Education and early career
Son of an Irish carpenter and his wife, Roberts was born in Hackney, London. In 1909 he took up an apprenticeship with the advertising firm of Sir Joseph Causton Ltd, intending to become a poster designer, and he attended evening classes at St Martin's School of Art in London. He won a London County Council scholarship to the Slade School of Art in 1910. His contemporaries included a number of brilliant young students, among them Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Christopher Nevinson, Stanley Spencer and David Bomberg.
Roberts was intrigued by Post-impressionism and Cubism, an interest fuelled by his friendships at the Slade (in particular with Bomberg) as well as by his travels in France and Italy after leaving the Slade in 1913. Later in 1913 he joined Roger Fry's Omega Workshops for three mornings a week, and the ten shillings a time that Omega paid enabled him to create challenging Cubist-style paintings such as The Return of Ulysses (now owned by Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham).
After leaving Omega he was taken up by Wyndham Lewis, who was forming a British alternative to Futurism. Ezra Pound had suggested the name Vorticism, and Roberts's work was featured in both editions of the Vorticist literary magazine BLAST. Roberts himself, however, later preferred the description 'Cubist' for his work of this period.
The First World War
In 1916 Roberts enlisted in the Royal Artillery as a gunner, serving on the Western Front. Having been told that artists were being chosen to do war paintings for the Canadian War Records Office, he applied, and in 1918 was 'loaned' to the Canadians for six months as an official war artist. He was subsequently also commissioned by the British Ministry of Information, for whom he painted A Shell Dump, France (1918–19; Imperial War Museum, London). His experiences at the front – touched upon in his memoir '4.5 Howitzer Gunner' – shifted the direction of his work, and significant pieces from his wartime output, such as the powerful Canadian commission The First German Gas Attack at Ypres (1918), dramatically depict the horror of war and are possibly the most acerbic produced by any of the British artists employed under the government’s schemes. Indeed they are bitter enough to rival the social realism of the German artists Otto Dix and George Grosz, and are possibly in a class of their own for their portrayal of the arduous – and occasionally deadly – life in the firing lines.
Between the wars
In 1915 he had met Sarah Kramer (1900–92), sister of fellow Slade student Jacob Kramer. Sarah appeared constantly in his work thereafter. They married in 1922, and had one son, John David Roberts (1919–95), who, after studying physics at University College London, became a poet and guitar scholar.
After the war, Roberts's subject matter turned to the documentation of urban life and portraiture – portrait subjects included T. E. Lawrence (1922; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and John Maynard Keynes and his wife, Lydia Lopokova (1932; National Portrait Gallery, London) – as well as some scenes from 'Greek Mythology [and] Christian Mythology', as he put it. in 1922–6 he was commissioned to produce illustrations and decorations for Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In 1923 he held his first one-man exhibition, at the Chenil Gallery in Chelsea, London, and two years later he was appointed visiting lecturer at the Central School of Art, a post he held until 1960.
The Second World War
When the Second World War broke out, in September 1939, Roberts was too old for combat service. He applied for work as a war artist, but fell out with the War Artists’ Advisory Committee over transport arrangements, and completed only a few portrait drawings of people involved with the war effort and some studies of life on the home front, including Munitions Factory (1940) and The Control Room, Civil Defence Headquarters (1942) – both now in Salford Art Gallery. He spent the war years in Oxford, where he painted some rural scenes, travelling to London for his teaching work.
The post-war years
In 1946 he and Sarah returned to London and took a room at 14 St Mark’s Crescent, a house in multiple occupancy backing on to the Regent’s Canal, near Primrose Hill. When other tenants moved out they took over additional rooms, and eventually with financial help from a friend they were able to buy the whole house, which would remain their home for the rest of their lives and whose neighbourhood would provide Roberts with subject matter.
In 1948 he showed work at the Royal Academy summer exhibition for the first time – a self-portrait and a portrait of Sarah in a headscarf as The Gypsy (he had made a number of pictures of gypsies during his Oxford years) – and he would show work there in every subsequent year until his death.
The 'Vortex Pamphlets' and other publications
In 1956 the Tate Gallery held an exhibition entitled Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, with 150 works by Lewis and a small selection by other artists to give 'an indication of the effect of his immediate impact upon his contemporaries'. Roberts was offended that the catalogue ‘would lead the uninitiated to suppose that the artists designated as "Other Vorticists" are in some way subservient to Lewis', and published a series of 'Vortex Pamphlets' in which he railed against the exhibition, the catalogue, the press coverage and the account of his own career contained in Modern English Painters by the Tate's director, Sir John Rothenstein, which appeared at about the same time. Targets of earlier visual satires had included Walter Sickert and Roger Fry. To publicise his own work he also published Some Early Abstract and Cubist Work 1913–1920 (London, 1957), the first of a series of collections of reproductions of his paintings, with somewhat polemical prefaces.
Roberts was often described as reclusive, and he was very wary about interviewers – especially after an Observer journalist who visited him produced an article that Roberts felt was concerned more with his rather spartan lifestyle than with his work. 'What kind of art critic is this, who sets out to criticise my pictures, but criticises my gas stove and kitchen table instead?' he asked. One admirer of his work has told how she saw him getting on to a number 74 bus and 'Fascinated to gain a sighting of the octogenarian recluse, she followed him to the top deck. Aided by "the chutzpah of youthful inexperience", she respectfully asked him if she were addressing Mr William Roberts. After what felt like an interminable pause, and with his gaze defiantly averted, he replied: "I really do not know."
