Writer and artist, Lewis was the son of an American father and a British mother of Scots and Irish descent. His parents separated in 1893, and his mother brought him to London where they lived in genteel poverty. He was educated at Rugby and at the age of sixteen he won a scholarship to London’s Slade School of Art but leaving three years later without completing his course, he traveled to Germany, visited Spain and Holland, and went to Paris where he painted and attended lectures at the Sorbonne. He returned to England in 1909 and began to write and to exhibit his paintings. He had three stories printed by Ford Madox FORD in the English Review. He became the director of the Rebel Art Centre, described as the seat of the Great London Vortex and in June 1914 and July 1915 he published the only two issues of Blast, a Vorticist review, much of which he wrote himself. Blast showed the influence of IMAGISM while the designs by Lewis and others in their theatrical and uncompromising shapes showed the influence of futurism that made speed and machinery a central preoccupation.
Lewis enlisted in March 1916 and served during World War I with great distinction in France, first as an artillery officer and later as an official war artist. Tarr, his first novel, that is partly autobiographical, was published in 1918. Set in Paris, it is concerned with the lives of a set of rather unsympathetic, impecunious artists. The self-destructive German Kreisler, driven by demons of uncontrollable violence, rapes Tarr’s mistress Bertha, kills his opponent after the duel is finished, and finally kills himself. All the characters are presented as mechanical constructions without an inner life. None is presented as a human being and since the author’s attitude toward them is completely lacking in sympathy, they remain unsympathetic figures so far as the reader is concerned. Lewis is not interested in the emotional lives of his characters but stands aside from them callously mocking their absurdity. They seem to be in the novel only in order to illustrate Lewis’s belief in man’s essential uselessness and repulsiveness. He is engaged in creating a Bergsonian farce in which we are invited to laugh at people, to regard people as inanimate objects that closely resemble people, interacting like things. His SATIRE is directed not against the follies and vices of man but against mankind itself and this set the pattern for his subsequent fictions.
Between the wars, Lewis held a number of exhibitions, published some twenty books and a number of articles and edited two issues of the Tyro (1921–22) and three book-length issues of the Enemy (1927–29). His novels included The Apes of God (1930), a satire on Bloomsbury and literary London; The Revenge for Love (1937); and Self Condemned (1954), which draws on the experiences of his three-year stay in Canada. His projected four-part work titled The Human Age—; including The Childermass (1928), Monstre Gai (1956), and Malign Fiesta (1956)—remained unfinished. It has been described as “his greatest imaginative work—too confusing in its intention—partly supernatural SCIENCE FICTION, partly allegorical satire, partly intellectual debate—to rank as a coherent work.” He perfected an angular, harsh prose style in his novels that seems to emulate the relentless, mechanical world that his fictional figures inhabit. In 1955, T. S. ELIOT described him as “the most distinguished living novelist” though few other critics have agreed with this opinion. His work never achieved popularity and in recent years has been almost entirely neglected by readers and the critics. It is hard to escape G. S. FRASER’s conclusion that, “The most damaging general criticism that can be made of Lewis is that he is too exclusively the virtuoso of negative emotions.” He was a writer of forceful, original, and often intemperate opinions. He wrote numbers of essays and books of criticism including Time and Western Man (1927), The Lion and the Fox (1927), Men without Art (1934), and The Writer and the Absolute (1952). In addition, he wrote two autobiographies, Blasting and Bombardiering (1937) dealing with the early part of his life and Rude Assignment (1950) with later events. His polemical writings are often brilliant and occasionally profound though they are also sometimes argumentative and quarrelsome. Too often his views are an expression only of his injured egotism and his opinions become prejudices, unsupported by evidence. As in all his writings, his critical writings while containing some of his most powerful and attractive prose are too often flawed by a lack of discipline.
In the early 1930s, his admiration of Adolf Hitler as a man of peace and the Nazis as an aristocracy of intellect brought him into disrespute. Despite the fact that he fully repudiated these views in 1939, the hostility he had aroused never entirely left him. He and his wife spent the war in the U.S. and Canada where he had gone in the hope of a lecture tour and portrait commissions.
When he returned to England in 1945, he reestablished his reputation to a large extent. In 1949, he was give a retrospective exhibition at the Redfern Gallery followed in 1951 by a major retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery. He was awarded a Civil List pension and from 1946 to 1951, when his eyesight deteriorated so badly that he could no longer see the pictures, he was art critic for the Listener where he used his influence to further the work and reputation of young artists including Michael Ayrton and Francis Bacon. He is best remembered now as an artist and an outstanding draughtsman. Many of his paintings are in national collections including the Tate, the Victoria and Albert, the British Museum, and the Imperial War Museum. His portraits particularly those of Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Edith SITWELL are still some of the most famous icons of our time.
Bibliography Kenner, H., W. L. (1954); O’ Keeffe, P., Some Sort of Genius: A Life of W. L. (2000); Wagner, G., W. L. (1957)
A. R. Jones