Percy Wyndham Lewis is one of the most important figures of British modernism and one of the best portrait painters of the twentieth century. As novelist, poet, critic, editor, philosopher, draftsman, and painter, he displays a volume and breadth in his work that are unrivaled among that of his contemporaries. He was born off the coast of Nova Scotia on his father’s yacht. Charles Edward Lewis, an American who had been awarded the rank of brevet captain for his valiant service to the Union Army in the Civil War, never held a permanent job after the war, depending, rather, on his family’s investments in mining and railroad companies. Lewis’s mother, Anne Stuart Prickett, who was English, cherished her son, who returned her affection: They had a close relationship throughout her life. The family lived in Maine and Canada until 1888, when they moved to the Isle of Wight. After Charles Lewis left with a housemaid in 1893, Wyndham and his mother were left with very little means of support. Lewis was to spend the rest of his life in poverty or near-poverty, always struggling to survive.
Lewis attended Rugby School and the Slade School of Art from 1897 to 1901. His interest in art and culture led him to Paris, where until 1908 he pursued a career as both a writer and an artist. He first gained prominence in England as editor of Blast, the manifesto for Vorticism, a revolutionary movement in both literature and the visual arts launched by Lewis, Ezra Pound, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and T. S. Eliot. The periodical’s shocking pink covers, bold block lettering, abstract paintings, and unorthodox essays, poems, plays, and stories stridently announced the revolutionary energy and intensity central to the movement’s defiance of convention and naturalism. Violent energy and defiance continued to be the hallmarks of Lewis’s art. Tarr, his first novel, soon followed. A satire of much of the hypocrisy in the bohemian Paris where Lewis had lived, the novel is most striking for its stylistic innovations. With fragmented sentences and unorthodox grammar and punctuation, Lewis attempted to approximate in prose the...
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