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Front cover: Munitions Factory 1940 

William Roberts 

 

Self Portrait Wearing a Cap 1931

 Roberts was born into a working-class family in London's East End on 5 June 1895. The family were then living at 44 Blackstone Road in Hackney, and his father was a carpenter. From an early age Roberts showed an outstanding talent for drawing. He left school at the age of 14 and took up an apprenticeship with the advertising firm of Sir Joseph Causton Ltd, intending to become a poster designer. He attended evening classes at Saint Martin's School of Art in London and won a London County Council scholarship to the Slade School of Art . He joined the Slade in 1911, studying under Henry Tonks and Wilson Steer. His contemporaries at the Slade included Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Christopher Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg and Bernard Meninsky. The Slade's emphasis on the importance of drawing and sound structuring of composition would inform Roberts's later work.

Roberts was intrigued by Post-Impressionism and Cubism, an interest fuelled by his friendships at the Slade (in particular with Bomberg) as well as by his travels in France and Italy after leaving the Slade in 1913. Later in 1913 he joined Roger Fry's Omega Workshops. After leaving Omega he was taken up by Wyndham Lewis, who was forming a British alternative to Futurism. Ezra Pound had suggested the name Vorticism, and Roberts's work was featured in both editions of the Vorticist literary magazine BLAST. Roberts was a signatory to the Vorticist Manifesto that appeared in the first edition of the magazine. Roberts himself preferred the description "Cubist" for his work of this period.

Roberts was often described as reclusive, and he was very wary about interviewers especially after an Observer journalist who visited him produced an article that Roberts felt was concerned more with his rather Spartan lifestyle than with his work.  "What kind of art critic is this, who sets out to criticise my pictures, but criticises my gas stove and kitchen table instead?" he asked.

Roberts developed a highly personal style of portraiture. The format increasingly favoured by the artist was head and shoulders. This allowed him to concentrate on the face and exclude any surrounding details which might be distracting. In 'Self Portrait Wearing a Cap' Roberts depicts himself in a shirt, wearing braces, tie and a flat cap. He thus identified himself as a working man, a persona he projected in later self-portraits of the 1950s and 1960s.