Imagine spending a large percentage of your life devoted to collecting the work of a maverick who was shunned by the establishment and then, after 50 years of scouring bookshops, giving it all away? Cy Fox – a collector of the work of the writer and artist Wyndham Lewis (1882 -1957) – did just that. He built up a remarkable collection of Lewis' books, art and other archival material over half a century and then in 2006 donated it to the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.
Fox, a former globe-trotting journalist with the Reuters, Associated Press and Canadian Press news agencies, lives just a stones-throw from the AbeBooks' headquarters in Victoria. His quest for everything Lewis-related took him to used bookshops from London to New York to Belfast to Rome and many places in between.
It's not unfair to say Lewis has been forgotten by many people and is unknown to several of the latest generations. His legacy was tarred by his constant unwillingness to fit in with the establishments of the literary and art worlds, and accusations that he was a Nazi sympathiser. Today, his work is being reassessed – his books have become highly collectable and prices for his art rise with each high profile exhibition. I have seen it claimed that Bryan Ferry and David Bowie are both Wyndham Lewis collectors.
"I think it all began in 1955 when a friend from Newfoundland first told me about Lewis," said Fox, who is 78. "The first book I read was The Revenge For Love (a savage political satire on pre-war Britain) – it carried me away, I thought it was bloody marvelous. Then I read The Art of Being Ruled (a non-fiction book examination of modern society including mass media). These two books were fascinating. I could hear him talking to me while I read. Lewis was one of the first students of mass communication, and he heavily influenced Marshall McLuhan's work, and he was fascinated by culture and society. I then got into reading his novels and it became a compulsion for me – the books would light me up."
Lewis, who constantly borrowed money off friends and acquaintances, made enemies wherever he went. Many of his books were withdrawn because of libel actions or threatened libel actions. For instance, only around 350 copies of The Doom of Youth are believed to have survived being destroyed after a libel action. His drawings and paintings were widely criticised by art critics, even though he was leading Britain's Avant Garde. His final years were spent living in a condemned flat in London's Notting Hill.
"I could tell he was not a likeable person, he was forthright and aggressive, and he always had his say and never cared what anybody thought of him," said Fox. "But I began collecting almost from the beginning. Many of his books had been pulped, many had small printings, and many had simply disappeared from the market.
"In New York, I would scour the used bookstores on Fourth Avenue and I would find his books going for a song. Once I found six copies of Filibusters in Barbary (a travel book that vanished from bookshops because of fears over libel) and I bought all six for $20.
"I bought Men Without Art (a book that criticises Hemingway, Faulkner, Eliot, and Woolf among others) in Foyles in London for £5 – it'll be worth a lot more now. In a bookshop in Rome, I found a first edition of The Vuglar Streak (a tragic novel set in pre-war Europe) with a dust jacket. In those days you had to march around to find books and I met many oddball bookdealers along the way. In those days, the prices for Lewis' books were low just like his art."
Fox's remarkable collection eventually reached around 900 items, featuring books, art, magazine clippings, tape recording, letters of correspondence (including ones from Lewis' wife) and other Lewis-related ephemera. Some items are unique, many others are very rare indeed. The collection includes Anglosaxony, a ‘pamplet' printed in Canada in 1941 that condemns Facism, and there are no copies for sale on AbeBooks. That would command £900 without difficulty. There is also a signed and numbered 25th anniversary edition (No. 278) of The Apes of God.
Fox has no clue about the collection's value and the University of Victoria were not prepared to divulge how much they believed it was worth, but considering that there is now renewed interest in Lewis the collection is probably worth a tidy sum.
Today, Lewis is considered one of Britain's finest portraitists of his era, if not the best. That's remarkable considering the Royal Academy rejected his 1938 portrait of T.S. Eliot. His fiction writing is biting and deeply satirical, while his non-fiction – putting aside the Hitler gaffe – is ahead of its time.
Fox's work was a journalist took him around the world and the collection went with him in 56 boxes. He estimates the collection crossed the Atlantic three or four times.
He sought out fellow supporters of Lewis and helped to found the Wyndham Lewis Society, "which brought people out of the woodwork." He also became an acquaintance of Lewis' widow, Gladys, who was living in a nursing home in Torquay in Devon in her final years.
"I got to know her well," he said. "She was friendly and devoted to Lewis to the end. She had been Lewis' main model for his paintings and even in her later years you could see why Lewis painted her again and again."
Among his contemporaries, Lewis' three biggest supporters were Eliot, the poet Ezra Pound and McLuhan. He was also a drinking buddy of James Joyce and crossed swords with countless other writers and artists in the first fifty years of the 20th century. A fuming Hemingway once smashed a vase of flowers in Paris' Shakespeare and Company bookshop after reading what Lewis had written about him.
Lewis helped found the Vorticism movement in art (Vorticism was short-lived and grew out of Cubism and embraced all things modern in a machine age) and also helped launch the literary art magazine BLAST – copies of which are very rare although Black Sparrow Press printed reproductions in the early 1980s. Lewis fought in World War I and also spent several years living and working in Canada.
His notable writing includes Tarr (a novel set in Bohemian Paris), The Apes of God where he satirized London’s literary society, Snooty Baronet (a satire on behaviorism) and Rotting Hill (a collection of short stories about Britain’s grim post-war).
His 1931 book, Hitler, naively presents the Fuhrer as “a man of peace” after Lewis had spent time in Germany watching the rise of National Socialism. The book tarred Lewis’ reputation as Hitler’s real intentions became clearer and clearer during the 1930s.
Twice he attempted to remedy the mistake. He wrote an attack on anti-semitism called The Jews, Are They Human? – the title is a riff on the bestseller The English, Are They Human? – and in 1939, he wrote The Hitler Cult and again back-tracked on his earlier thoughts about Hitler but the damage had been done. Lewis also penned two autobiographical books, Blasting and Bombardiering (1937) and Rude Assignment: A Narrative of my Career up-to-date (1950).
Fox has no regret about handing over his collection to the University of Victoria’s special collections department. “I’m not sad,” he smiles. “It’s a relief that it’s in a good home.”
In 2009, the University exhibited the collection in an event called The Lion and the Fox. Their experts have been hard at work cataloguing the far-reaching collection and they are aware that the donation is something very special.
“It is the largest, most comprehensive and most interesting collection of research material in modernist studies that we have ever received. It relates not just to English Literature but also to History in Art, Aesthetics and Politics,” said Chris Petter, Head of Special Collections at the University of Victoria. “It fits well with other collections and it will be used and studied in conjunction with those collections for years to come.”
Fox is thrilled his collection will live on and be enjoyed by others. It is kept in the University’s Special Collections vault and accessible to anyone wishing to study the work of Lewis or modern British literature.
The University of Victoria has two useful links detailing the exhibition and the collection in full: