Insight into a nosey parker

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The years between 1909 and 1914 saw great artistic ferment in Europe. Ways of making painting and sculpture were radically redefined by Italian Futurists, Paris-based Cubists and even the English Vorticists. The Vorticist group broke up soon after the outbreak of the first world war – not long after its leader, Wyndham Lewis, had issued a pugnacious manifesto called BLAST, proclaiming it a brotherhood of like-minded revolutionaries.

But the English painter William Roberts – a testy, unsociable character from the East End of London who once painted himself as a defiant-looking, red-faced working man in a cloth cap and braces (“Self-Portrait wearing a cap”, 1931, which can be seen in this show) – survived not only the war of 1914-18, but also the one after that. He lived until 1980, a Londoner through and through. Alan Bennett remembers him well from the 1970s. “He was often to be seen in Camden Town in the Seventies,” the writer once wrote. “An apple-cheeked man, he looked like a small rotund farmer but wasn’t at all amiable and if one got in his way on the pavement he would unleash a torrent of abuse.”

Roberts has had exhibitions of his work before, the most recent in 2004, but these have often tended to concentrate heavily upon his links with the Vorticist movement. England at Play, a new show at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, Sussex (a very suitable venue in so far as it houses one of the best and most comprehensive collections of 20th-century British art outside London’s Tate galleries) has a tighter and more interesting focus, and it also introduces us to many middle period and later works that have seldom been seen outside the private collections to which they belong. In fact, about half the works in this show are from private collections.

Roberts had a training that took in much more than fine art. He was involved with Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop before the first world war. He worked for a firm that produced commercial art before he became one of that famous intake to the Slade of 1910, a group that included David Bomberg, Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer. He served as an official war artist in both world wars. But the most interesting aspect of Roberts’ talent is the way in which he manages to combine a fidelity to the revolutionary lessons of 1909-14 with an engagement with the real world of the cinema, horse racing, football, palm-reading, pub-going and even, in one of his later works, TV-ogling. He never veered off into abstraction. He was always too inquisitive about what the neighbours did for that.

The Cubists never ind­ulged in this sort of thing. They were too cerebral, too haut ton. They were too concerned with dissecting the innards of a violin. Roberts was clever also, but he enjoyed observing the vulgar and often raucous cavortings of crowds. He was also, we feel, more than a bit of a nosey parker. This exhibition is about a man who kept a close eye on English making-merry at its tribal best. It is also a fascinating slice of social documentation – the story of how the English chose to enjoy themselves throughout much of the 20th century.

Roberts’ paintings were organisational triumphs. When you step back to take in several at once, it is rather like listening to a stream of notes spewing out of a saxophone – it sounds impromptu, almost extempore, but it is cunningly crafted. In this show we see him gathering together large groups of people – at a party, on the racecourse, around the kitchen table – within a very small compass, but these are no means disparate groups. They always hang together. They are always beautifully articulated rhy­thmically. They seem to dance and snap their fingers in front of our eyes. Your eye is led in a particular way, from detail to detail. Roberts always sees – and revels in – the pulsing energy of groups.

The English at play are not always an attractive sight – but they are always an engaging one. Roberts evidently thought so too. He dissects class division, with quite a subtle humour. In a painting called “Jockeys”, for example, we can see the way in which he has organised the social hierarchy in the characters he depicts. The jockeys, at the bottom, wear their caps. The spectators, at top-back, are in caps and bowlers. And the owner, who bestrides the foreground, is in spats and a top hat. The whole thing is a frieze-like scene – many of the works in this show have an almost Grecian monumentality to them. They seem to be doffing a cloth cap in the direction of the Elgin Marbles.

Roberts had a wonderful combination of the beautifully trained eye and the raucous laugh. He knew, almost by instinct, that those marbles had been blue before they were white.

‘William Roberts: England at Play’ is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, UK until March 18. Tel +44 (0)1243 774557

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