William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980) Women Playing with Cats 29 x 20.3 cm. (11 3/8 x 8 in.) (Executed circa 1919)

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Lot 11AR
William Roberts R.A.
(British, 1895-1980)
Women Playing with Cats 29 x 20.3 cm. (11 3/8 x 8 in.)

Sold for £ 325,250 (US$ 447,272) inc. premium
William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980)
Women Playing with Cats
signed 'William Roberts.' (lower left); titled 'Women Playing with Cats' (on the backboard)
pencil, ink, watercolour and gouache
29 x 20.3 cm. (11 3/8 x 8 in.)
Executed circa 1919


  • Provenance
    Michael A. Tachmindji, 1956
    With Hamet Gallery, London, 16 February 1971, where purchased by the mother of the present owner
    Private Collection, U.K.

    London, Tate Gallery, Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, organised by Arts Council of Great Britain, 5 July-19 August 1956, cat.no.72 (as Drawing 1913); this exhibition travelled to, Manchester, City Art Gallery, 1-22 September, Glasgow, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, 29 September-20 October, Bristol, City Art Gallery, 27 October-17 November and Leeds, City Art Gallery, 25 November-15 December
    London, Hamet Gallery, William Roberts: A Retrospective Exhibition, 16 February-13 March 1971, cat.no.9

    Printed here in colour for the first time ever, over one hundred years after its execution by William Roberts, probably circa 1919, the remarkable and dynamic Women Playing with Cats is testament to the artist's affiliation with Vorticism and his close acquaintance with both Percy Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg.

    Accompanied by prestigious exhibition history at Tate's 1956 show, Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, their gallery label attached on the backboard dates the work to 1913; reiterated again on the Hamet Gallery label. Stylistically, however, this mesmerising and sophisticated work on paper is more in keeping with Roberts' work produced directly following World War I, which was still firmly grounded in Vorticism. A date of circa 1919 has been proposed by David Cleall who compiled the artist's Catalogue Raisonné, available online only at: www.englishcubist.co.uk. Certainly, when one considers his two canvases The Diners and The Dancers of 1919 (Tate collection and Glasgow Museums: Art Gallery & Museum, Kelvingrove, respectively), designed as part of a three-panel work to be situated in the bohemian Hôtel de la Tour Eiffel on Percy Street in Fitzrovia, the revised dating seems entirely accurate.

    During the spring of 1914 Lewis visited Roberts at home in Cumberland Market, on the edge of Regent's Park, where a small artistic community flourished. Roberts had only left The Slade in the summer of 1913, and following a trip to France, taking in Paris, had already begun to experiment with incorporating Cubist elements into his work; The Return of Ulysses (Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham) and The Toe Dancer (Victoria & Albert Museum, London) are two of the finest examples. The story of Lewis leaving Cumberland Market with two of Roberts' Cubist paintings, The Dancers and Religion, now both sadly presumed destroyed or lost, is well known. He returned with these to his Great Ormond Street studio where the recently established Rebel Art Centre was founded. Andrew Gibbon Williams comments, 'Lewis had come to view the visual arts as merely one element in a larger cultural war that might overturn all the tired nostrums, prejudices and conventions that persisted into the new century from Victorian times. For him, art possessed the potential to transform society itself; the entirety of Western culture needed to be wrenched out of the doldrums of bourgeois passivity and forced to correspond with the new violent age of the machine.' (Andrew Gibbon Williams, William Roberts, An English Cubist, Lund Humphries, Aldershot, p.23). With the partnership of the American writer and poet Ezra Pound, Lewis announced Vorticism (named by Pound) with the publication in July 1914 of a small magazine entitled BLAST: The Review of the Great English Vortex. Dancers and Religion by Roberts were both illustrated alongside images by Sir Jacob Epstein and Edward Wadsworth, among others.

