Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

BLAST-pieces (2): some Vorticist colophons

Throughout the two issues of Blast, the Vorticist journal of 1914-5, are scattered small decorative head or tail-pieces that, like standard printer’s motifs, serve to fill in a blank space at the close of an article etc.

Blast 2:47 – design by Dorothy Shakespear

These designs are interesting, in that they condense, contain, and even simplify the often unbounded, map-like expansions of shapes that form larger Vorticist compositions. They are not excerpts from the latter, but are self-contained, without relying on a rectangular frame. (A clear exception is a small rectangular design on page 47 of Blast 2, signed “D S” for Dorothy Shakespear, which, while used as a tail-piece, may not have been intended originally for quite this purpose.) In certain respects they resemble the hand held ornaments or “talismans” of Gaudier-Brzeska, though they are more classically Vorticist than these, by-passing his reliance on “primitive” natural forms.

Their existence raises the interesting issue of Vorticist ornament – though maybe this should properly be thought of as a contradiction in terms? There are antecedents in the motifs used by Wyndham Lewis in his interior decorations for the Countess of Drogheda, though these appear more compact and “African”. The Rebel Art Centre never quite got its act together in competition to the Omega, but what might Vorticist fabrics and lampshades have looked like?

Blast 1:4

The largest design, used once only on page 4 of Blast 1, opposite the “Contents” page, seems separate to the others in its style and intention. This is clearly an announcement – a stylised (almost cartoonish) explosion, a cubistic “blast”, but here the blast is that of an anarchist bomb, rather than the icy blast of the north wind signified by the storm cone motif discussed in my previous post.

The other eight colophons are more of a match. A few of those in Blast 1 had earlier been used on stationery and publications for the Rebel Art centre. One is used twice in Blast 1, while three from that volume are repeated in Blast 2, which also introduces four new designs. All are unsigned. But who drew them? Did Lewis dash them all off himself? Richard Cork (on what evidence?) states that they were “executed by Lewis and others”. (It has to be said that few of them show much resemblance to Lewis’s usual more attenuated style, though the first three shown below are broadly compatible with a similar small design by him used on the cover of the catalogue for the Dore Galleries Vorticist Exhibition of June 1915.) Did he invite a contribution from each of his collaborators? (Maybe not such a practicable process, in the circumstances.) Or are they all or mainly by another hand?

Helen Saunders, ‘Vorticist Composition in Black and White’
© Estate of Helen Saunders

In her write-up for the 1996 catalogue of the Helen Saunders exhibition (Ashmolean and Graves, Sheffield), Brigid Peppin asserts that all the colophons in Blast 2 “are clearly by different artists”, but attributes that on page 16 to the sadly eclipsed and highly under-rated Saunders, on the reasonable grounds of its similarity to some of her known pieces in which overlapping, irregular, trapezoid enclosures fold and unfold. To make the point, the catalogue itself uses as a colophon a similar drawing from the exhibition, listed as no. 10, “Vorticist Composition in Black and White”.

For that matter, it seems to me, none of the colophons in either volume are entirely incompatible with aspects of Saunders’ known work, with the possible exception of the exploding “Blast”. Certainly, those used on 1:125, 1:127, 2:10, 2:14 and 2:16 clearly show approaches that echo aspects of her other work, while they are far less of a match for Hamilton, Roberts, Etchells or Wadsworth.

1:8, 126; 2:82

1:118

1:125; 2:49

1:127; 2:69

2:10

2:14

2:16

2:74

I’d suggest that most (or maybe all) of these were very likely done by Saunders; in her role during the Blast era as unpaid amanuensis and general dogsbody for Lewis, it seems perfectly conceivable that she may have made this important but typically modest contribution. All of these eight small designs are worth leisured consideration. They are not hasty Vorticist doodles: each is in itself a satisfying composition, founded on a separate idea and entirely balanced within the laws of its own development.

Overall, Saunders’ Vorticist work is still easily neglected, and too often assumed to be “derivative”. It’s not easy to appreciate its worth when it is seen piecemeal, as it always is. A fuller view might do her more justice – perhaps a project for a future post.

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