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David Low Cartoon

Low’s Topical Budget
David Low, Evening Standard, April 30th 1938 (detail)
© Copyright to Solo Syndications

The rejection of the portrait of T. S. Eliot was important in cementing Lewis’s public reputation as a rebel. Although the Royal Academy objected to the semi-abstract designs which appear on either side of the poet, Lewis was keen to point out that his painting was “a perfectly straightforward and conventional work … look, he’s even got a recognisable handkerchief in his pocket.” It was the Royal Academy and not Lewis who received bad publicity because of the incident, and Lewis dared to call the Royal Academy “a millstone around the neck of English art.”

Wyndham Lewis was not the only artist to hold these views on the Royal Academy. He made front page news on April 25, 1938, when Augustus John resigned from his post as Royal Academician in response to the rejection of the portrait by an artist who, in John’s opinion, should have been “unquestionably exhibited.” His resignation followed those of Walter Sickert and Stanley Spencer in 1935. The 1938 portrait of Eliot was sold to Durban Municipal Art Gallery in 1939 for £250 (about £11,000 in today’s values); a tiny sum considering that some Royal Academicians (including Augustus John) could charge up to £3000 (about £132,000) for a portrait.