In 1998, modernist art and literature scholar Paul Edwards wrote about “a set of watercolours and (apparently) ink drawings on the theme of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens” by Wyndham Lewis that had been published as a portfolio in 1913. 1 Why only “apparently” in ink? Until Professor Edwards came across the nine drawings in the Folger’s digital image collection, art historians thought the drawings had been lost. Now he knows that they are definitely ink, and definitely not lost—they’ve simply been kept since the 1920s in a collection where no one thought to look for Vorticist art.
The drawing of a dancing figure, in pen-and-ink with reddish brown wash, is particularly special. Unlike the rest of the set, it was not published in the portfolio (or on the portfolio: two of the designs are printed on the folder itself), so until Professor Edwards found it in the Folger’s online image collection, it wasn’t known to scholars.
Mr. and Mrs. Folger purchased the pictures from publisher and antiquarian bookseller Grafton & Co. in 1926, where they were item 590 in catalogue no. 55:
Lewis (Wyndham) [Nine original drawings for his Illustrations to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. Together with a parcel of corrected proofs, some miscellaneous odd plates, and a copy of the portfolio, with 16 plates, some printed in colours. London, 1912]
Folio. These extraordinary illustrations belong to the Cubist school when it was at its height. The original drawings, the proofs, and the finished work together form an interesting study of the development of the artist’s ideas.
Collation readers might remember having seen one of the corrected proofs a year ago, in “Proof prints, part one.” Here’s a snapshot of a selection of finished prints, plus two copies of the portfolio so you can see front and back:
Unfortunately, I didn’t straighten out all the ties before taking the picture, so please ignore what looks like thick brown lines on the left side of the back of the portfolio. In all, the Folger has four portfolios, one for each of the four groupings described in the dealer’s catalog.
It’s interesting to compare the drawings side-by-side with the published prints. In the case of Act I, the finished print is considerably smaller than the drawing:
This is typical of 20th-century illustrations, where relief printing plates were created from high contrast photographs of the original drawings. Often, the original drawing was photographically reduced onto the printing plate, making it look like the illustrator worked in finer detail than he or she actually had.
Because the drawings were reproduced in high contrast, only the very dark area would show up in the final print. Pencil lines and collage edges would disappear. As a result, drawings for reproduction tend to look terrible if framed and put on a wall. Have a look at this detail from Act I, where you can see Wyndham Lewis’s deviations from the pencil guidelines for the lettering.
When art history students need to memorize the key characteristics of different aesthetic movements for exams, their flash card for Vorticism probably gives “zig-zags” for its clue. But there’s more to it than that. Consider the print for Act V:
Rather than trying to describe this image myself, allow me to quote from Paul Edwards again:
Our perception of fragments of figures and lettering out of these blocks, arcs and lines tends to be provisional, as the design takes on different readings with shifts in the viewer’s attention. Act V, for instance, registers first as a geometrical design, but as a praying figure is discerned, the white paper takes on its own ambiguous signifying function: here representing ‘flesh’, there an ’empty’ background. Typically, Lewis does not enclose the forms of his solids, and they become momentary configurations of the elements that compose them, inseparable from those elements and the transient acts of perception through which they are constructed. 2
What’s most fascinating to me about this image, though, is that the lower left corner of the drawing has show-through from an earlier drawing on the back of the sheet. At first I thought that the lines might have darkened over time, and not shown through as much in 1912, but comparing the drawing with the print reveals that Wyndham Lewis incorporated fragments of the show-through into the finished print, as if it had been inked as one drawing.
If you hurry to the Folger, you can see one of the drawings in the current exhibition (Shakespeare’s the Thing, open through June 15):