Great Works: Edith Sitwell(1923-35), Wyndham Lewis

Tate, London

The best portraits – though seldom those that are commissioned by the sitter for large sums of money – are often the most preposterous. Wyndham Lewis's great portrait of the gloriously colourful poet Edith Sitwell was painted over a period of about 12 years, between 1923 and 1935. The painter had to do a moonlight flit from his studio in October 1923 in order to avoid creditors. At that point the portrait had a head; legs, coat and chair were well under way, too. Twelve years later, Wyndham Lewis gave it a conclusion of sorts.

It is a portrait that both reveals and partially disguises Lewis's attitude towards Dame Edith herself. He both loved and loathed her. Lewis himself was a mercilessly watchful observer of human foibles, and a deeply flawed human being – he once described Hitler as a " man of peace".

The painting looks almost pyramidal in shape because our eyes constantly return, rising up and up, to the way in which Lewis has painted the head and the pointed hat – all is thin and long and stretched. The heavily lidded eyes are closed, which suggests that the Dame is in a meditative mood, ruminating upon yet more deathless lines of verse, which will soon come showering – like so much spilled blood – from her tireless pen. Curiously, her arms appear not to culminate in hands. Why no hands? Their absence rather suggests that what we have taken for arms are in fact a pair of carefully folded wings. In fact, the decorous garment she is wearing, and the way it culminates in those panellings of colourful rectangles, looks very like a bird's plumage, which again wings us back to the possibility of the painting's subject's being borne aloft on the deathless wings of poesy, as John Keats once wrote with exquisitely tenderised sugariness.

And yet in spite of the fact that the human creature under scrutiny here looks taut, pent, almost squawkily bird-like, it also looks faintly mechanised, faceted by the severity of the geometry of its lines. So if Dame Edith is indeed a bird of sorts, she is undoubtedly a mechanised bird – rather like those war planes that had so recently been menacing the skies. So she is both serene, cool and Buddhistically withdrawn from us, and malignly capable of doing harm when not at rest. All of which contrasts violently with how she is dressed, which speaks of a degree of self-display that seems to be pushing itself to the point of absurdity. So there is a ridiculous contrast at work here between the sage (or mandarin-like withdrawal to be found in the stonily withdrawn facial expression – the angle of the eyes seems to suggest that she might be reading, but the missing hands hold no absent books) and the theatrical display of her costuming: the lower reaches of that splashy yellow dress, for example, and the way it seems to be upheld, rather tautly, by her knees, make it look a bit like a carelessly thrown theatre drape...

Great portraits down the centuries generally show us the sitter in the company of objects of great symbolic importance to them. And so it is here. There is such culture at Dame Edith's elbow, so many fat, brown books; in fact, so many that they appear to be driving the top shelf of the to the limit, causing it to teeter alarmingly over an abyss of space. There is such cultural gravitas in those books – and in the large globe on its stand, which is to the left (your right) of Dame Edith's chair.

All that I am shall endure forever, incantates Dame Edith. Pull the other one, retorts Lewis, her mockingly vengeful portraitist.


Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) was a prodigiously talented Modernist painter, novelist, polemicist and art critic of the first half of the 20th century. His portraits are some of his greatest works. He painted his eminent literary contemporaries - Naomi Mitchison, T S. Eliot, Stephen Spender and Ezra Pound - with a cold and merciless eye. The painter Walter Sickert once described him as the greatest portraitist of this or any other generation.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas