- Wyndham Lewis: A Memoir Without Benefit of Diaries
Bloomsbérry is merry, the Sitwells sip sherry. Wyndham Lewis is dead.—Omar S. Pound
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I used to visit my grandmother, Olivia Shakespear, in London often when I was a child, while my parents were living in Rapallo, and I suspect the first time I heard the name of Wyndham Lewis was when I was nine or ten years old—it meant nothing to me, but I think I understood that he was the fellow who painted three strange large vertical panels in bright colors on the wall in her dining room. One seemed to have the driver’s cab as seen from upstairs on a London double-decker bus at the top, and the same cab upside down at the bottom (fig. 1); the second one (M618) I ignored; the last one (M619) was a bird with only one wing. 1 They took up the entire wall behind my grandmother’s chair in the dining room. The only other Lewis I remember was an ink drawing, “D.” Sub-section Relief, over the sideboard (M274) facing my chair at the table, of men in flat tin hats climbing up a hillside with large lumps in the background. I didn’t pay much attention to it, and I don’t think I knew it was a war painting. I never even noticed Lewis’s drawing of my grandmother (M591) in another corner over a small desk. I was much more interested in a large brass barometer, a bowl of ceramic artificial fruit (in particular the shiny apple and large black grapes), and a flower holder in the shape of a tortoise, nicknamed “Kuraima” by the Swami, Yeats’s friend and collaborator, who told me that was the “Indian” word for a tortoise. [End Page 189] I remember the Swami well; he always came to my birthday party at the flat. He was tall, with a large pink turban and flowing robes, and walking down Kensington High Street with him enchanted me. I remember counting the eight lumps of sugar he put in his tea whenever he visited. By this time I was used to exotically dressed friends and incomprehensible decorative panels.
My first meeting in 1948 with the real WL was entirely different. I had just begun studying Persian and Islamic history at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (S.O.A.S.). I often saw WL at Agnes Bedford’s cottage near Sloane Square. He would be sitting hunched up in an armchair in her living room, always wrapped up heavily in rugs and wearing an eye shade. He was by then almost totally blind and complained constantly of the cold despite the stifling heat from the gas stove in Miss [End Page 190] Bedford’s tiny room and objected to any strong lighting from any direction, fearing it might hurt his eyes. She would either read to him or he would dictate to her. They were always working on his next book—I never knew which. Mrs. Lewis (“Froanna”) would bring him over to the cottage in a taxi from Notting Hill Gate, then leave Agnes to work with him, often through most of the afternoon. If I arrived too early I would wait in the equally small dining room, the walls covered with drawings and paintings by WL, Etchells, and others, until they had finished, and then Agnes would prepare tea. Often we would return to the sitting-room to find WL snoring—work fatigued him, requiring great concentration, but when he came to he always had a beatific smile and was full of wit and linguistic humor.
I also visited him on occasion at his Notting Hill Gate flat, which one reached along a dark narrow passage leading to the front door, which opened directly into his crowded sitting-room. He had a large armchair right next to the gas fire, still with...