical of his work at this time. An expert draughtsman, Lewis concentrated almost solely on portraiture and figure studies in the immediate aftermath of the war, often preferring to work on paper.
Wyndham Lewis did much to shape the cultural discourse in Britain during the 1910s and 1920s, exerting a powerful influence through both his painting and writing. A leading light in the Vorticist movement; Lewis pioneered an anarchic, mechanised form of abstraction alongside contemporaries such as David Bomberg and Edward Wadsworth, whilst also promoting their collective endeavours in his seminal publication, Blast. Like many of his progressive contemporaries, Lewis was enlisted during the Great War and saw active service on the battlefields of France and Belgium, an experience which inevitably had a profound effect on his (and their) work.
Walter Michel, writing in the 1971 catalogue raisonne of Lewis’s work, commented that “the remaining pictures of 1919 present a radical departure from the earlier work. Portraits or nudes, drawn from the model, they are the products of a war-grained conviction that the earlier geometries needed ‘filling’, and specifically, it appears, in terms of forms indicative of a less detached view of human life.” The key work here is perhaps ‘human’. Richard Cork has noted how, by 1916, “the artist’s attitude to machine power had changed irrevocably” in light of their experiences at the front. A rejection of the aggressive imagery of the past was unsurprising and it was coupled with a revaluation of classical subjects and modes of representation.
In his writing from 1919 Lewis came to the conclusion that Vorticism was no longer suitable or relevant in depicting the human form (although he stopped short of a wholesale repudiation for all subjects). If he were to concentrate on figurative art, he concluded his style would have to change. This development in outlook mirrors, to a certain extent, Picasso’s and Braque’s move towards more neo-classical forms during the 1920s. Although Lewis seemingly rejected the machine and its abstract depiction in favour of images of domesticity, this is not to say that he had abandoned progressive art for nostalgia or pastiche. The deliberate simplification of forms evident in our drawing is an attempt to refine the abstract qualities of the composition without reducing these forms to machine-like objects. The bowed head, evident in our work, is a very common motif, allowing the head to be clearly identifiable yet very simply, and sculpturally, reproduced without the need to show facial features. In time, Lewis would dispense with much of the tints, washes and shading in his drawings, although I feel our work is all the better for their reserved application.
Lewis, like Bomberg, produced a large number of works on paper during 1919. Unlike Bomberg, whose drawings are often expressively executed in ink washes, Lewis’s display a more cool reserve. Another difference is they appear far less frequently on the market, with works in such fine condition and with such strong colours particularly rare. The last genuinely comparable watercolour appeared at auction as part of the sale of T. S. Elliot’s collection at Christies in November 2013 where it made £43,750. That work, purchased by the London trade, was subsequently acquired in 2016 by Leeds City Gallery with the aid of an Art Fund grant.
PERCY WYNDHAM LEWIS (1882-1957)
Woman with a Cat, 1919
Watercolour & pencil on paper
10 x 14 in / 25.5 x 35.5 cm