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Vorticism in Britain 1910-1920

Vorticism in Britain 1910-1920

Britain’s first major exhibition devoted to Vorticism for thirty years will be staged by the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1, from 4 February to 18 April 2004. Vorticism was one of the most important and distinctive avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century and the exhibition Blasting the Future! Vorticism in Britain 1910-1920 will explore its significance and offer an illuminating and coherent overview of the movement’s relationship with Italian Futurism.

The exhibition will comprise some fifty works in a wide range of media by the artists most closely involved with Vorticism: Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, Frederick Etchells, William Roberts, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Jacob Epstein, Helen Saunders, Jacob Kramer and England’s only Futurist, C.R.W. Nevinson. The works, many of which have not been exhibited in public or reproduced in print for many years, have been loaned from private collections and major institutions including the British Museum, Tate, the Imperial War Museum, The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, The New Art Gallery, Walsall, and the National Museums & Galleries of Wales. Given the importance of the influence exerted on the British artists by Italian Futurists such as Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini, the exhibition will also include works by them from the Estorick Collection.

Vorticism was founded in 1914 by Wyndham Lewis and members of the Rebel Art Centre that he had established earlier that year as a platform for the art and ideas of his circle. Among their literary allies was the American poet Ezra Pound who coined the name Vorticism. Lewis’s black chalk portrait of Pound dating from around 1920 is included in the show. The Vorticist manifesto appeared in the first number of the movement’s official organ Blast in July 1914 and along with Lewis its signatories included Edward Wadsworth, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, William Roberts, Helen Saunders, Jessica Dismorr, Lawrence Atkinson and Cuthbert Hamilton, all of whom are represented by works in this exhibition.

The defiant manifesto in Blast set out to expound the ideas of an audacious new movement in British art which was seen by Lewis as an independent alternative to Futurism, Cubism and Expressionism. It attacked a wide range of targets and, in a similar vein to the Futurists, aimed to liberate Britain from what was seen as the stultifying legacy of the past and obliterate all traces of the Victorian age, stating in giant letters ‘Blast years 1837 to 1900’. The machine age was to be at the very centre of their work but with a less romantic eye than that of the Futurists and a greater consciousness of the dehumanising and impersonal side of industrialisation. The First World War robbed the movement of its momentum by fragmenting the group and claiming the lives of some of its adherents including the sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska. However, from 1914 to 1916 the Vorticists did manage to produce an impressive range of images that substantiated their claim of having revitalised British art. A second, less abrasive, number of Blast was issued in July 1915, one month after the opening of what was to be the only true Vorticist exhibition to be held during the movement’s lifespan in Britain, at the Doré Gallery. As Christopher Adams of the Estorick Collection says in the exhibition’s catalogue: “Arguably a more ‘mature’, thoughtful response to the industrial age than Futurism had ever been ... Vorticism [was] cut down in its prime”.

The Futurist movement had burst onto an astonished world on 20 February 1909 with the publication of the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s ‘Founding and Manifesto of Futurism’ on the front page of the respectable French newspaper Le Figaro. Marinetti came to London in 1910 and promoted his fledgling movement with a lecture at the Lyceum Club in which he alternately blasted and blessed various aspects of British culture and society in much the same way as the Vorticists were to do in their own manifesto of 1914. In 1912 the Futurists held their first exhibition in Paris, which came to London in March that year and was shown at the Sackville Gallery to a bemused British public and press. This exhibition was followed by Severini’s one-man show at the Marlborough Gallery in 1913 and Futurist activity in London culminated with a second group exhibition at the Doré Gallery in 1914, accompanied by a dozen concert performances of Luigi Russolo’s ‘Art of Noises’ at the Coliseum and several lectures and poetry recitals by the movement’s leader Marinetti. This vigorous and confrontational campaign against traditionalism had captured the imagination of the British avant-garde although Nevinson was the only British artist who actually joined the Futurists and Wyndham Lewis severed all links with Marinetti in 1914 when the Vorticist movement was founded.

The exhibition at the Estorick Collection will be divided into three sections, the first covering the period 1910 to 1914, from when Marinetti spoke in Britain to the publication of the first issue of Blast. Ju-Jitsu by David Bomberg (1890-1957) is a major work from this period. Dating from around 1913, it was first exhibited at the Chenil Gallery in London in 1914 and, together with Dance Hall Scene, circa 1913, by C.R.W. Nevinson (1889-1946), is among several works on loan from Tate. Rain on Princes Street of 1913 is an excellent example of the work of Stanley Cursiter (1887-1976), a Scottish artist who was especially influenced by the Futurists.

