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 energetic abstraction of his paintings.
Lewis enlisted in 1916 and served as a gunner and bombardier—and later as a war artist—during World War I. His two most important literary works following the war are nonfiction. Both The Art of Being Ruled and Time and Western Man attempt to account for the moral and cultural deterioration which followed the war. Along with Paleface and Men Without Art, they are among the first works that seriously examine the authors and precepts of modernism and include piercing analyses of the work of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, George Bernard Shaw, Henri Bergson, and Virginia Woolf. The Apes of God, a satiric novel and a scathing exposé of many of the leading figures in London’s cultural scene, set the tone for the 1930’s. The Revenge for Love appeared in 1937. Its main concern is not the pre-Civil War Spain where the story is set nor the Fascist or Communist Parties, but rather the fictional main characters, to whom he gives more depth than he had done previously. Dread of war and poverty led Lewis and his wife Froanna (Gladys Anne Hoskyns), whom he married on October 9, 1930, to emigrate to America in September of 1939. They were poor and often alienated and alone during their six years in Canada and the United States, where Lewis supported himself mostly as a lecturer or instructor at various universities and colleges.
Lewis developed eye problems during the early years of his...
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stay in America, and by 1951 he was totally blind. Perhaps because of the trauma of his blindness, his final works, especially the semiautobiographical novelSelf Condemned and the epic The Human Age (a two-part conclusion of The Childermass), lack his former vitriolic tone; their more humane estimations of humankind are also couched within a plainer, more straightforward style, which contrasts considerably with the self-conscious mannerisms of his early work. Undaunted by his blindness, Lewis was working on two novels when he died on March 7, 1957, in Westminster Hospital, London.
Although W. B. Yeats, Eliot, and Pound esteemed Lewis throughout their lives, his combative, almost paranoid personality gained him many enemies and defined his reputation. The Apes of God, for example, won for him the enmity of many London celebrities who could have advanced his career. His strong, fixed opinions also hampered his fame. His elevation of the individual led him, for example, to misinterpret Adolf Hitler and his aims. The misguided Hitler and Left Wings over Europe earned him much ill will, which was not significantly dissipated by his renouncements of these works in The Hitler Cult and The Jews, Are They Human?—whose satiric title belies its content, a defense of the Jews. This cloud of bad feeling in the 1930’s overshadowed the publication of the satiric novel The Revenge for Love, one of his best works. Early scholars of modernism for the most part neglected Lewis. Hugh Kenner and Timothy Materer rescued him from oblivion and reminded critics of his importance to Vorticism and Ezra Pound’s circle. Fredric Jameson’s psychoanalytic and Marxist study of Lewis’s theories and style further broadened Lewis’s significance.
Percy Wyndham Lewis was born on November 18, 1882, on his father’s yacht moored near Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada. Lewis was the son of an American army officer who had fought in the Civil War, Charles Lewis, and a British woman, Anne Prickett. He kept the Canadian nationality all of his life. When he was eleven, Lewis’s parents separated, and he lived for some years in genteel poverty with his mother in the London suburbs. At Rugby, Lewis ranked at the bottom of his class, but at the Slade School of Art he began to write poetry and make friends with poets such as Thomas Sturge Moore and Lawrence Binyon. In the early 1900’s, Lewis resided mainly in Paris (in Montparnasse, the artists’ quarter) but also visited Spain, Holland, and Germany and spent summers in Normandy and Brittany. During this time, he studied painting and lived a profligate life of garrets and mistresses (by several of whom he had illegitimate children); as a consequence, he suffered several bouts of illness and venereal disease. His first novel, Tarr (1918, 1928), was set amid the Parisian student and café life.
When he returned to England in 1909, he began publishing his first stories and became associated with various art movements. Together with Pound he publicized the vorticist revolution. He met Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Richard Aldington, Rebecca West, and Ford Madox Ford, among others, but, arrogantly brash, argumentative, and egotistical, he made more enemies than friends. In 1913, when he led an active opposition against Roger Fry, he lost his former friends among the Bloomsbury Group and began a critical exchange that led eventually to his satiric novel The Apes of God (1930). In 1914, he and Pound founded Blast, “Review of the Great English Vortex,” a publication edited and largely written by Lewis but with later contributions by T. S. Eliot. It advocated abstract art, hard geometrical lines, African and Polynesian motifs, classical detachment but an underlying explosiveness that would capture urban life and its machinery. In 1916, he joined the military to battle “German barbarism,” trained as a gunner and bombardier, received a commission in the Royal Artillery, and was sent to France. He describes his war experiences in Blasting and Bombardiering (1937). Demoralized by the war, he returned to London to pursue his interests in architecture and art, producing drawings and editing the art review The Tyro.
For Lewis, the 1920’s were a productive period of literature and criticism. Calling himself “The Enemy,” he blasted those whose ideas or style offended him. In 1929, Lewis married Gladys Anne Hoskyns. He visited Germany and traveled in North Africa in 1930. After a period of illness and controversy in the early 1930’s, particularly about his profascist, anticommunist stance, several of Lewis’s books were withdrawn from publication. Ernest Hemingway, stung by Lewis’s criticism of his novels in “The Dumb Ox,” retaliated much later with a vicious portrait of Lewis in A Moveable Feast (1964). In 1938, his portrait of Eliot was refused by the Royal Academy, and, when Sir Winston Churchill defended the academy’s action, Lewis attacked him for his “passionate advocacy of platitude.” Condemned in England for his association with the British Union of Fascists, for his right-wing tracts, and his book praising Hitler as a true democrat and a “Man of Peace,” Lewis went to the United States (Buffalo, New York City, and Long Island) in 1939 and moved to Canada in 1940 (Toronto and Windsor), where he lectured for a year at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario. When faced with the true nature of Hitler’s fascism, Lewis recanted his previous stance but was permanently tainted by it. His novel Self Condemned is a subjective analysis of his own self-destructive patterns.
In 1945, Lewis returned to London to Notting Hill Gate and became art critic for The Listener until his eyesight failed in 1951. At that time, he was granted a small government pension, and a friend, Agnes Bedford, came to help his wife care for him and to help him continue to write. In 1952, the University of Leeds awarded him a doctorate of literature. In 1953, Lewis went totally blind. The Tate Gallery put on a Retrospective Exhibition in 1956: “Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism.” Lewis died March 7, 1957, after a lifetime of controversy and criticism, his final words being “Mind your own business.”