Percy Wyndham Lewis
Mrs Dick Guiness
Pencil and watercolour on paper
Signed and dated `Wyndham Lewis. 1923’ (lower right)
14.1/2 x 16.3/4 in. (36.8 x 42.6 cm.)
Provenance: The Zwemmer Gallery, London Formerly the property of Arthur Crossland Esq.
Wyndham Lewis was the hard man of modernism. He presented himself as "The Enemy", and society took him at his word. Of all the great modernists, Lewis is the one who has stayed out in the cold, despite his double genius as both painter and writer. Walter Sickert called him the "greatest portraitist of this or any other time", and T S Eliot described him as "the greatest prose master of style of my generation" A founding member of Vorticism ( a fusion or Cubism and Futurism), Lewis had a strong aesthetic preference for stylisation, and for clean lines and hard surfaces. He liked dynamic stasis and machine-like forms. He edited the Vorticist magazine BLAST . He had been a founder member of the Camden Town Group and came into contact with the Bloomsbury Group, particularly Roger Fry and Clive Bell, though they quickly fell out.
His Jewish book (and his anti-Nazi book, The Hitler Cult) were part of a damage-limitation exercise, an attempt to undo the gaffe he'd made with his 1931 book Hitler ("This celibate inhabitant of a modest Alpine chalet - vegetarian, non-smoking, and non-drinking ... the most unassuming of men"). But the inter-war years were a strange time, and Lewis was not alone in his extremism: T S Eliot wrote to the Daily Mail to praise the paper's pro-Mussolini stance, George Bernard Shaw hero-worshipped Stalin, and Graham Greene's books had to be re-edited after the war to take out the anti-semitic bits. Some feel there is a touch of scapegoating with Lewis, a kind of inverse McCarthyism. Lewis could be intensely paranoid and prickly, and he seems to have been almost physically incapable of not being rude to people. He had been a great drinking buddy of Joyce (O'Keeffe gives a nice account of them sitting in a Paris gutter together), but he still attacked Joyce's work - brilliantly - in Time and Western Man, then stitched up the Sitwells (and virtually everyone else he'd known, including friends and patrons) in his satirical novel The Apes of God.
Lewis ended his life blinded by a slow-growing brain tumour. His eyesight had been going for some time, and he once tried to hail a hearse instead of a black cab, which must have been a pregnant moment. Finally he had to give up his post as art critic: as he politely explained in the "unseemly autobiographical outburst" of his last piece, he could no longer see the pictures. "Pushed into an unlighted room, the door banged and locked for ever, I shall then have to light a lamp of aggressive voltage in my mind to keep at bay the night." This is a delightful early society portrait from the heyday of the 1920s of Mrs Dick Guiness. After a gap in his painting in the late 1920s and early 1930s he would later become well known for his portraits of Edith Sitwell, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. There is no doubt he was a difficult man, but he remains one of the most important figures of the first half of the 20th Century.