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 So she is both serene, cool and Buddhistically withdrawn from us, and malignly capable of doing harm when not at rest.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.

ABOUT THE ARTIST

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.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker