This portrait records a very warm yet unlikely friendship. The sitter, the writer and polymath Naomi Mitchison, was an ardent socialist, a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party and deeply involved in numerous social and humanitarian causes. The artist, Wyndham Lewis, was known as a racist, misogynist and fascist; even today he is still derided for his premature enthusiasm for Hitler whom he described as ‘a man of peace’ in a misguided publication of 1931. Yet, following their first meeting around 1930, the generous, liberal-minded female author and the man famously dubbed by W.H. Auden as ‘that lonely old volcano of the Right’ struck up a close friendship based on mutual respect.
In earlier years the novelist, artist and critic Wyndham Lewis had been a commanding and influential figure in avant-garde art and literature in England. He had a hand in many innovative groupings and was among the first British artists to introduce elements and ideas from Cubism and Futurism into his art. But by the early 1930s, he was an increasingly isolated and embittered figure. Mitchison recognised that Lewis could be cruel and that he was regarded as ‘The Enemy’ by many of her peers; she later joked that she would have sex with Lewis in order to avoid having to listen to his opinions. But she recalled fondly their lengthy discussions on literature, observing that he was the only writer ‘from whom I have ever deliberately learnt’. In 1935 they collaborated as author and illustrator on a book, Beyond This Limit, a piece of fantasy fiction in which the two main characters are loosely based on Mitchison and Lewis themselves.
In this portrait from 1938, Mitchison’s handsome face is pulled into a frown as she hunches over the notebook propped on her knee. At the time she was writing a book, The Blood of the Martyrs, which was based on the plight of early Christians in Rome but which was clearly intended to invite parallels with contemporary politics and the persecution of minorities across Europe. Mitchison recalled her frustration at not being allowed to move or even write, with just a ten-minute break every hour in which she could speedily get her sentences down on paper. In the background, Lewis included an image of the Crucifixion, perhaps a reference to Mitchison’s book or a teasing reference to her suffering as a sitter. The angular style and cool colouring enhances a brooding and austere mood in the picture, but it is a magnificent projection of the intense preoccupation of a writer. In a newspaper article published in 1956, Mitchison described the experience of sitting for Lewis and said of this work: ‘It is not, and never was, a photographic likeness, but I would hope to be remembered by it because, I think, he got at something below the surface, as a really great portrait painter always should do.’
In 1939, the year after this portrait was painted, Mitchison moved to Carradale in Kintyre, Scotland, from where her prolific output as a writer continued. She remained an enthusiastic traveller and campaigner, involving herself in both local and international issues until her death in 1999 at the age of 101. She was keen for this painting by Lewis to come to the Portrait Gallery in the city where she was born and this was achieved in 2003, thanks to the support of her family and a generous contribution from the Art Fund.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.