William Roberts, R.A.
- William Roberts, R.A.
- The Tea Garden
- oil on canvas
William Roberts felt it rang false to purely invent a subject and he never committed to a composition without it having some source, either from his observations of everyday life, from literature or scripture, or from his studies of the arts. It was in part for this reason that he always had an uncomfortable relationship with so called ‘pure abstraction’, writing in 1976 that ‘the artist who tells no more of his life and times, than a collection of abstract designs might well never have been born’ (William Roberts, Paintings and Drawings by William Roberts R.A., William Clowes & Sons Limited, London, 1976, unpaginated).
He would often spend long hours strolling around his neighbourhood in London, or later meandering by the canals and streams in Marston (the suburb of Oxford his family occupied during the Second World War), jotting down sketched observations on little slips of paper as he went. A. J. P. Taylor, a neighbour of the family, noted that Roberts spent most of his days walking and observing in London:
'If he needed a note of something that caught his fancy or interest he would find a scrap of paper in his pocket and make a pattern of a few lines...The scrap of paper was added to the pile he had collected for many years ...After each finished work he would go through this pile and select one, and not always the latest, to start whatever suited him at the moment. He didn't use a sketchbook. It was quite an adventure going through his piles and try to guess which would come next' (quoted in Andrew Heard, William Roberts, 2004, p.56).
The Tea Garden is perhaps derived from such an expedition, and certainly the subject, which focuses on the tumultuous energy of urban life and human interaction, would have been appealing to the Artist. Roberts had always been in thrall with the vivacity of modernity, and was particularly drawn to uproarious environments, from the boisterous atmosphere of packed noisy cafes, to the movement and hustle and bustle of crowds. Beginning in 1913 he had become embroiled in the Bohemian culture developing around Fitzrovia and Soho, where he and his former Slade classmates would spend the evenings in crowded night clubs soaking up the new wave American influences of jazz and ragtime, attracted to the carefree feel, vibrant energy and valuable potential contacts. He and his wife Sarah, whom he married in 1922, were particularly fond of the Harlequin Tea Rooms off Regent Street, and could frequently be found there throughout the 1920s (fig.1). Following the war the active breaking of social restrictions meant there was always a spectacle on view, and Robert's taste for these raucous scenes only intensified.
Roberts had a keen eye for detail and observation, and using the distinctive style he developed between the wars was able to articulate the intricacies of social interaction through gesture and facial expression. In The Tea Garden this lovely documentary quality is in full play. The figure’s gestures are immediately readable as their long and delicate fingers clasp teacups, sandwiches and cigarettes, their gesticulations animating their ongoing discussions. Roberts carefully builds the sense of movement by ensuring that the composition never allows the viewer's eye to settle for long in one spot, forcing our gaze to zigzag through the group. Moving cyclically we notice, for example, the woman who raises her pinkie and closes her eyes as she imbibes her hot beverage, the couple next to her entwined in an embrace, as well as the waitress in the bib who is serving the energetic crowd.
Roberts found particular humour in the clash of classes one increasingly found in these public settings, and here we see a strolling elegantly dressed couple - a lady with gloved hands who grasps her smart clutch and a finely suited gentleman with a cane and pipe- who have clearly taken notice of the rather brash crowd before them. The lady looks rather concerned as her partner smirks, and they provide the perfect buttoned up counter point to the exuberant scene in the foreground.
Typical of Roberts’ method, several intricate preparatory drawings for The Tea Garden exist, which are now in the collections of the Tate, London, the Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham and the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield.