The Unknown God
Exhibited 1923
Henry Tonks, British Painter
Oil on canvas
41.5 x 56 cm (16 x 22 in)
Jpg: local
Sargent would be the second person from the right in the audience along wth his other friends from the Royal Acadamey.

Roger Fry is standing on stage holding a dead cat [1] -- symbolizing pure "Form" 
as Clive Bell, who rings the bell, calls out the new mantra "Cézannah, Cézannah." to an unimpressed audience of staid Royal Academist.

Clive Bell had coined this idea of "Significant Form" to describe an emotional response a viewer might have to a piece of art should solely be the result of the artistic form -- such as its color, or how the lines are drawn; and that this "response" is to be considered the only true aesthetic response to any piece of art.

Responses from representational art (such as a pretty landscape for example) are therefore corrupted by people’s feelings and emotions regarding what the painting is representing and memories and associations are superimpose upon the artwork corrupting the response and therefore is not about the art itself – the actual brushworks of the paint, the choice of color, etc. Those feelings and emotions, although valid, are not, in Clive Bells opinion,
aesthetic responses.

In 1914 Clive wrote a very important book called "Art" in which he strongly advocated abstract art. This wold all play out in what is also known as formalism.

Roger Fry had put together an exhibition at the Grafton Gallery which championed lesser known
(at the time) impressionists what is now known as the Post-Impressionists which included Cézanne.

See Roger Fry and the Post Impressionists

This debate between representational art and abstract art raged intensely during this time and Tonks had distributed this drawing among his friends who all thought Clive and Roger nuts.


One source of this image is "The Impressionist and their Legacy"; p.649, Edited by Martha Kapos, Barnes & Noble Books; 1995; by arrangement with Hugh Lauter Levin Associates ISBN: 1-56619-917-4

1) "The Impressionist and their Legacy"  identify the object Fry is holding as a dead cat


From: Uwe Rasch
r as
Date: Mar 7, 2006

Dear Natasha,
I wrote to you a few weeks ago with regard to the Henry Tonks drawing "The unknown God". Your text [above] claims that Roger Fry is holding up a dead cat. Is this your own description or did you find this somwhere else. As I said, we are at the moment editing an article by Aldous Huxley from 1923, where he describes the painting himself [ . . . as] Fry holding a "nigger-cum-cubist" sculpture. He also speaks of "a small oil-painting", whereas the reproduction on your pages looks like a lithography.

Would you have any clues to clear up these discrepancies or is there maybe a source where Tonks's Unknown God is discussed. It is quite possible that two or more versions exists, as artists sometimes produce paintings and prints on the same subject. On the other hand, there could be a misunderstanding because the only extant reproduction of the work may be your b/w reproduction (of,
possibly, a painting) mistaken for a drawing?

I'd be very grateful for any help to answer those questions.
(Aldous Huxley Centre)

From: Natasha

Hi Uwe,

I'm afraid I got the identification of a "dead cat" from "The Impressionist and their Legacy" and I have just corrected my oversight and credited my source.

The rest of the body of the text are my words from many sources on Significant Form and Clive Bell.

I must admit that it doesn't look much like a cat either and now after reading your letter I guess I see why the editor of the above mentioned source called it a "cat." The term "nigger-cum-cubist" is so racist and inflaming to today's ears that it clouds the whole meaning. But since it is a cubist something-or-other, you could almost call it anything -- and I think that's the intent.

As to the medium of the artwork. Again I'm afraid I had made an assumption it was a drawing and not a painting and I'm afraid I don't know if there were multiple copies or where the original is today.

Thanks for keeping me on my toes


From: Uwe Rasch
r as
Date: Mar 8, 2006

Thank you Natasha,
for your instant reply. The label "nigger-cum-cubist" is probably Huxley's own
and reflects the (pre-E.Said) style of the 20s. But to my mind, Huxley's perception: the object held by "Fry" looks like a primitivist/cubist sculpture (I tried hard to identify anything near a cat, the best I could come up with was a fish...): a female - negroid - figure, long legs, hollow back, and protuding buttocks, is what I, and it seems
Huxley, come up with. Do you know, whether the "dead cat" identification is a contemporary (1920s) identification or whether it is something the authors of "The Impressionists and Their Legacy" propose?
From your reply I take it that you called "The Unknown God" a drawing; or is this also the designation given in the source you took the image from?

Anyway, I thank you very much indeed for your help,

Mar 21, 2006

I found another reference that might be of interest to you in this context:

"The Unknown God, Roger Fry Preaching the New Faith, Clive Bell Ringing the Bell, Oil on canvas, 41.5 x 56 cm (16 x 22 in)

"Full provenance, exhibiting history and ..." This is came up when googled at this site but the page could not be retrieved. So I suppose the painting's been auctioned off by the Gosvernor Antiques Fair. At least this small google catch-line seems to affirm that it's actually a painting, and it tells you the
size. Good, isn't it? If you wish, I could also send you the quotation from the Huxley essay. Maybe you'd like to put it on the page. Yours,

best wishes,

From: Natasha

Yes, I'd love it.


Created 1/30/2006