Wyndham Lewis’s ‘Thirty Personalities’

Amongst Campion Hall’s library treasures there is a portfolio of lithographed portraits made after pencil drawings by Wyndham Lewis. This was published in 1932 by Desmond Harmsworth, and was the last of three portfolios Lewis published during his lifetime. Lewis was well known and much admired as a portraitist by his contemporaries, and the subjects are all people more or less famous in arty circles at the time. As with all such projects, there is always an element of randomness since not all of those approached will be willing to sit. What they have in common, therefore, is that they are people who thought being drawn by Wyndham Lewis was possibly useful publicity for them, and as such, they form a snapshot of early thirties celebrity culture.  However, since Lewis was a zestful and pertinacious fomenter of feuds, his numerous enemies, such as the Sitwell siblings, are conspicuous by their absence.

Despite obvious lacunae, his subjects do give something of a flavour of the early Thirties. Theatre is represented by the entrepreneur C.B. Cochran, Noël Coward, who worked with him, and two actresses; Edith Evans and the less-well-remembered Marie Ney. Dancers are surprisingly absent, given the cultural importance of ballet at that time; but Lydia Lopokova, who was probably the most famous dancer in Britain in 1932, was identified with the Bloomsbury set, which was another coterie at daggers drawn with Lewis. Constant Lambert, conductor of the Vic-Wells Ballet, is therefore the only representative of the dance world here. There is a famous airman and a famous surgeon, two noted feminists (Lady Rhondda and Rebecca West), a fistful of writers, from Stella Benson, who was in the news, having just won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for Tobit Transplanted, to high profile public figures such as J. B. Priestley,  G.K. Chesterton, and James Joyce, who was famous for being James Joyce, though most of his work was still not officially available in Britain. Other subjects include the hugely popular cartoonist David Low, several publishers, from Desmond Flower of Cassell’s to the press-baron Viscount Harmsworth, and two pro-Hitler apologists, Meyrick Booth and Viscount Rothermere.  It comes as no surprise to find that Martin D’Arcy SJ is also included; since his public profile as a leading Catholic intellectual was rivalled only by G.K. Chesterton. 

The drawings are not all successful. Martin D’Arcy comes out particularly badly: Lewis has noted the unusual thinness of his neck, but the smoothly curving of his Cubist pencil-technique are ill-suited to representing D’Arcy’s haggard features and heavy eyebrows, and his intensity (curiously, despite the drawing’s inadequacies, a drawing of D’Arcy made by Charles Mahoney some ten years later, which was recently sold by Paul Liss, is so similar that it may be a copy).  Chesterton died of congestive heart failure only four years after this drawing: by 1932, he was massively obese and resembled an elephant seal in pince-nez, but this does not come over in the drawing. Curiously (given Lewis’s own fascist tendencies), the feminists come out of the experience particularly well; Viscountess Rhondda stares frankly from the page, and contrives to look simultaneously warm and formidable. He is also successful with Rebecca West: Lewis respected West, and published one of her short stories in his magazine, Blast, while she reviewed his novels sympathetically. In his drawing of her, her face is portrayed from two slightly different angles, suggesting a complex personality, and has a tender vulnerability rather at odds with her public image. By contrast, Noel Coward, portrayed with his head tilted back, which was a mannerism of his, is unsympathetically but effectively handled: Lewis refers in his introduction to ‘the mongoloid woodenness of the excellent mime and wit, Noel Coward’; aware, perhaps, that Coward gave very little away: as a high profile gay man in 1932, he inevitably had to reserve his private self.

We may ask why the Hall owns this artwork. Possibly, simply, because it includes Fr D’Arcy.  Another reason is that it includes not only a portrait of Augustus John, but one of his son Henry, whose story was a tragic one. His mother Ida died after his birth, leaving John’s mistress Dorelia MacNeill in charge of seven little boys under five. Ida’s mother claimed her three eldest grandsons, but John fought to get them back: finally, he, his mother-in-law and the children all met at London Zoo, where he contrived to corner two of his sons behind the pelican house and kidnap them. Only Henry remained with his grandmother, while the others were brought up by the long-suffering Dorelia. He was sent to Stonyhurst, where he was taught by D’Arcy. As he grew up, he felt called to the Society of Jesus, perhaps due in part to his admiration for D’Arcy, but he struggled with the patterns set by his weirdly bohemian heritage, his strange relationship with his family, the strong sexual drive he inherited from his father, and his love for Olivia Plunket Greene, who by 1930, had decided she was committed to chastity (in the twenties, she had also been hopelessly pursued by Evelyn Waugh). He read Philosophy at Campion Hall (against D’Arcy’s advice), and joined the Order in 1927, but left again in 1935. D’Arcy patently did his utmost to help this troubled yet extremely attractive and intelligent young man, who drowned in 1936, either accidentally or as a suicide, aged twenty-nine. Both John and D’Arcy were devastated by his death, and the John portrait of D’Arcy which hangs in Campion Hall was made in thanks and acknowledgement of the latter’s attempt to help his son. D’Arcy made no secret of his affection and concern for Henry John, so this may be a reason why a copy of the portfolio ended in the Hall’s collections