    With Women Playing with Cats Roberts draws on the abstract pictorial language laid down by Lewis in key works from the period 1913-1915, such as Composition (Tate collection) and Plan of War (lost). The emphasis on highly stylised geometric forms, overlapping angular shapes used to distort reality and the dramatic use of black and white superimposed over rusty-brown all point to Roberts' engagement with Vorticism's main visual protagonist, prior to him being called up for active service in April 1916. Whereas the faces, in particular, reference the new machine age with their simplicity and clean lines, and in the central standing figure's head we are specifically reminded of Sir Jacob Epstein's seminal Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill', 1913-15 (Tate collection).

    During Roberts' time at The Slade his friendship with David Bomberg, a fellow student, developed. Five years older, Bomberg played a significant role in guiding Roberts' aesthetic. As Gibbon Williams notes, 'It was Bomberg who was largely responsible for converting Roberts to the philosophy of modern art and Roberts himself paid tribute to his friend on this account in a fine example of his mastery of understatement: "an additional stimulant to my interest in abstract art was the example of David Bomberg, a friend and fellow student"'(op. cit. p.16). Both artists visited Paris during the summer of 1913 at a time when Bomberg began to produce some of the most radical abstract work of his entire career, inspired by the European avant-garde. The celebrated paintings of Ju-Jitsu (Tate collection) and In the Hold (Tate collection) acted as a prologue to his early masterpiece The Mud Bath of 1914 (Tate collection). The complexity of these compositions with the interplay of limbs and their optical energy were the most audacious and forward-thinking paintings produced by any British artist during this period of enormous change. Roberts did not escape their massive impact, and when one considers Women Playing with Cats and its fragmented, dazzling use of black ink and bare paper to describe the subjects, Bomberg's daring pre-war imagery is among the first to spring to mind.

    Another of Robert's contemporaries from The Slade, Edward Wadsworth, also played a fundamental role in Vorticism. But much like Roberts, the outbreak of war seriously disrupted his creative momentum. By 1915 Wadsworth joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and a year later was serving as an Intelligence Officer on Lemnos, Greece. By 1917 the Admiralty had embraced the idea put forward by the artist Norman Wilkinson of camouflaging its ships with boldly painted, dazzling designs which not only created an optical distortion of the shape of the vessel, but also confused the German enemy of its speed and angle, thus making it a far more difficult target for submarines. Later based in Liverpool docks, Wadsworth oversaw the transposition of the designs onto the ships themselves and then produced a small series of works which depicted them; a striking woodcut, Liverpool Shipping of 1918 (see fig.1) was used as a basis for his 1919 Dazzle-Ships in Dry Dock at Liverpool (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund and arguably Wadsworth's greatest picture. Roberts, too, was commissioned by the Canadians, and The First German Gas Attack at Ypres also of 1918 (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa) was, like Wadsworth's, noticeably more naturalistic and descriptive than their abstracted pre-war creations, owing to the commission's strict orders which included having nothing 'Cubistic' about them.

    Women Playing with Cats continues this effective and appealing mix of realism with the principles of Vorticism, making for an accessible yet arresting image. When the eyes become almost hypnotised and a little confused by the bravura design of the five black and white figures and two cats, which are thrust forward from their austere street setting, it is Wadsworth's iconic dazzle-ship works such as Liverpool Shipping where our minds wander to.

    This diminutive tour de force, a work quite unique in Roberts' oeuvre, has not been exhibited for almost half a century. Its playfulness and relaxed air as the women loaf around petting one of the cats is in stark contrast to some of the harrowing images Roberts made shortly before, of life on the Western Front. Although Roberts did not revert to strict Cubism or Vorticism after settling into Bohemian life in London following the war, Women Playing with Cats expertly documents the influences and inspirations which led to him becoming among the most significant English modernists at this moment in time.

    We are grateful to David Cleall and Bob Davenport for their assistance in cataloguing this lot.
William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980) Women Playing with Cats 29 x 20.3 cm. (11 3/8 x 8 in.) (Executed circa 1919)
William Roberts R.A. (British, 1895-1980) Women Playing with Cats 29 x 20.3 cm. (11 3/8 x 8 in.) (Executed circa 1919)
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