William Roberts 1895-1980
William Roberts Paintings and Drawings
50.8 x 37.7 cm.
signed, dated and titled indistinctly, 'William Roberts, 1923, Bathers' (lower right)
Sotheby’s London, 23 July 1931
Christie’s London, 12 November 1987
His sale; Christie’s New York, 24 May 1994
Private Collection, U.K.
Osborne Samuel, London
Andrew Gibbon-Williams & Ruth Artmonsky, William Roberts & Jacob Kramer, The Tortoise and the Hare, Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art, London, 2003, ill.p.10
Leeds, University Gallery, William Roberts and Jacob Kramer: The Tortoise and the Hare, 30 April – 20 June 2003; toured to London, Ben Uri Art Gallery, 7 July – 7 September 2003, ill.p.10
The original owner of Bathers, Desmond Coke (1897-1931), was a British writer commissioned into the 10th (Service) Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment in October 1914. At the Western Front, as Adjutant of the Regiment, he was responsible for writing up the Battalion diary. Eventually invalided out of the army after contracting trench fever in May 1916, he went on to write adventure stories for boys under the pseudonym Belinda Blinders. He also collaborated with the artist John Nash, who illustrated his 1921 book, The Nouveau Poor. Coke may well have been friends with William Roberts and will certainly have been aware of the latter’s significant World War I commissions received from the Canadian Memorials Fund and the British Ministry of Information.
Drawn in 1923, it has been suggested (by the William Roberts Society) that Bathers was probably exhibited in Roberts’ first one-man exhibition, Paintings and Drawings by William Roberts at the Chenil Gallery, London in November 1923. An untraced work from this show, titled Sea Frolic, would seem to match Bathers, and further drawings in the exhibition are known to be inscribed with titles which are not consistent with the exhibition catalogue.
Following Coke’s death in 1931, Bathers was offered for sale at Sotheby’s where it disappeared into an unknown collection, until it re-appeared again at auction, in the 1980s. The drawing then entered the collection of Geoffrey Beene (1924-2004), one of New York’s most famous fashion designers in the 1960s and 1970s, who was recognised for his artistic and technical skills. Latterly, it was in the collection of Ruth Artmonsky, gallerist and curator of William Roberts & Jacob Kramer, the Tortoise and the Hare, staged at Ben Uri Gallery, London, and the University Gallery, Leeds, in 2003, in which Bathers featured (cat.no.16).
Commenting on the artist’s Chenil Gallery exhibition in 1923, Gibbon Williams states, ‘Roberts’ first solo exhibition was a heavyweight spectacle. It comprised nearly sixty works – paintings, drawings and prints…Muirhead Bone’s catalogue introduction was especially perspicacious. It pinpointed the very qualities that marked Roberts out from the generality of his contemporaries: his “boldness”, “mordant irony” and “sense of design”. “A strong love of character at it raciest” Bone wrote, “especially where it shades into the grotesque – he presents to us his memories of life in a sharp manner, odd, vivid, and quite his own, whose foundation is a really sterling draughtsmanship.”’1
Whilst Bathers has been lightly squared for transfer, it is possible Roberts abandoned the oil painting. An oil on canvas, titled The Bathers and dated to circa 1925 bears little resemblance to this drawing, in which all of the figures are standing, and appear to be engaged in a loose and joyous procession or dance around the central figure, not dissimilar in compositional design to the right-hand side of The Dance Club (The Jazz Party) painted in the same year and now with Leeds Museums and Galleries, City Art Gallery, Leeds. Whilst it is tempting to draw parallels with Cézanne and his bathers, Roberts doesn’t depict the group of nude figures as a formal exercise as Cézanne would have, but as was often the case with Roberts there seems to be an underlying narrative idea, although intriguingly one that is not explained. That the figures in the drawing are unclothed seem to give Bathers a Dionysian element. However, considering the tailpiece drawings that Roberts produced for Seven Pillars of Wisdom in 1925–26 several of them such as A Reluctant Shepherd and Male and Female feature unclothed figures where the nudity seems to be driven purely by design elements rather than any relevance to the narrative. The bodies, arms and legs of the eight figures depicted in Bathers are entwined in a complex arrangement of angles and curves, with a heavy use of pencil and subtle shading, which recalls the artist’s own earlier forays in Cubist experimentation, as seen in his studies on paper for the now lost Two Step (1915).
Referring to Roberts’ work dating from the early 1920s, Gibbon Williams remarks, ‘While fidelity to the visual truth of a specific event is rarely sacrificed to formal requirements, his drawings and paintings of this period are an example of Cubism being manipulated with realistic intent.’2 It is this quasi-Cubist aesthetic which Roberts embraced during the early 1920s which makes Bathers, and other drawings from his significant 1923 Chenil Gallery show so appealing.
