British painter, novelist, and critic. Born in 1884 in Nova Scotia, of English parents, died in 1957. After studying at the Slade School he travelled widely in Europe. In 1908 he returned to England and in the years leading up to the First World War emerged as one of the leading figures in British avant-garde art. Here he threw himself into the polemical battle for modern art with unparelleled exuberance. 'In art I was a condottiere' he was to write. Around him formed a circle of friends that included Ezra Pound, Jacob Epstein, T. E. Hulme, Richard Aldington, Gaudier-Brzeska, and it was these names that were to be associated with the Vorticist movement which Lewis founded in 1914. Vorticism derived in part from Cubism, in part from Futurism. More than anything, however, the movement was a weapon, dynamic and aggressive, explosive as the title of its review Blast, and it set itself to hustle Britain into step with the European avant-garde. Wrote Lewis later: 'Really all this organized disturbance was Art behaving as if it were Politics. But I swear I did not know it'.
The war failed to inhibit his activities. 19141915 saw the completion of his first major novel Tarr, the publication of a folio of twenty drawings entitled Timon of Athens, his first portrait of Ezra Pound, the first Vorticist exhibition and the second number of Blast. In 1917 he was seconded as in official war artist to Canadian Corps H.Q. at Vimy Ridge; in 1918 appeared Time and the Western Man; in 1919 he held his first one-man show at the Goupil Galleries. For some years from this period, date a great number of those incisive, marvellously constructed pencil portraits which show his powers of visual analysis at their most lucid. In 1924 appeared another review The Tyro, and in 1930 perhaps his best-known book The Apes of God. All his life in fact, Lewis has alternated between painting and writing, has continued to wield a savagely satirical pen -- as a novelist, as critic and as pamphleteer. In his books he lashes out at the grotesque incomprehension of actuality evidenced by a society based on outmoded values; as a critic he is remarkable, penetrating and accurate in his analysis of contemporary art; as a pamphleteer he is prophetic and oracular.
It must be faced that Lewis is equally at home with the brush or the pen, but he is not therefore to be grouped with those English painter-writers whose background is chiefly literary and whose painting is more or less a side issue. Lewis is a born painter, whose dominant characteristic, both in his non-figurative works and in his portraits and other more naturalistic compositions, is an innate sense of construction. Most of his works are built on a vertical axis with a precise framework, somewhat metallic; occasionally they seem cold at first glance, but they are generally redeemed by their qualities of strength, dignity, and clarity. After 1914 his work is hardly ever entirely abstract. A painting by Lewis may strike one as pre-eminently a kind of geometrical or rhythmical speculation; yet it will invariably have, in addition to its sculptural qualities, a totemic character which makes of it a sort of magical object with a soul and a life of its own, as in the case of The Contemplator or of his drawings for The Enemy. Sunset in the Atlas, on the other hand, Cubist in structure but fluid in atmosphere, sums up rather well the characteristics of the Vorticist movement. Two paintings in the Tate Gallery are representative of his art: Red Seem, a composition of sombre, flat tones and a masterly geometric construction, and his Portrait of Edith Sitwell ( 1921), vertical, metallic, powerful. His T. S. Eliot has the same characteristics. Lewis must indeed be regarded as one of the foremost portraitists of the present century. Lewis was the most original and idiosyncratic of the major British artists working in the first decades of the 20th century, and he was among the first artists in Europe to produce completely abstract paintings and drawings. He built his style on features taken from Cubism and Futurism but did not accept either. He accused Cubism of failure to 'synthesize the quality of LIFE with the significance or spiritual weight that is the mark of all the greatest art' and of being mere visual acrobatics.