William Roberts 1895 - 1980


Educational Institution, Manchester

Private Collection, UK

Thence by descent


Demobilised in October 1919, William Roberts both worked and played hard throughout the 1920s. ‘The quintessential bohemian experience offered by hangouts like the Harlequin – cramped interiors overflowing with colourful agitated groups – encouraged Roberts to introduce his own social life into his pictures and to extend his range of subject matter in a more figurative direction…Bohemia became Roberts’ central theme in the 1920s and many of his best pictures from these years are imbued with its raucous, carefree atmosphere’ (A. Gibbons Williams, William Roberts An English Cubist, Lund Humphries, 2004, p. 59).

In works such as The Guitar Player and The Dance Club, 1923 (Leeds Museums and Galleries), Roberts perpetuates the Vorticists’ aim to embrace the fundamental nature of modern city life. To this end, Roberts developed a Post-Cubist style of elongated, angular figures in tightly conceived groups to populate his dramatically staged scenes of urban entertainment. In the present work, Roberts colour codes the figures and their surroundings to create a sense of depth and recession in the midst of a complex design. The sofa in the back, right corner, the table at which the guitarist sits and the rug upon which the foreground figure reclines are all mere outlines, but are given shape and form by the subtle watercolour tones of pink, blue and yellow, as well as shadows cast by dramatic lighting. The figures in these peripheral areas are almost golden as if cast in a different light. In the central and most crowded group, the figures have darker outlines, but less colouring making the forms more three-dimensional. Arranged in a variety of poses, their linear faces are more defined and expressive. The Guitar Player, as Study for ‘At the Hippodrome’ (Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford), is highly finished yet squared up for transfer, presumably to canvas. A painted version however, is not known to exist.

In his essay on 'The Twenties’, Roberts noted that 'The Café Royal in Regent's Street was the favourite meeting place of the artist and bohemians, where they could sit the evening out sipping a mezzo-grande or an absinthe, and await the arrival of Augustus John and his two stalwarts, Ian Strang the etcher and Horace Cole the practical joker' (William Roberts, Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, Valencia, 1990, p. 136).

‘This was the period of Ragtime and Jazz when at their bottle parties the Bohemians shuffled and shimmied round the room to some ragtime song played on an old gramophone, until dawn brought the parties’ end.. Gatherings of this kind were frequent in those days. The large studio at Thackeray house in Maple Street was the scene of many Rags, where before the night was out one would find a nude Bohemian or two. Sir William Orpen occupied this studio whilst a student at the Slade. Later on Adrian Allinson became the tenant...A noted bohemian of the time, John Flanagan...gave many parties in his rooms in the Old Cumberland Hay Market’ (op. cit. p. 136).

We are grateful to David Cleall for his assistance with the cataloguing of this work.

1895 - London - 1980

Born in Hackney on the 5th June 1895, William Roberts was apprenticed to the poster designing and advertising firm of Sir Joseph Causton Ltd in 1909, while attending evening classes at St Martin’s School of Art, London. In 1910, Roberts won a London County Council Scholarship in drawing to the Slade School of Art and remained there for the next three years becoming friends with fellow students David Bomberg and Jacob Kramer (other Slade contemporaries included CW Nevinson, Mark Gertler, Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash). Following his studies, he travelled to Italy and France in 1913 before briefly joining Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops. In 1914, Roberts met Wyndham Lewis who borrowed two of his pictures to hang at the Rebel Art Centre and convinced him to join their rival establishment. Roberts became part of Lewis’s circle, which included Edward Wadsworth, Frederick Etchells and Cuthbert Hamilton, joining them for meetings and dinners (later recalled by Roberts in his painting The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring 1915 (1961-2, Tate, London). He was one of a list of signatories to the Vorticist Manifesto in the first issue of Blast, published in June 1914 and exhibited at the Vorticist exhibitions of 1915 in London and 1917 in New York.

On the 4th March 1916, Roberts joined the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner and went to France in July. He returned to England in April 1918 as an Official War Artist, having painted The First German Gas Attack at Ypres (1918, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) for the Canadian War Records Office. He was joined in Percy Street by Sarah Kramer, the sister of Ukrainian-born artist Jacob Kramer (1892-1962). Their only son John was born in 1919 and Roberts demobilised the same year.

In 1920, Roberts met T.E. Lawrence and started making drawings for his edition of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom (published 1926). He held his first one-man exhibition at the Chenil Galleries in 1923. Roberts became a visiting teacher at the Central School of Art, London in 1925 and continued there until the outbreak of war, when the family moved to Oxford. During the war he taught one day a week at the Oxford Technical School. In 1946 Roberts moved back to London, near Regents Park, and continued teaching at the Central School of Art. From 1948, he began to exhibit at the Royal Academy and continued to do so every year until his death. In 1956-8 he published The Vortex Pamphlets in response to the Wyndham Lewis exhibition at the Tate Gallery. In 1958 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and a Royal Academician in 1966.