Wyndham Lewis – Sigismund, 1922,

john-collier-lady-godiva-1897

Some months later, settled in the midst of a very great establishment, Sigismund’s fancy found a new avenue of satisfaction. He resolved to make a collection of pictures. His newly-awakened sensibility where pictures were concerned was the servant of his ruling passion, and admirably single-minded. His collection must be such as a nobleman would wish to possess. And again in this fresh activity his instinct was wonderfully right.

But Deborah grew blacker day by day. The dumb animal from the sacred Past felt by now that there was something exceedingly queer about her husband. The fabulous sums of money that Sigismund got through in the prosecution of his new fad awoke at last her predatory instincts. Solid bullion and bank balances was what she had wedded: not a crowd of fantastic and rather disturbing scenes. She secretly consulted with Lord Victor.

However, Sigismund proceeded to fill the house with pictures, engravings, drawings and pieces of sculpture. They all had some bearing on the Past. Many were historical pieces. They showed you Henry VIII., the king of the playing card, divorcing Catherine. He appeared, in the picture, to be trying to blow her away. They disclosed the barons after their celebrated operation at Runnymede, thundering off with the Charter: or William the Conqueror tripping up as he landed. There were pictures celebrating Harry Page’s doings, ‘Arripay’ : episodes on the Spanish main. There was an early lord earning his book-rights with an excellent ferocity: and a picture of a lonely geneat on his way to the manor with his lenten tribute of one lamb.

A rather special line depicted a runaway labourer being branded upon the forehead with a hot iron, at the time of the Labour Statutes of the fourteenth century: and sailors being bastinadoed after unusually violent mutinies. Stock and thumbscrew scenes. There was a picture of a Kentish churchyard, John Ball preaching to a rough crowd. As Sigismund gazed at this terrible picture, he experienced perhaps his richest thrill.

When Adam delved and Eve span Who was then the gentleman?

He could see these unhallowed words coming out of the monk’s lips and the crowd capering to them.

He had the six English regiments at Minden, mechanical red and accoutred waves, disposing of the French cavalry: and Hawke in Quiberon Bay, pointing with a grand remote pugnacity to the French flagship: the old ceremonious ships, caught in a rather stormy pathos of the painter’s, who had half attempted, by his colouring and arrangement, to find the formula for an event very remote in time from the day of the artist depicting it.

Charles II. dying ‘do not let poor Nelly starve ‘ Sigismund’s model of how to die: * for-

give me, Deborah, for protracting this insignificant scene. 5 He was not sure about ‘insignificant ‘ and sometimes substituted ‘tedious.’ The word ‘unconscionable,’ he felt, was the prerogative of dying princes.

The masked executor holding up the head of Charles I., whose face, in the picture, although severed from the body, still wore a look of great dignity and indifference to the little trick that had been played upon it by the London Magnificos. ‘Eikon Basilike’ drew as many tears from Sigismund’s susceptible lids as it did from many honest burgesses at the time of its publication.

Mary Queen of Scots over and over again: Fotheringay : many perfect deaths: the Duke of Cumberland holding the candle for the surgeon amputating his leg.

Gildas, Kemble’s ‘Saxons in England’ the life of Wilfrid, by Eddi, were three of his favourite books. And pictures dealing with this period he concentrated in a room, which he called the ‘Saxon’ room. In these pieces were seen

The Crowning of Cedric.

Guthlac of Crowland vomiting at the sight of a bear.

The Marriage of Ethelbert with Bertha, daughter of King Charibert.

The Merchants telling Gregory that the angelic slaves came from ‘Deira.’

Constantine on the chalk cliffs, Minster below, knees jutting out, for the first time, in a bluff english breeze ; and Ethelbert, polite, elevated, but postponing his conversion with regal procrastination, or possibly leisureliness.

Burner’s dagger reaching Edwwie through Lilians body.

Coifi, the priest, at Godmanham, making his unexpected attack on an obsolete temple.

Aidan with a bag of hairy converts in the wilds of Bernicia.

Penda looking at the snowy fist blessed by Aidan after he had defeated the Northumbrians. Alfred singing psalms and turning cakes, and Caedmon writing verses in his stable.

These were only a few of the many scenes that Sigismund roamed amongst: standing in front of them (when he could prevail on her to come with him) with his arm round Deborah’s waist.

