William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980) Billingsgate 45.6 x 37.7 cm. (18 x 14 3/4 in.) Executed in 1913

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Lot 9AR
William Roberts R.A.
(British, 1895-1980)
Billingsgate 45.6 x 37.7 cm. (18 x 14 3/4 in.) Executed in 1913

Sold for £ 162,500 (US$ 202,636) inc. premium
William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980)
signed 'William Roberts' (upper right)
pencil, pen and ink
45.6 x 37.7 cm. (18 x 14 3/4 in.)
Executed in 1913


  • Provenance
    Sir Cyril Butler (commissioned from the artist)
    Sale; Christie's, London, 26 April 1963, lot 233
    With Leicester Galleries, London, where acquired by the family of the present owner
    Private Collection, U.K.

    London, Leicester Galleries, New Years Exhibition, January-February 1964, cat.no.38
    London, Tate Gallery, William Roberts, 20 November-19 December 1965, cat.no.115; this exhibition travelled to Newcastle, Laing Art Gallery, 1-22 January 1966 and Manchester, Whitworth Art Gallery, 29 January-19 February
    London, Hayward Gallery, Vorticism and its Allies, 27 March-2 June 1974, cat.no.53

    William Roberts began his artistic career at a young age, developing the blossoming talent he displayed at his primary school in Hackney, East London. After leaving education at fourteen, he used his portfolio of works made at school and during evening classes at St. Martin's School of Art, to search for gainful employment. Turned down by the department store Liberty, among others, he impressed the firm Joseph Causton Ltd enough to be offered a seven-year apprenticeship. Essentially stationers supplying City law firms, the company also ran a commercial art department employing graphic designers and illustrators. It was here that Roberts honed his acute sense of a picture's design, as can be seen in Billingsgate, and learnt how to transfer small scale works into a larger image, something he would practice throughout his career. Beginning at the most junior level Roberts worked his way up through the ranks whilst still attending his night classes at St. Martin's.

    'Routine and hard work, however, were not the only experiences Roberts gained from his spell at Causton's. Apart from the occasional foray to the Tate Gallery with his art mistress he had rarely been outside the East End. Now he found himself at the commercial hub of Edwardian London. Causton's was located in Eastcheap near Billingsgate fish market so, before arriving there at 8 a.m. and after leaving at 6 p.m., Roberts was treated to the colourful spectacle and intense activity of the capital at work. There were the fish porters with their peculiar hats for carrying crates, horse-drawn delivery vans and barges loading and unloading on the Thames.' (Andrew Gibbon William, William Roberts, An English Cubist, Lund Humphries, Aldershot, 2004, p.11).

    By 1910 at the age of just fifteen William Roberts won a scholarship to the Slade School of Art after impressing the adjudicators of the London County Council. Its teachings were centred on the importance of draughtsmanship of the French classical tradition using meticulous line and shading to denote form. The present work is a remarkable example from this formative period and illustrates the artist's thorough grasp on the complexities of chiaroscuro.

    In his posthumously published Early Years, Roberts wrote, 'In the summer vacations of the following year [1912], I received another invitation to spend a few weeks in the country; this time from Sir Cyril Butler – a friend of Prof. Tonks [of the Slade School] and a patron of the group of artists, members of the New English Art Club. Bourton House, where Butler lived, was a large country mansion near Shrivenham in Berkshire, set in extensive parkland ... Following on from my stay at Bourton, Sir Cyril commissioned me to do six drawings of London markets at two guineas each. But except for two markets, Billingsgate and Leadenhall, the drawings were never carried out. Several years after this, about 1919, I was living in an attic at 32 Percy Street, Tottenham Court Road, and being very hard up I wrote to Sir Cyril, hoping he might feel interested in buying a drawing or perhaps complete that set of London markets. He did not reply; instead, he called one evening; the visit was brief. After asking me what artists I associated with, and who my friends were, without mentioning the market drawings he departed, leaving me no better off than before.' (see online, William Roberts: Catalogue Raisonné, researched and compiled by David Cleall: www.englishcubist.co.uk).

