Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Helen Saunders: a little gallery

Photographs and all works by Saunders © Estate of Helen Saunders

Inevitably, the work of the “minor” Vorticists is usually exhibited in dribs and drabs, bolted onto the bigger names. Last summer’s Tate show roped in six items by Helen Saunders, which is relatively good going; these included all four “lost” pieces, ex-Quinn, that now reside in the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, one in private hands that has been seen before (though not one of her best), and one from the Tate collection. The Tate has three top quality pieces by Saunders – where were the other two? But curating the rooms as reconstructions of actual exhibitions must have tied down the choices, and I suppose that space is always an issue.

Out of curiosity, I’ve tried here to put together thumb-nails of all the Vorticist period Saunders I can find, just to see what they look like en masse. And they look very good indeed, I think. Only one piece shows any hint of the weaknesses  – “hurried and ill-considered” … careless handling of line” – that Richard Cork shamefully generalised as “female waywardness”  in her work. Her rich and adventurous use of colour (even allowing for the vagaries of scans and photos) comes through very strongly, but her compositions also seem to me to be experimental to the point of edginess, yet without losing their confidence or internal logic. They are also remarkably varied, most being formed around quite distinct ideas.

Saunders by Wyndham Lewis


Saunders by William Roberts

I have included what can be considered immediately pre-Vorticist pieces, which relate interestingly to Wyndham Lewis’s “wild body” period, but nothing earlier or post-Vorticist. Nor have I included the anonymous colophons in Blast that in a previous post I attribute in the majority to her. The ordering is purely intuitive on my part. Titles and dates have long been a matter of speculation: the “c 1915” that has been attached to most pieces is only an assumption, though a fair one, with the earlier items probably from 1913. Titles seem to have been invented and re-invented ad lib by curators, occasionally misleadingly; I have noted variants to try to avoid confusion. Equally confusing are descriptions of materials; one curator’s watercolour is another’s ink or gouache, so I haven’t bothered, except to indicate where the original is black and white – generally Indian ink. I have also listed a few items that have been catalogued but for which I can find no images. The whole thing may need amending when I manage to borrow a copy of Vol 2 of Cork’s Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age, to which I have no access at the moment.

We might regret her wartime eclipse as “Miss S”, long-suffering dogsbody to Lewis and Pound, and the later (let’s be honest) decline of her work is a disappointment. But in bulk, Saunders’s Vorticist work stands in clear demonstration that she has long been under-rated. (Brigid Peppin’s commentary on the women Vorticists is well worth reading in this respect.) In William Roberts’s 1962 reconstruction of The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Saunders and Jessica Dismorr hover in hesitation, relegated to the doorway. That may reflect their status in the eyes of their fellow members at the time, but I’d like to have seen Roberts paint them at the table, lounging with the chaps.

Abstract Art = Abstract Art in England 1913-1915, d’Offay Couper Gallery, 1969

Allies = Vorticism and its Allies, Arts Council of Great Britain / Hayward Gallery, 1974

Peppin = Brigid Peppin, Helen Saunders 1885-1963, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford & The Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, 1996

Pre-Vorticist works

Vorticist Composition with Bending Figure: Allies 71, Peppin 5

Hammock: Peppin 6

Cabaret: Peppin 9

The Rock Drill / Driller: Allies 69, Peppin 7

Female Figures Imprisoned: Allies 70, Peppin 8

These descriptive titles are retrospective, and in some cases speculative. It has been pointed out that the “female figures” may not all or in part be female, in which case the image may not be the feminist statement it has sometimes been taken for. The “rock drill” title is inspired by the drilling(?) action of the right hand figure, but there is no necessary connection at all with Epstein’s sculpture of that name.

Vorticist works

Vorticist Composition in Black: Peppin 10 (b & w)

Vorticist Design / Composition / Black and Khaki ?/ Study for ‘Black & Khaki’: Allies 411, Peppin 12

Atlantic City (reproduced in ‘Blast’ 2 p 57): Allies 416

Black and Khaki has been titled on the grounds of an identification with a work of that name (or a study for the same) exhibited by Saunders in 1915. Atlantic City exists only in reproduction.

Island of Laputa
was thought to exist only in reproduction (as shown here) until the “discovery” of the original. Both that and the study are ion black ink. Gulliver in Lilliput was once wrongly identified as Dance, a piece exhibited at New York in 1917, until the “discovery” of the real Dance, shown below. The Gulliver title is a speculation, based on the  appearance of smaller figures against a giant background figure.