Later recognition and the fate of his estate
In 1961 Roberts received an award from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 'in recognition of his artistic achievement and his outstanding service to British painting'. In that same year he began painting The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915 (completed 1962; now in the Tate Gallery), a nostalgic recollection of a boisterous Vorticist gathering in 1915. A major retrospective of his work, organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain, opened at the Tate Gallery in 1965, and a smaller version was also shown in Newcastle and Manchester. Roberts was elected a full member of the Royal Academy in 1966 (he had been an associate member since 1958), and he continued to depict large-scale urban scenes in his paintings until his death in 1980.
After his son had died intestate, The Guardian revealed that the Treasury Solicitor had control of a large number of works by Roberts, which it refused to lend to an exhibition at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne. Since then it has been announced that 117 of these works have been allocated to the Tate Gallery in lieu of inheritance tax, and the Tate will also house the remainder; a number of the works allocated to the Tate went on display at Tate Britain from May 2012 till March 2013.
Roberts's short account of his early years (written in 1977) appeared posthumously in 1982. In 2004 William Roberts: An English Cubist by Andrew Gibbon Williams, the standard monograph on this painter, was published.
- David Boyd Haycock, A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War (London: Old Street Publishing, 2009), p. 65; Andrew Gibbon Williams, William Roberts: An English Cubist (London: Lund Humphries, 2004), p. 8; William Roberts, Early Years (London, 1982; repr. as 'A Sketch of his Early Life' in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings (Valencia, 1990), pp. 69–82. All Roberts's writings except a couple of pieces for periodicals were privately published; they are available on the website of the William Roberts Society.
- 'Autobiographical Sketches' in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, pp. 145–6. Preface to Some Early Abstract and Cubist Work, 1913–1920 (London, 1957); repr. in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, pp. 168–9.
- Early Years; repr. in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, p. 8. Ten shillings in 1913 was equivalent to about £47 in 2011, according to the Bank of England's inflation calculator.
- In the catalogue to the 1956 Tate Gallery Exhibition Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, Lewis declared, 'Vorticism, in fact, was what I, personally, did and said at a certain period.' Roberts commented, 'With regard to this mystifying catch-word, I agree with Lewis, that it should only be used in reference to his own work; and that the term Cubist should be employed, to describe the abstract painting of his contemporaries of the 1914 period' (William Roberts, In Defence of English Cubists (London, 1974); repr. in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, pp. 216–17).
- William Roberts, Memories of the War to End War 1914–18 (London, 1974); repr. as '4.5 Howitzer Gunner Royal Field Artillery 1916–1918: Memories of the War to End War 1914–1918' in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, pp. 35–7, 44–5.
- Paul Gough, ‘A Terrible Beauty’: British Artists in the First World War (Sansom and Company, 2010) pp. 277-290
- Pauline Paucker, 'Sarah (1900–1992)', in William Roberts and Jacob Kramer: The Tortoise and the Hare (London: Ben Uri Gallery, 2003), pp. 35–6; Michael Parkin, 'Obituary: Sarah Roberts', The Independent, 5 December 1992; Colin Cooper, 'A Poet and His Music', Classical Guitar 17, 1 (September 1998), pp. 28–9.
- William Roberts, A Reply to My Biographer Sir John Rothenstein (London, 1957); quoted in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, p. 159.
- Imperial War Museum London, ref. GP/55/2.
- Paucker, 'Sarah (1900–1992)', p. 37; see also An Artists' House: William Roberts and 14 St Mark's Crescent.
- Cometism and Vorticism – A Tate Gallery Catalogue Revised (London, 1956); quoted in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, pp. 151–2.
- See John David Roberts, 'A Brief Discussion of the Vortex Pamphlets', in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, pp. 151–7.
- An Artists' House: William Roberts and 14 St Mark's Crescent.
- William Roberts, Fame or Defame: A Reply to Barrie Sturt-Penrose (London, 1971); repr. in Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings, p. 214.
- Richard Cork, 'Alone in a Crowd', New Statesman, 3 May 2004, quoting a memoir by Anne Goodchild in the catalogue of the 2004 Roberts exhibition at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle. In the same article Cork describes his own unsuccessful attempts to interview Roberts for his 1976 monograph Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, and says that 'One journalist who was rash enough to ring Roberts's doorbell ended up kneeling on the front step, struggling in vain to conduct a conversation with the retiring artist through his letter box.'
- Williams, William Roberts, p. 134.
- Maev Kennedy, 'Crown keeps Vorticist's work off the wall', The Guardian, 15 March 2004.
- Acceptance in Lieu Report 2007/08 (London: Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, 2008), p. 9.
- The William Roberts Society: "A Sketch of His Early Life"
- London: Lund Humphries. ISBN 9780853318248]
- THE WILLIAM ROBERTS SOCIETY, Registered Charity no. 1090538 at the Charity Commission
- Biography at the Tate Gallery
- William Roberts at artcyclopedia.com
- Website of the official William Roberts Society, including a catalogue raisonné, texts of Roberts's writings, a bibliography, and reproductions of his works
- The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915
- Maev Kennedy article in the Guardian on exhibition at the Hatton Gallery
A portion of the proceeds from advertising on Digplanet goes to supporting Wikipedia.