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)

Category Archives: Helen Saunders

Some crap Vorticist forgeries

Hardly a revelation that enterprising eBayers have hit on modernist art as a rewarding field for forgery; after all, if a child of five could do that, it should be simple enough for you and me. And so the eBay art listings are spammed to overflowing with drawings by Picasso, Cocteau etc, “in the manner of” or simply sans provenance, a few with a hint of skill, but most hilariously inept. (Though Lowry is a gift for the amateur pasticheur, given that he did draw like a five year old. Fake Lowries probably outnumber all the rest put together.) It’s doubtful that buyers are fooled any longer; more that they hope that their friends might be fooled when they see it on the wall.

Fancy a Bomberg for £50? Vorticism looks a doddle, given that all you need is a sharp pencil and a decent ruler. I’ve noticed these four in recent weeks (click on them to enlarge) – a “Bomberg” drawing and oil, a “Saunders” watercolour and a “Lewis” drawing. The “Bomberg” drawing wouldn’t fool the mythical five year old, but the other three – all by the same hand, as the digital gold frames indicate – show a superficial familiarity with their targets. But the babyish primary colours of the “Saunders” hardly do justice to her skill as a colourist, and the composition, which attempts to employ her typical boxed shapes, is neither dynamic nor convincing. The “Lewis” pastiches some familiar shapes in the lower half, but the composition unravels towards the top, where shapes fight against the general movement. In the “Bomberg” oil, positive and negative shapes seem oddly out of proportion with each other. One could go on. Hah! Not quite so easy, is it?

With such weaknesses, are these remotely dangerous? You wouldn’t think so, but looking at what some top auction houses get away with these days …

(More Vorticist forgeries in the follow up here.)

Four Vorticistic pieces

More of Helen Saunders

Design for a Book Jacket small

© Estate of Helen Saunders

My Helen Saunders gallery, which seems to get more hits than any other page these days, has been extended by the addition of images of the two fine Saunders pieces in the Victoria & Albert, thanks to the kindness of Saunders authority Brigid Peppin, who in the meantime has sorted out the confusion in the HS entries in the V&A online catalogue. I’ve also put in a reference, with links, to the dodgy Wadsworth oil in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, of which Brigid has made an excellent case for an attribution to Saunders. All down at the bottom end of the page. The more Saunders we see, the stronger her work appears in its totality. And how humane and life-affirming it seems too, compared for example to the colder, more cerebral Vorticism of Wadsworth.

Good to see a single Saunders from Chicago, Canon, currently in the MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction show, as on the exhibition website here. Though the gigantic “social networking” diagram produced for the show is a bit problematic, to say the least, given that it is restricted to artists selected for exhibition and to proven face-to-face contacts or direct correspondence – two pieces of filtering that rather distort the actual nature of “influence”. Wyndham Lewis, in particular, looks unfairly marginalised in the process. But that’s nothing unusual.

Herbert Read, Vorticist painter?

Browsing the pavement slab-sized catalogue for the RA’s 1987 British Art in the 20th Century exhibition, I was surprised to come across this, in an essay by Andrew Causey, on Herbert Read, critic, educator, be-knighted anarchist and retailer of modernisms:

“For a brief moment Read had been a Vorticist-influenced painter and an admirer of Lewis, and had declared an early allegiance to Nietzsche. He laid heavy stress … on Expressionism. For Read this was … a recurrent Northern trait …”

Nietzsche, Expressionism and Northernism, OK. And though their later relations appear to have been somewhat – er – rocky, it’s true that Read and Lewis were in cahoots from around 1917. But Read a “Vorticist-influenced painter”? Read’s “brief moment” as such must have been very brief, as I can’t find any sign of it. Or of Read as any kind of painter, come to that. But I’d be fascinated by any evidence to the contrary.

naked warriorsAmong other things contributed by Lewis to Read’s and Frank Rutter’s short-lived review Art and Letters, was a cover design for the Winter 1918-19 issue, shown by Walter Michel in his magnum opus on Lewis (Michel 260). In late 1918 Lewis agreed to do 8 or 10 small drawings for Read’s book of poems Naked Warriors, to be published by the Beaumont Press. But this didn’t happen, Lewis writing to Read that “people like [Cyril Beaumont] arouse all my worst passions.” Instead, he offered “a stamp or design such as Art and Letters has for its cover, I should be delighted to do it free of charge.”

In the event, Naked Warriors appeared in 1919 under the Art and Letters imprint, with the very same cover motif that Lewis had already provided to the review. Could the appearance of this rather fine design above Read’s name be the origin of the notion that he had once been a Vorticist painter? Or is there something else I’ve missed?

Amazingly, an Amazon search for Naked Warriors brings up the inscribed copy sent by Read to Lewis (no longer for sale). Blimey.

Arnold Auerbach, Vorticist sculptor?

auerbachIn his piece on modern British sculpture in the same RA catalogue, Richard Cork hailed Vorticist Head by Arnold Auerbach as “a belated homage to the movement,” bracketing its maker in with Epstein, Atkinson and Dobson. This piece (or one of its edition) had popped up the year before in a Fine Art Society revisionist survey of British sculpture between the wars, dated rather broadly as “c 1920 – 1930”. One is entitled to ask: Arnold who? No relation to painter Frank, Arnold Auerbach (1898-1979) turns out to have been a Liverpool born etcher, architectural sculptor and teacher, usually of naturalist or neo-classical inclination, who dallied for a while in the ‘twenties with a pseudo-cubist Deco style. This work is skilful, pleasing and very much of its period, but it isn’t Vorticist. At best, it is a folk memory of Vorticism, akin to, and contemporary with, the retro-Futurism of the Grosvenor School lino cuts of Claude Flight and others. Though these do suggest that somewhere, at another level to the avant-garde, there were postwar currents working in quite different directions to the neoclassical return to order. (Just how much of a informed, conscious absorption of Vorticism was there in the succeeding generations of British artists? Certainly in the case of Merlyn Evans, though that’s another story.) Vorticist Head is elsewhere called Mechanised Head; was there an opportunist tweaking of the title somewhere along the way?

The remarkable rediscovery of David Wilde

david wildeHere’s something you don’t see every day: the recent emergence of a considerable cache of paintings, many said to be influenced by Vorticism, by a previously unrecognised British painter whose earlier career was in erotic illustration, and who died in mysterious circumstances while preparing an exposé of secret societies. But such is the story of David Wilde (1913-74, or 1918-78 in some sources), born Norman Shacklock, as told in the 2011 monograph by Chris Kirwan, David Wilde: Manchester’s Hidden Artist:

” … it was possibly the artist and writer Wyndham Lewis who had an early influence on Wilde’s painting style … Vorticism is evident in some of Wilde’s landscapes, where geometric shapes lean into the centre of the picture … There is, in Wilde’s work, some of the alienation or mechanical dystopia usually associated with Lewis’ paintings and with his prophetic attack on the way modern life was evolving in the early part of the twentieth century.

Wilde’s work is also akin in some aspects to another member of the Vorticist movement, David Bomberg. There is a similar kaleidoscopic energy …”

To be honest, the influence, such as it is, is very much diffused, Wilde’s “Vorticism” generally consisting of multiple shards of flat, gaudy, primary colour, suggesting rock formations or architectural elements, that topple into the composition in a more or less disorganised way, but serve as prominent signifiers of modernism. Wilde canvases – tipped as an investment here – are said to have been selling strongly at various galleries and auction houses specialising in “Northern art”, and turn up even on Ebay.

It’s quite a story! But all most convincingly documented, along with Wilde’s poetry, his collages of Marilyn Monroe and so forth, in Mr Kirwan’s book  and on the galleries’ websites …

A little gallery for Helen Saunders

Rounding off a recent preoccupation with Vorticism, here (or via the tab above) is a thumbnail gallery of all the Vorticist pieces I can find by the annoyingly under-rated Helen Saunders, mentioned in a couple of recent posts. We usually come across her work in two’s and three’s, but assembled in bulk (or at least as much bulk as I can manage) it certainly impresses, though surviving pieces can only be a fraction of what she actually produced.

A great colourist, and clearly (at that period) a woman for the Machine Age.

Images © Estate of Helen Saunders

Wyndham Lewis on ShagTree

Amazing what Google can throw up. And what some “entertainment” sites can generate. While trawling for references to Vorticist artist Helen Saunders (see previous post), I was delighted to find that Wyndham Lewis has his own page on ShagTree.com, a site (for people who need to get out more often) that documents “celebrity relationships and dating details” in six degrees of separation (though separation may be the wrong term here), with particular reference to drug habits and STD’s. Lewis’s page gives options for Helen Saunders (as shown below) whom he certainly was knocking off, Kate Lechmere (ditto), Beatrice Hastings (ditto) and Jessie Dismorr (not as far as I know). The list could be considerably extended over a longer time frame, I imagine.

The automatically selected small ads (“Want to meet mature singles?”, “shocking free horoscope”) seem apposite enough, though I’m not so sure about the offers of tree surgeons in Maidenhead, Luton or Stevenage. Well, Maidenhead maybe …

Also, they haven’t quite got Lewis’s age right for the time of this liaison.

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.