Vorticist Composition (Study for ‘Cannon’?): Vorticist Composition with Figure, Allies 409 ??, Peppin 16

Vorticist Design (Man and Dog / Figures in Conflict): Allies 412, Peppin 14

Vorticist Composition in Blue and Green / Green and Yellow: Allies 410, Peppin 15

The title Study for ‘Cannon’ was attributed on the basis that the image may show a figure fired at by a gun, relating it to a work with that name exhibited at New York in 1917. With the “discovery” of the real Canon (with one “n”, below), it is clear that there is no such relation. A description of item 409 in “Allies” (Vorticist Composition with Figure, not illustrated there) – “a Vorticist automaton … striding like a vengeful agent of destruction across an otherwise abstract picture-surface” – sounds very similar, though the sizes given are not quite the same. Is it the same piece? The speculative titles for Man and Dog / Figures in Conflict derive from differing interpretations of the image; if the figure with teeth is indeed a dog, the painting can hardly be a reaction to the carnage of the Great War, as has been claimed.

Abstract Multicoloured Design: Allies 407, Peppin 17; Tate

Abstract Composition in Blue and Yellow / with Figure in Blue and Yellow: Allies 405, Peppin 22; Tate

Canon: Uny of Chicago

Dance: Uny of Chicago

Balance: Uny of Chicago

Monochrome Abstract Composition / with Ascending Figures: Allies 406, Peppin 21; Tate

The Ascending Figures once ascribed to the very beautiful Monochrome Abstract Composition work much better as human bodies if the image as usually displayed is inverted, as shown here , which is how it was illustrated (and exhibited, presumably) at the 1991 Dynamism show at Tate Liverpool.

Design for a Book Cover / for a Book Jacket. Allies 413, Peppin 19; V&A

Design for a Book Cover / for a Book Jacket. Allies 413, Peppin 19; V&A

Vorticist Composition in Red and Black: Peppin 20; V&A

Vorticist Composition in Red and Black: Peppin 20; V&A

Design for a Book Cover / for a Book Jacket and Vorticist Composition in Red and Black are both in the Victoria & Albert Museum. They are shown here through the kindness of Brigid Peppin. Book Cover was identified by Richard Cork, on account of its dimensions, with the Design for a Book Jacket lent by Saunders for the 1956 Wyndham Lewis Tate exhibition. The element of landscape, with the central form apparently intended to suggest a tree, is unusual.

Red and Black is shown here, at the suggestion of Brigid Peppin, inverted in comparison to how it was exhibited at the Ashmolean in 1996, which makes sense of the composition and reveals the figure at its centre.

Works not pictured here

Vorticist Composition in Black, in black ink. Peppin 11.

A single “Vorticist composition, about 1914” has till recently been listed in the V & A online catalogue, but with no image. This must have been intended for one of the two V&A pieces shown immediately above, and is not a third piece.

In The Burlington Magazine for September 2011 Brigid Peppin makes a most convincing case for the re-attribution to Saunders of the Vorticist oil painting in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection bearing a signature of Edward Wadsworth which appears to be a later addition. The identity of the painting, which can be seen here, had already been questioned by Brian Sewell in his review here of the 2009 Futurism show at the Tate.

13 responses to “Helen Saunders: a little gallery

  1. Victoria December 4, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    Mr. Warren, I am wondering if you might tell me the source of the Helen Saunders photograph you have posted here. I am having great difficulty finding any photographs of her and would be most grateful. Please feel free to email. Thank you

  2. Brigid Peppin January 2, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    Dear Richard Warren, You make some very interesting comments about Saunders (and it’s good to see that my 1996 catalogue is being read!), though I don’t agree with you about the other BLAST tailpieces/colophons! Do take a look at my article in ‘The Burlington’ (Sept 2010, I think) – in which I attribute the Madrid Thyssen’s ‘Wadsworth’ to Saunders. One thing you might not have thought of – it’s just 50 years since Saunders’ death, so her pictures are still in copyright – (another 20 years to go) – I’m currently working on a Saunders Catalogue Raisonne (which will be online one day) and can clarify the copyright position if you email me. Best wishes, Brigid Peppin

  3. Brigid Peppin August 22, 2014 at 11:52 pm

    Hi – yes, I can let you have a copy. It’s not a catalogue raisonne (I’m working on that at the moment) but the catalogue of a retrospective exhibition held at the Ashmolean Museum in 1996.
    Best wishes, Brigid

  4. Biddy September 15, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    Very sorry I didn’t send you a copy (there was a family bereavement and I forgot) – glad you found one on Amazon. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any queries
    Very best wishes

  5. Biddy October 8, 2014 at 11:42 am

    Only as easily identifiable fakes!

  6. Brigid October 25, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    They’re not even remotely like any authenticated work by Helen Saunders!!

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