The pictures that Deborah hated most were those most economically noxious. These were pictures by masters contemporary with the Past. Van Dyck was his great favourite, at once a knight, a Belgian, and a painter. He reflected with uncertainty, ‘a foreign title, obviously’ ? Contemporary painters who were at the same time knights, or even lords, he thought less of, it may be mentioned in passing : though he never grudged them, on account of their good fortune, the extra money he had to pay for their pictures.

His instinct manifested itself more subtly, though, in his choice of modern works. Burne-Jones was perhaps his favourite artist not belonging, except in spirit, to the wonderful Past. He recognized the tendril or twist he had read about in the book found at Bosselwood. Also the unquestionable proclivity to occupy himself with very famous knights and queens struck Sigismund as a thing very much in his favour. But our hero was an incomparable touchstone. His psychic qualities had their part in this. You could have taken him up to a work of art, watched his behaviour, and placed the most entire confidence in the infallibility of his taste in deciding as to the really noble qualities, or the reverse, of the artist. The Man in the Savage State propensity always met with a response. And you would not be surprised, if going further along the gallery with Sigismund, you came upon a work by the same painter of a very tender description, showing you some lady conceived on a plane of rhetorical spirituality. The Animal and the Noble, you would know, are not so far apart: and the savage or sentimental and the impulses to high-falute very contiguous.

Suffocated by this avalanche of pictorial art, Deborah had been constantly sending up S.O.S.’s, and Lord Victor had hurried to her assistance, unknown to Sigismund. This very ‘natural’ female splinter from a remote eruption, grew more violent every day. The more animal she grew the better pleased was Sigismund. One day when as usual he strolled round his galleries, he was only able to examine his acquisitions with one eye, the other having been ‘poached’ overnight by his wife.

Wyndham Lewis, 1882-1957   Sigismund, 1922.

Sigismund, was first published in Art and Letters, 1922, and in the collection of short stories, The Wild Body, A Soldier of Humour and Other Stories,1927, Harcourt Brace, 1928.

Image: The Honourable John Maler Collier OBE RP ROI (1850-1934). 1. Lady Godiva, 1897, oil on canvas, 56 x 72 inches /142.2 x 183 cms, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry. 2. Sacred and Profane Love,1919, oil on canvas, Northampton Museums and Art Gallery

Wyndham Lewis is in full snarling hunting pink in a satirical anti-establishment story where ‘Art’ and ‘Race’ signify the good-bad breeding of the English quality society. ‘Art’ is a collection of paintings of English history and pictures by masters contemporary with the past.” Lord Sigismund and the Honourable Deborah Libyon-Bosselwood are monolithic representatives of the genealogical relics of ‘Race’, or inbred aristocratic blood lines. The Bosselwood motto: Nunquam ignoscete (Never Forgive) reflects a violent and primitive heraldic feudalism. She is described as a surly, lumpen woman of thunderous stature, hairy and leathery skinned, mute and massive. His pursuits involve the necromancy of researching her astrological pedigree. A passive cast of haw-hawing imbeciles and nincompoops are the more malevolent reflection of the upper classes mirrored by PG Wodehouse. They include Captain Reddie Gribble-Smith, and Tom Fireacres. pronounced Furrakers, a Socialist from an “Awfully good family you know.”, and a genetically defective Bulldog, named Pym. Sigismund reads to Deborah from a book in the library at Bosselwood Chase:

The training of these fortunate people—ancient houses, receding lines of pictures, trophies, books, careful crystallization of memories and forms, quiet parks, large and massive dwellings—all is calculated to make life grow backward instead of forward, naturally, from birth. This is just as pleasant, and in some ways easier. The dead are much nicer companions, because they have learnt not to expect too much of existence, and have a lot of nice habits that only demise makes possible. Far less cunning, only to take one instance, is required to be dead than to live. They respect no one, again, for they know, what is universally recognized, that no one is truly great and good until he is dead: and about the dead, of course, they have no illusions. In spite of this they are not arrogant, as you might expect.

‘I think that is divinely well put, don’t you agree, darling?’ asked Sigismund closing the book. Deborah looked straight at him with genuine hatred: with the look of a dog offered food about which he feels there is some catch.

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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 - creator of art projects - writer on art

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