This portrait of the writer, socialist and feminist, Naomi Mitchison, is compelling and enigmatic in equal measure. Despite their political differences (Lewis held extreme Rightwing views), artist and sitter were close friends. Their unlikely friendship, which began in the early 1930s, was lasting and evidently deep. This portrait commemorates their relationship.
It is Mitchison the author whom Lewis presents here. Mitchison was writing The Blood of the Martyrs, a historical novel set in Rome at the time of the persecution of the early Christians. The work had contemporary relevance as it drew forceful parallels with Nazi Germany and that regime’s victimizations.
The painting, like Mitchison’s novel, is also a kind of allegory. Lewis made a drawing of her at the time which he entitled The Tragic Muse – a title that would be apt for the painting. The inclusion of a depiction of the crucifixion may be a reference to the moral tone of Mitchison’s book. Paused in her work, the weight of melancholy in action is upon her. As the portrait dates from 1938, there may be an additional reference to the civil war in Catholic Spain. As Paul O’Keeffe, author of Wyndham Lewis: Some Sort of Genius and interviewer of Mitchison towards the end of her life has written, ‘The pensive frown on her face in the picture was, she claimed, a reflection of the brooding anxiety of the times.’
Mitchison said of this portrait by Lewis: ‘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.’