"BLAST SPORT"?: Vorticism, Sport, and William Roberts's Boxers
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"BLAST SPORT"?
Vorticism, Sport, and William Roberts's Boxers

When the English Vorticist group launched their magazine Blast in July 1914, thirty-one of the first forty-three pages were taken up with a pair of manifestoes. These were radical not simply for the content, including the two lists of people who were either condemned by being Blasted or the recipients of a Blessing, but also in terms of typographical style and layout, with numbered points and a bold font in a variety of sizes. Although obviously indebted to similar experiments in other parts of Europe, especially those of the Italian futurists, Blast was unlike anything that had been seen before in an English-language little magazine. But Blast also had an international impact, being singled out twelve years later by the great Soviet typographer El Lissitzky as an influential text: "large and elementary in presentation, set almost exclusively in block letters; today this has become a feature of all modern international printed matter."1 A good example of that typography is section five of the first manifesto, where in block letters there is the injunction to BLAST SPORT (fig. 1). What I want to consider in this article is how that injunction is, or rather is not, borne out by Vorticism's general attitude to sport. I will do that not simply by looking for textual and typographical evidence elsewhere in Blast, but also by looking at that evidence in conjunction with a work by one of the eleven signatories whose names conclude the manifesto section of Blast, William Roberts's large-scale drawing Boxers (fig. 2). This was not included in Blast itself, but dates to the same year, having first been exhibited at the New English Art Club in May 1914.2 [End Page 349]

Fig 1. Wyndham Lewis, "Manifesto," Blast 1 (1914): 17. By permission of The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a registered charity).
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Fig 1.

Wyndham Lewis, "Manifesto," Blast 1 (1914): 17. By permission of The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a registered charity).

In the infamous list of those Blasted there is only one sportsman. C. B. Fry was a dual international at Association football (soccer) and cricket. Fry's inclusion might have been sealed by his last name, Vorticism's leader Wyndham Lewis having split acrimoniously from the Bloomsbury figure Roger Fry the previous year, taking with him some of the key artists who would go on to found Vorticism. But Fry the cricketer might well have made the list for different reasons. He was one of the most elegant [End Page 350]

Fig 2. William Roberts, Boxers, 1914. Pencil, pen and ink, and collage (60.5 cm x 53.5 cm). Private collection. By permission of the Estate of John David Roberts.
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Fig 2.

William Roberts, Boxers, 1914. Pencil, pen and ink, and collage (60.5 cm x 53.5 cm). Private collection. By permission of the Estate of John David Roberts.

batsmen of his generation. Not only that, he held the world long jump record, and also published Fry's Magazine, "in which he wrote about everything from Esperanto to men's fashions, safety razors, phrenology and map reading."3 Furthermore, he was reportedly approached to become King of Albania. With a dilettante streak such as this, Fry was just the sort of all-rounder that the Vorticists mistrusted, and this type of sport—privileged, upper-class, amateur, public school sport—seems to be the target, as the attack on sport is allied with the attack on humor. Opposing Fry, in the list of those Blessed we might be surprised to find another cricketer, George Hirst. Playing for Yorkshire (the home county of Vorticist painter Edward Wadsworth), Hirst was a no-nonsense, phlegmatic England international whose medium pace swing bowling lacked flamboyance but proved effective. The duality is reminiscent of an interview [End Page 351] Lewis gave to the Daily News and Leader in April 1914 where he contrasts the entertaining "Pleasure-Man" with the "active and severe" workman, urging that the artists should be seen as the latter rather than the former.4 More like Hirst and less like Fry. More Players and fewer Gentlemen.5

Connected to that ideal of professionalism, and far outweighing the sole cricketer in the lists of those Blessed, are the boxers (fig. 3). William Wees identifies six among the names of those blessed in Blast.6 And all...