Wyndham Lewis was a painter, writer, activist and self-proclaimed rebel. He was born on his parents’ yacht off the coast of Amherst, Nova Scotia in 1882. His mother was British, his father American. They separated when Lewis was ten and he subsequently lived in England where he attended Rugby School and the Slade School of Art. He spent much of the early 1900s travelling and studying art in Europe.
Lewis published his first work about his travels in Brittany in Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review in 1909. By 1912 he had exhibited three paintings in the Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1911-1912. Here he came to the attention of the famous Bloomsbury Group with whom he soon disagreed. Lewis, along with such notables as Ezra Pound, is credited with forming the avant-garde art movement vorticism in 1914. Vorticism was short-lived though, mainly due to the out-break of the First World War.
It was essentially an art movement that rejected landscapes and nudes in favour of more abstract geometric shapes and style. The most important output of this movement was Lewis’s literary magazine Blast.
During the First World War Lewis was an artillery officer and eventually a war artist creating paintings for Britain and Canada. His A Canadian Gun-Pit (1918) painted from sketches he made on Vimy Ridge hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa.
Lewis continued to paint after the war and produced mainly portraits but soon turned more to writing. He became increasingly more belligerent as he published criticisms of the likes of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. In 1931 he published Hitler, Man of Peace in which he proclaimed Hitler a “man of peace” whose party members were threatened by communism. By 1937, however, on a trip to Germany with his wife, Lewis changed his attitude and condemned the man in his 1939 book, The Hitler Cult.
Angloxaxony: A League that Works is a short essay published by The Ryerson Press in 1941. The 1941 catalogue of The Ryerson Press states that Anglosaxony is, “A highly stimulating discussion of ideas which underlie the present war. Mr. Lewis considers “Democracy” an expression of the Anglo-Saxon character, a thing which cannot be separated from Christianity or backgrounds and standards of a very special type. The Anglo-Saxons are considered to be the English-speaking nations and to include the countrymen of Roosevelt as well as the subjects of King George.”
Reviews of Anglosaxony: A League that Works include one by T.S. Eliot: “Mr. Lewis…is the most fascinating personality of our time.” There is also this quote by Herbert Read, “Mr. Lewis … is a brilliant protagonist, by far the ablest pamphleteer of his generation, by far the most active force among us.” (Herbert Read was a contemporary of Wyndham Lewis and a frequent contributor to T.S. Eliot’s literary magazine The Criterion along with other notables such as Luigi Pirandello, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, E.M.Forster, W.B. Yeats as well as Wyndham Lewis and W.H. Auden. It is interesting to note that despite their differences, Read had rather kind things to say about Lewis in this instance.
Wyndham Lewis left England two days after the Second World War began and wound up in Canada, at the Tudor Hotel in downtown Toronto. During this time, Lewis continued to paint portraits and at the same time concentrated on his writing. He met prominent Canadian artists A.Y. Jackson and Charles Comfort in 1939 at a dinner hosted by the headmaster of Upper Canada College.
Lewis did not enjoy his time in Canada during the war years referring to Toronto as “this sanctimonious icebox”. George Woodcock, though, claimed,” A. Y. Jackson was almost alone among Canadian painters in trying to make Lewis feel welcome in the country of his birth.” Lewis wrote a fictionalized account of his time living in Canada in the dilapidated Tudor Hotel in Toronto, before it was destroyed by fire in 1943. It was entitled Self-Condemned.
Lewis’s influence can be felt in a number of ways. In the early 1940s, Lewis was introduced to Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan’s theories of the global village were influenced by Lewis. Canadian author Sheila Watson was also impacted by Lewis as she published her dissertation on the artist in the early 1960s. Her book The Double Hook (1959) is considered the first Canadian contemporary novel. Lewis painted a number of portraits while in Canada, most notably, Marshal McLuhan and Lorne Pierce, editor of The Ryerson Press, used on the cover of Sandra Campbell’s exhaustive and highly readable biography, Both Hands.
Lewis and his wife, Froanna, moved back to England in 1945. By 1951, Lewis was completely blind, though he continued to write up until his death. He is now considered a major British artist and writer of the twentieth century. Wyndham Lewis died in 1957.