1. Andrew Gibbon William, William Roberts, an English Cubist, Lund Humphries, 2004, p.68
2. op. cit. p.60
Parson’s Pleasure, c.1944
Oil on canvas
40.5 x 51 cm.
Signed lower left
Sotheby’s, 1987 (where mistitled The Ferry and dated 1940)
Private Collection UK
Williams, Andrew Gibbon, William Roberts, An English Cubist, published by Lund Humphries, 2004, p.104, fig.76
Royal British Artists Society 1949 (priced at £75)
Royal Academy 1980
Newcastle 2004, Hatton Gallery, William Roberts 1895-1980
Nottingham 2006, Djanogly Gallery, A Day in the Sun – Outdoor pursuits in the art of the 1930’s
Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, England at Play
Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, Neo-Classicism in Modern British Art, 2016
Born in the East End of London in 1895, William Roberts began observing and documenting people in his local community from very early on in his career. At the age of just eighteen, in 1913, prior to the outbreak of World War I, his remarkable capacity for draughtsmanship and complex pictorial design were confidently outlined in two drawings, Leadenhall Market (Tate Gallery) and Billingsgate (Private Collection).
Then, during World War I, working as an Official War Artist, he produced some of the most searing images of the conflict on the Western Front, in particular the Battle of Ypres.
By the outbreak of World War II, and despite Roberts’ significant contribution to early British Modernism and the Vorticist movement, he and his wife Sarah were still living in poverty in London. Many artists had already escaped the capital to the relative safety of the countryside, but Roberts remained. Through various friendships, notably with Sir Muirhead Bone who was responsible for the organisation of war artists, Roberts again secured a commission from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, in January 1940, and was dispatched to the munitions factory at Woolwich Arsenal. Shortly after, during an early bomb raid and a direct hit on their road, the Roberts decided to follow their old friends Bernard and Nora Meninsky, to Oxford. They settled in a council flat in the suburb of Marston on the banks of the River Cherwell, the setting for his impressive oil, Parson’s Pleasure, which has also been known by the title, On the Lawn.
Andrew Gibbon Williams comments on this time, ‘The Oxford suburb of Marston, for example, in its limited way, turned out to be as generous a source of subject matter as London. A gypsy encampment around the corner from where the Robertses lived was precisely the kind of thing the artist could make something of, and the River Cherwell, with its punting, fishing and riverside picnics, offered the mixture of nature and human activity that Roberts liked best.’ 1
The area, Parson’s Pleasure, was located in the University Parks of Oxford University beside the River Cherwell, and up until as recently as 1991 was a secluded location for male-only nude bathing, traditionally frequented by dons and undergraduates of the university.
Roberts’ circa 1944 canvas, showing a group of naked men reclining and conversing, very much recalls the Classicism of the French 17th century painter Nicolas Poussin, and is imbued with a strong sense of calculated design and stylisation. The figure located upper centre for example, preparing to dive into the river with his outstretched arms and bent knees, appears frozen in time, and the curves of the river cleverly follow the contours of the heads of the standing man upper left and seated figure upper right, with a towel over his shoulders. Everything in the canvas has an exact and purposeful positioning, which creates an overall coherent and sophisticated composition.
Commentators have readily offered high praise for the painting in this regard:
‘The impulse of Roberts to classicise, traceable through several works of the 1930s and paramount in a picture such as The Judgement of Paris, achieves a magnificent apotheosis in one of his finest works Parson’s Pleasure. It was against Roberts’ nature to wholly invent a subject, and for this reason the idea of manufacturing a nude composition for its own sake would have struck him as bogus. But the notorious Oxford student bathing spot frequented by generations of male undergraduates offered the perfect legitimising excuse.’ 2
The artist’s second spell as an Official War Artist became increasingly fractious. A trip to France, for instance, was aborted by Roberts at Folkestone who offered ‘heavy fog’ as an excuse for not making the Channel crossing. His relationship with the War Artists’Advisory Committee eventually deteriorated beyond repair, and Roberts spent the rest of the war mainly in Oxford, where he embraced the English landscape tradition, so beautifully realised in Parson’s Pleasure.
Andrew Gibbon Williams remarks on this important oil painting, ‘Parson’s Pleasure is a remarkable picture to have emerged from wartime England…Notwithstanding the abstract reliefs of Ben Nicholson and the three-dimensional work of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, Parson’s Pleasure represents the most convincing attempt to recapture the Classical spirit in mid-twentieth century English art. 3
1 Andrew Gibbon Williams, William Roberts, An English Cubist, Lund Humphries, 2004, p.102
2 op. cit. p.105