Lot 6
  • 6

William Roberts, R.A.

20,000 - 30,000 GBP
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  • William Roberts, R.A.
  • The Harem
  • signed and titled
  • pencil and watercolour on paper
  • 26 by 21cm.; 10¼ by 8¼in.
  • Executed circa 1914-16.


Richard Carline
Sale, Christie's London, 13th March 1981, lot 82
Private Collection
Their sale, Sotheby's London, 15th May 1985, lot 119, where acquired by the previous owner, from whom acquired by the present owner, circa 2001


London, Tate, Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, 6th July – 19th August 1956, cat. no.185, with Arts Council tour to Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester;
London, Leicester Galleries, Artists As Collectors, July - August 1963, cat. no.22;
London, South London Art Gallery, Paintings: 1914-1924, 31st May - 2nd June 1974, cat. no.103 (as The Haven).


The sheet appears sound. The sheet has been adhered to a backing card around the extreme edges of the sheet, but is not laid down. The sheet undulates slightly in places, including at the right vertical edge. There is a very small scuff apparent in the upper left corner. There may be one or two light traces of surface dirt and the pigments have faded slightly. Subject to the above, the work appears to be in excellent overall condition. The work is window mounted and presented in a painted wooden frame, held under glass. Please telephone the department on +44 (0) 207 293 6424 if you have any questions regarding the present work.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

We are grateful to David Cleall and Bob Davenport for their kind assistance with the cataloguing of the present work. 

In 1957 William Roberts published a slim but tantalising book, Some Early Abstract & Cubist Work 1913-1920. At first sight it appears to be an innocuous enough work, neatly typeset and in a limited edition of three hundred, but it represented an important staging point in the reappraisal of what can still be seen as Britain's lost modernists. The previous year the Tate had staged Wyndham Lewis and Vorticism, in which The Harem was included, the first significant exhibition to examine the brief but important period just prior to the First World War when a small group of young British artists had begun to produce some of the most powerful and forward-looking paintings and sculpture yet seen. Unfortunately, the Tate exhibition rather fostered an impression that Vorticism, as the movement was known, was essentially the work and creation of Wyndham Lewis, with his contemporaries placed a good distance in his wake. Roberts, not surprisingly, was deeply offended by this stance, and took up the cause on behalf of his fellow artists who he felt were being unjustifiably cast as Lewis' followers rather than joint participants in a crucial moment in British art.

In the 1957 publication, Roberts outlined not only his objections to the umbrella of influence Wyndham Lewis was allocated in the Tate show, but also articulated how in the years prior to the First World War, as a new graduate from the Slade, his own singular and revolutionary style had developed:

‘I became an abstract painter through the influence of the French Cubists; this influence was further strengthened by a stay in France and Italy during the summer of 1913; and then on my return home, by association with Roger Fry and the Omega workshops. An additional stimulant to my interest in abstract art was the example of David Bomberg a friend and fellow student at the Slade School who had begun to produce some fine cubist compositions.’ (The Artist, Some Early Abstract & Cubist Work 1913-1920, Favil Press, London, 1957, p.4)

Roberts drew from various reference points from the Continent, having been exposed to their works on his travels and also through the exhibitions that were exploding onto the London scene. One can see in his early works the energy of the Italian Futurists, the angular forms of Legér and the palette of Cézanne and Picasso, yet Roberts is distilling this influence and combining it with aspects of his vision that result in a style uniquely his own. This is particularly apparent when one looks at Roberts’ choice of subject matter. While he refers to himself at this stage as an ‘abstract painter’, his works continue to return to some form of narrative, drawing from a diverse range of sources - from tales of ancient Greece in The Return of Ulysses (circa 1913-1914, Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Nottingham), to the Biblical in Nativity (circa 1913), to Oriental themes favoured by 18th and 19th century painters in The Harem. In The Harem Roberts strips away the texture, the opulence, the displays of flesh that one might expect from such a title, and instead gives us a simplified colour scheme, a mass of grey tubular forms - bodies that lack any sort of individuality, twisting and drawing our eye around the scene. In the combination of a Cubist style with a subject that immediately calls to mind a range of reference points throughout art history, Roberts has managed to create an image that is both modern and radical within the context of British art of the early twentieth century.