Wyndham Lewis – Rotting Hill,1951

W Lewis_Rotting Hill 1951

Chapter 8. My Disciple.

  Of course in fact he had had a wide choice of callings. Upon demobilization he could have become almost anything from a Harley Street consultant to an Anglican clergyman, by means of a Government grant: to the mind of the politician, who is anti-craft, the notion that it takes a long time to become anything worth the being is repugnant. The politician, like the journalist, is a professional amateur. The only thing there was no grant for was to learn how to be a politician. The laziest of the ex-servicemen naturally chose the fine arts. The nation’s money was drained off on oil-paints, palettes, mahlsticks, six-foot lay-figures, poppy-oil and sable-brushes—and of course studio rents. Sculpture was not so popular, it sounded too much like work.

Gartsides was sent to an emergency training centre. In one year he would have qualified as a teacher in an elementary school. Shortly, however, he discovered that there was no obstacle to his transferring, if he so desired, and training to be an art teacher. So he changed over (he probably found arithmetic a bit of a sweat): whether remaining in the same training centre or not I forget. On the completion of a brief period of art-training, he blossomed forth as art-teacher, was appointed to a slum-school. The other teachers there, of whatever kind, were “certificated”—which meant they had matriculated and spent some years in procuring their licence to teach. It seems he was not a popular figure, even before he showed what stuff he was made of. But it was no time at all before he did that. He quite literally painted the school red.

A thigh thrown over a desk, an arm akimbo, his utility shoe dangling, the children were addressed by Gartsides; and their fidgety little eyes popped out of their curly little heads. They were told that what was spontaneous was best. Spontaneous meaning what spurts up, free and uncontrolled, not fed out by a nasty tap. The freest expression—the most innocent release—of their personalities was what he was there to teach. They would get no direction from him, his role was that of a helpful looker-on. Ready to give a hand, that was all. (He conveyed a very vivid impersonation of these transactions I am obliged naturally to abridge). Art was doing what they liked. It was not doing what he liked. They must pay no attention to him or to anyone else—it did not matter a hoot what anyone thought. He waved a rebellious eye over towards the office of the superintendent. He could teach them nothing. What can one person teach another except to be himself, as if he lived on a little island all by himself? They all lived on little islands all by themselves. No, he was simply there in the capacity of a wet-nurse, to assist them to be their little selves, and to bring forth—to create—whatever was inside them!

The children—typical Giles-like gnomes from the neighbouring sooty alleys and crapulous crescents—were of course alarmed and excited. Then he appeared one morning with a number of tins of house-painters’ colours and a couple of dozen suitable brushes (and he was very proud of introducing house-painters’ colours into the teaching of art). He pointed dramatically to the walls of the class-room crying: “Here’s paints and brushes and there’s the old wall! Atta boy! Paint me some pitchers on it!”

His petrified class suddenly saw the light. With squeaks of rapture they went to work. Soon the walls, part of the ceiling, as well as the cupboards and doors and even some areas of the floor of the class-room were as rich with crude imagery as the walls of a public lavatory. Some of the children were smeared from head to foot with paint.

After this his popularity suffered a further decline among the teaching staff. Next the school-inspectors arrived one morning and “nearly threw a fit” when they saw his class-room. He played the simpleton. He grimaced with a wooden jaw, hanging open an idiot lip and goggled with his eyes, to show me how smart he could be. It seems that the inspectors were satisfied that he was practically imbecilic. Of course they recognised that this was the type of man called for to teach art. They bullied the children, however, a little, for obviously they should have had more sense.

After the paint he obtained some plasticine.

“What do you think they did with it?” he asked me.

I shook my head, to indicate my inability to guess what might supervene if their personalities were left alone with so malleable a substance as plasticine.

“Well, they all made the same sort of thing,” he told me.

“Indeed. How curious.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “They stood their piece of plasticine up on end like this.” And he stood a safety-match upright on the table. He smiled at me. “I asked them what it was,” he said. “They told me a lighthouse.”

“Ah, yes. That lighthouse rescue probably. It was in all the papers: I suppose it was that.”

“No,” he said, obviously disappointed in me. “It was—well a phallus. Phallic.”

“I beg your pardon,” I said. “I see, of course. How amusing. Their personalities vanished momentarily. They became one—the primeval child.”

He looked at me with surprise.

“No,” he objected. “Each did a different lighthouse.”

Wyndham Lewis,1882-1957 – Rotting Hill,1951

Published: Methuen & Co. Ltd., London 1951

Image: Wyndham Lewis, Rotting Hill, 1st edition cover, 1951

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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