    Like Leadenhall Market (1913) in the collection of Tate (see fig.1), Billingsgate focuses on the market traders and fish porters, and the intense activity at the peak of their working day. Robert's use of chiaroscuro is used to bring clarity and volume to the individual figures in a crowded and ambitious composition. It also serves to create a striking depth of field. The arduous nature of the fish porters' work is skilfully rendered by Roberts in the three central figures carrying the produce on their heads. One of them balances six crates. Owing to the heavy loads these men wore specially designed hats for the task known as the 'Billingsgate Bobbin' hat. Made from thick leather weighing five pounds, incorporating four hundred nails, they were coated in tar to repel water and could take up to eight hours to make. The top flat part consisted of four layers of leather which could be replaced much like the sole of a shoe when worn out. Such was their craftsmanship that these Bobbin hats were often handed down, like the job itself, from father to son. The name is thought to derive from the 'bobbin' or payment the porters would receive from the buyers for delivering the catch to the distribution vehicles.

    The expressions on the faces of the men in the Billingsgate drawing, unlike Tate's example, have been described in impressive detail. Indeed, the intricate work by the draughtsman's hand throughout shows greater attention to detail than Leadenhall Market. As onlookers, we are provided with a fascinating insight to the characters who worked this key industry of early twentieth century Britain. Their working-class roots are laid bare, and with Roberts having been born into the same environment close by it was one he could relate to easily.

    Billinsgate immediately captivates the observer with its narrative and sophisticated design. It was drawn at a pivotal moment for Roberts, just prior to him leaving The Slade, and embraces everything he was taught there by his tutors Henry Tonks and Philip Wilson Steer. His talents during this time earnt him the Melville Nettleship prize for figure painting composition and another award recognising his aptitude as a draughtsman. Yet despite this it already anticipates the next phase in Roberts' story, the radical departure he made with a handful of his contemporaries towards Cubism and Vorticism. It is this drawing, more than any other made at The Slade, which brilliantly conveys the aesthetic Roberts felt compelled to follow. Immediately after leaving The Slade he travelled to France, including Paris, and likely absorbed the contemporary Cubist works on display. Back in London whilst working at the Omega Workshops for a source of income Roberts began to experiment with his personal interpretations of Cubism. The earliest surviving example, The Return of Ulysses (Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham) was painted circa 1913-14, and comparisons can be drawn between this and his good friend David Bomberg's Vision of Ezekiel (Tate Collection) produced the year before, which was exhibited at the 'Cubist Room' in An Exhibition of the Work of English Post-Impressionists, Cubists and others from December 1913 to January 1914 at the Brighton Public Art Galleries. Whilst stylistically Billingsgate may not on the face of it appear linked to Roberts' new artistic vocabulary, similarities are apparent. In particular the poses and exaggerated stretching of some of the Billingsgate men, most noticeable in the figure controlling the water tap and the standing man with arms held aloft far right, relate nicely to the stylisation of the men and women in his earliest Cubist and Vorticist designs.

    Billingsgate Market is amongst the most famous in the United Kingdom. Situated on the Isle of Dogs in Poplar, East London, it is the country's largest inland fish market. During the 19th Century it was in fact the world's largest. The present site was established as recently as 1982, although the history of the market at its original location, Billingsgate Dock close to Lower Thames Street, can be traced back to the 16th Century. However, its inauguration did not take place until an Act of Parliament in 1699. In 1872 the City of London Corporation, who still runs the market, began rebuilding and enlarging the space following plans by the City of London architect Sir Horace Jones (1819-1887) and it was completed in 1877. The enormous current building complex of thirteen acres sells fish from all over the world and trades five days a week, Tuesday to Saturday and opens for business as early as 4 a.m.
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