The second room will explore the fortunes of Futurism and Vorticism during the First World War and will include works from the 1915 Doré Gallery exhibition. This section will focus on the publication of the second and last issue of Blast and the varied experiences of both Futurists and Vorticists in the trenches, which shattered their illusions about the compatibility of man and machine in the modern world. In 1916 many of the Vorticist artists decided to pre-empt the compulsory call-up and join the military on their own terms. Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) and William Roberts (1895-1980) enlisted in the Royal Artillery and, having endured life in the trenches, eventually became official war artists. In the exhibition are two works commissioned by the Ministry of Information: Lewis’s Officers and Signallers and Gunners Turning Out for an SOS: Battery Action at Night by Roberts, both of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919. Many critics who before the war had poured scorn on Futurism and Vorticism praised these works for the convincing formulas that conveyed the reality of modern war.

The final room will show how Futurism came to be repudiated by its formerly fervent British partisan Nevinson and how Wadsworth applied the principles of Vorticism to maritime camouflage in the form of the ‘dazzle ship’. Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949) joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and in 1917 worked on camouflaging ships in Bristol and Liverpool. His 1918 woodcut Dazzle Ship in Dry Dock is probably one of the best-known images of this endeavour. The exhibition will also explore why Lewis’s attempt to resurrect Vorticism under the guise of ‘Group X’ proved to be unsuccessful. ‘Group X’ had just one exhibition in 1920 which included Athletes Exercising in a Gymnasium by Roberts. These two works and Marching Men, a pastel from 1914-15 by Nevinson, who also became an official war artist, are among those loaned by the Imperial War Museum, London.

Since the 1974 exhibition Vorticism and its Allies at the Hayward Gallery in London and the publication in 1976 of Richard Cork’s two-volume detailed exploration of the movement, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age (now out of print), there have only been a handful of retrospectives devoted to individual artists such as Lewis and Wadsworth. However, much new and valuable material on the Vorticists has emerged and Blasting the Future! Vorticism in Britain 1910-1920 will offer an exciting opportunity to re-evaluate this important movement.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Christopher Adams of the Estorick Collection, Jonathan Black the exhibition’s curator and an expert on the art of Nevinson and Wadsworth, Michael J.K. Walsh, author of the most comprehensive study of Nevinson’s work to date, and Jon Wood, Research Co-ordinator at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds. After its debut at the Estorick Collection, the exhibition will travel to The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, from 7 May to 18 July 2004.

Vorticism may have been a short-lived movement but it was an immensely influential one for British art during the remainder of the 20th century and the dynamic works on show can still evoke ‘the shock of the new’ for another generation.


Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art
39a Canonbury Square, London N1 2AN
Tel. 020 7704 9522 Fax. 020 7704 9531

Opening hours: Wednesday to Saturday 11.00 - 18.00 hours; Sunday 12.00 - 17.00 hours
Shop: open gallery hours; Library: by appointment only
Closed Good Friday 9 April and Easter Sunday 11 April.

Admission: £3.50, concessions £2.50. Free to under-16s and students on production of a valid NUS card. Library, by appointment only, £2.50 per visit

Catalogue: Fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Christopher Adams of the Estorick Collection, Jonathan Black the exhibition’s curator, Michael J.K. Walsh, author of the most comprehensive study of Nevinson’s work to date, and Jon Wood, Research Co-ordinator at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds. Published by Philip Wilson Publishers. Price £tbc

Groups: Groups of 10 or more may book gallery talks by curatorial staff on the current exhibition and the permanent collection. Talks last for approximately 50 minutes and there is an additional charge of £3.50 per head. Lunch can also be arranged for groups. To book, please tel. 020 7704 9522.

Events: Teachers’ Evening, Thursday 5 February, 17.00 to 19.00
Please book in advance tel. 020 7704 9522 or

Gallery Talks: Informal talks, approx. 40 mins, are free with admission ticket
Saturday 14 February at 15.00
Sensation! Futurism and Vorticism in London 1910-1920
Jonathan Black, curator of the exhibition
Saturday 28 February at 15.00
Vorticism, Wyndham Lewis Style
Richard Humphreys, Head of Interpretation and Education, Tate
Saturday 13 March at 15.00
War as Hygiene? Futurists and Vorticists in the Great War
James Hayward, publisher and military historian
Saturday 20 March at 15.00
Literary Vorticism
Rebecca Beasley, Lecturer in English, Birkbeck College, University of London
Saturday 27 March at 15.00
Helen Saunders and Vorticism
Biddy Peppin, University of East London

How to get there: Underground: Victoria line, Silverlink Metro and Network SE to Highbury & Islington; Network SE to Essex Road; buses: 271 to door, 4, 19, 30, and 43 to Upper Street/Canonbury Lane, 38, 56, 73 and 341 to the junction of Essex and Canonbury Roads.

Access: Main entrance in Canonbury Road. Wheelchair access to garden level galleries, café, shop and toilets; access to ground floor galleries through Canonbury Square entrance via ramp/wheelchair lift. The building’s listed status prevents wheelchair access to the first floor galleries and library. Car parking for orange badge holders only. Induction loop in Gallery 2.



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