Helen Saunders, a vorticist with a fondness for Cézanne, is finally celebrated with a show in London
The angular figure in Vorticist Composition (Black and Khaki) (circa 1915) by Helen Saunders springs from the barrel of a gun. Unlike some of the pre-war examples of Vorticism – a short-lived but explosive British version of Cubism and Futurism – it seems to evoke the human cost of mechanized warfare rather than glorify it.
Saunders was one of only two women in the band Vorticist alongside a dozen male artists, including its founder Wyndham Lewis, Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The main output of the movement has been two collective exhibitions, one in London, one in New York, and two issues of the magazine, Blast. Saunders was included in both shows and featured her work and writing in the magazine’s second edition, which she distributed from her home in Chelsea, London. (His last name appeared as “Sanders” in an apparent attempt to spare his family any social embarrassment.)
Vorticism died out as the carnage of World War I became a reality, the romanticism of mechanization faded, and many of its members were recruited for the war effort, including Saunders, in a role de bureau, and in particular Gaudier-Brzeska, who wrote a piece from the trenches for the second edition of Blast shortly before being killed.
Born in 1885, to a well-to-do family in Ealing, Saunders studied art at the Slade and the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and exhibited alongside artists from the Bloomsbury Group, including Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.
Although Saunders continued to do work after the war, she took a step back from the art world in a kind of “self-imposed isolation”, according to her descendant, Brigid Peppin, “rejecting professional groupings “. She continues to work, but in a style reminiscent of the Post-Impressionists she admires, particularly Paul Cézanne. The French artist painted several landscapes around L’Estaque in southern France, and four watercolors from the 1920s made during Saunders’ visit to the village are on display, including a geometric painting of Cézanne’s house.
The 18 works in this small exhibition remained in Saunders’ family after his death in 1963 before being donated to the Courtauld in 2016 by Peppin. There have been few exhibitions of the artist’s work since the end of the First World War, a notable exception being a survey at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford in 1996. “The disappearance of much of the early Saunders’ work and lack of biographical information has hampered research and hampered arguments for the artist’s centrality to the Vorticist project,” writes art historian Jo Cottrell in the catalog. , there has been renewed interest, with his work being included in two group exhibitions: Radical women at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester (alongside fellow Vorticist, Jessica Dismorr) in 2019; and last year’s Women in abstraction at the Center Pompidou in Paris.
Three gouaches from the 1917 New York Vorticist exhibition were rediscovered in Chicago in 2009, while the four oil paintings she had shown in London were all considered lost until the recent discovery of one of them under a painting by Wyndham Lewis.
The disappearance of much of Saunders’ early work has hampered research
Jo Cottrell, art historian
Lewis was well known for falling out with many Vorticists, including Saunders. A possible result of this estrangement could be why Lewis painted over Saunders Atlantic City (circa 1915), which she had exhibited in the first Vorticist exhibition. The lost work was found and identified after Lewis’ intervention Praxitelle (circa 1921) was brought into Courtauld’s curatorial unit in 2019, when two students linked the x-rayed image below to an image of Saunders’ work reproduced in Blast. Painting and technical analysis will form a small device accompanying the exhibition, helping to place at the center of the vortex an artist who has literally emerged from the history of art.
• Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel, Courtauld Gallery, October 14-January 29, 2023