Lewis, Wyndham (1882–1957)

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LEWIS, WYNDHAM (1882–1957)


English writer and painter.

Percy Wyndham Lewis was born in Canada and moved to England with his family at age six. Abandoned by his American father, he was raised by his English mother, who ran a laundering business in north London. At the age of sixteen he received a prestigious scholarship to the Slade School of Art but was later ejected for unruly behavior. For the next decade he lived a bohemian life supported by his mother, spending time in Madrid, Munich, and Paris. He published his first short story, "The Pole," in 1909 and by 1910 seemed poised to become a writer. But in 1911 he contributed to his first group exhibition: his paintings were immediately noticed by critics, who admired his taut, vigorous draftsmanship. Within a year he was producing major paintings that drew on the idiom of contemporary cubism yet elaborated a distinctly personal style: pictures of strange automatons, their faces locked in rigid grimaces, who stagger through desolate fields of piercing arcs and angles.

It was a propitious moment. Roger Fry's famous exhibition of postimpressionist artists had taken place in December 1910, followed by the first exhibition of futurist painting in early 1912, prompting unprecedented debate about contemporary art. Lewis admired the concerted polemical onslaught the futurists had mounted and resolved to shape a movement of his own. Teaming up with Ezra Pound, he launched vorticism with Blast, an avant-garde journal bristling with pugnacious manifestos and typography.

Lewis, briefly, became a celebrity. But he was also leading a double life. His illegitimate children, born in 1911 and 1913, were being cared for by his aging mother, and in 1919 and 1920 he had two more, these entrusted to a home for orphans. After serving as an artillery gunner during World War I, Lewis returned to face ever-mounting debts. He held major exhibitions in 1921 and 1937, but neither could rectify his indigence. He turned to portraiture, and while he produced modern masterpieces, including several of T. S. Eliot, he failed to earn a viable income. He also took up writing in earnest, issuing massive volumes of philosophical and cultural criticism such as The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and Time and Western Man (1927) and novels such as The Apes of God (1930), a mordant satire on wealthy bohemia, blemished by undercurrents of anti-Semitism.

In 1930 he married Gladys Anne Hoskins. That same year he cobbled together a biography of Adolf Hitler, the first in any language. The research was poor, the writing sloppy, and by 1933, when the climate of opinion had irrevocably altered, passersby would spit at shop windows displaying the book. Lewis's reputation was permanently damaged.

Undeterred, Lewis continued to produce travel books, novels, topical commentary, and occasional portraits. In 1937 he published The Revenge for Love, a novel of deceit and betrayal set against the background of the Spanish civil war. It brought no relief to his desperate financial straits. Lewis left for the United States and Canada in 1939, but commissions failed to materialize there.

When he returned to England in 1945, Lewis faced arrears of rent and unpaid taxes. He also learned that he was going blind. For some years a tumor had been growing in his brain, slowly crushing his optic nerves. Lewis completed his last portrait in 1949 and two years later publicly announced his blindness. His last years were spent writing the novels Monstre Gai and Malign Fiesta (both published in 1955). In 1956, only eight months before his death, his paintings were the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery.

See alsoCubism; Modernism; Pound, Ezra .


Edwards, Paul. Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer. New Haven, Conn., 2001.

O'Keefe, Paul . Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis. London, 2001.

Lawrence Rainey

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Lewis, Wyndham (1882–1957)

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