Nathan Waddell speaks about Wyndham Lewis at the Royal Academy of Arts


On Friday 13 July 2018, Dr Nathan Waddell spoke at the Royal Academy of Arts about Wyndham Lewis's rejected 1938 portrait of TS Eliot. Part publicity stunt, part sincere tribute, the portrait tells us as much about Eliot's significance as about Lewis’s impishness. In his talk, Nathan explored these elements of the work in view of Lewis's relationship with Eliot and his other portraits of the period.

Lewis's 1938 portrait of Eliot is one of the most important works he ever produced. A highly successful painting, it nevertheless failed to convince the Selection Committee of the 1938 Summer Exhibition - with the result that it wasn't shown in that Exhibition, leading to a substantial amount of free publicity for Lewis; unwelcome attention for the Royal Academy (including the resignation of one of its members, Augustus John); some awkwardness for Eliot; and more exposure of the portrait itself than would probably have been the case had it simply been accepted to begin with.

Nathan's talk explored how Lewis didn't like what he thought the Royal Academy stood for and explored how Lewis's career depended in some measure on the Academy's usefulness to him as a rival. Lewis needed the Royal Academy to prove the true extent of his own self-professed talents, just as the Royal Academy needed Lewis to prove its seemingly measured response to his boasting and game-playing. Lewis didn't treat the rejection of the Eliot portrait simply as an opportunity for self-aggrandisement. His criticisms of the Royal Academy were cogent and had substance. Yet Lewis knew what he was doing, and he knew that bad publicity is better than none.

Nathan concluded by suggesting that Lewis may have painted Eliot not only because Lewis wanted to monumentalize a friend and highly esteemed peer, but also because Lewis wanted to see if modernist culture more broadly might have reached a moment of 'official' recognition. Behind Lewis's disappointment at the Royal Academy may have been a double frustration: at his own lack of acceptance, and, obliquely, at Eliot's, at least as he took shape in the painting. The frustration may have been because Lewis knew that acceptance at the Royal Academy would mean the end of a certain kind of avant-garde radicalism.

A recording of the talk will be available shortly.

Nathan Waddell is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Literature at the University of Birmingham and a Co-Director of the Centre for Modernist Cultures. He is the author and co-editor of several books, including Modern John Buchan (2009), Modernist Nowheres (2012), Utopianism, Modernism, and Literature in the Twentieth Century (2013), and Wyndham Lewis: A Critical Guide (2015).