William Roberts oil painting of a group of Vorticists at a Parisian restaurant in 1915
William Roberts
The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring 1915 1961–2
Oil on canvas
182.9 x 213.4 cm

The short-lived Vorticist movement was often seen as a predominantly masculine, muscular affair, but as one of the descendents of the group of female painters of the period reveals, their work was equally compelling and innovative – and deserves to be better known today

In 1956 Wyndham Lewis famously stated that “Vorticism was, in fact, what I, personally, did and said at a certain period”. This assertion was immediately disputed in a series of pamphlets by former Vorticist William Roberts, whose subsequent painting The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, Spring 1915 1961–2 presents an alternative to Lewis’s exaggerated claim. He shows five core members of the movement – Cuthbert Hamilton, Ezra Pound, Roberts himself, Lewis, Frederick Etchells and Edward Wadsworth – celebrating the publication of the first issue of BLAST. Two women, evidently not dinner guests, enter behind them. Both are artists who, like their male colleagues, signed the Vorticist manifesto published in BLAST I (1914), contributed to BLAST II (1915) and participated in the Vorticist exhibitions at the Doré Galleries in London in 1915 and the Penguin Club in New York in 1917. Jessica Dismorr (1885–1939), who was independently wealthy, holds a purse; Helen Saunders (1885–1963) carries a copy of the journal, the second issue of which was published and distributed from her flat. Despite their close involvement (closer in fact than that of Etchells, who did not sign the manifesto), Roberts positions them as marginal figures. The painter Dorothy Shakespear (1886–1973), who was to contribute to BLAST II, is not shown.

Dismorr and Saunders were as thoroughly trained, and could lay claim to as much professional recognition, as the other founding members of the Vorticist group. Dismorr had studied at the Slade and at the Atelier la Palette in Paris under Jean Metzinger and JD Fergusson, and exhibited in Paris and in London with the Scottish Fauves before joining Vorticism’s launching pad, the short-lived Rebel Art Centre, in 1914. Saunders had studied for three years with Rosa Waugh (Slade-trained and a former pupil of Gwen John), before briefly attending the Slade and later the Central School of Arts and Crafts. She exhibited in London and Paris from 1912, and was favourably noticed in reviews by Roger Fry and Clive Bell.

The Futurist C.R.W. Nevinson, discussing the formation of the Rebel Art Centre with Wyndham Lewis, is reputed to have said: “Let’s not have any of those damned women.” In fact, the centre was financed by Lewis’s then lover, the Cubist painter Kate Lechmere. She paid three months’ rent for the premises, made the soft furnishings and played a crucial role in the genesis of Vorticism by lending Lewis £100 towards printing the first issue of BLAST. Though “blessed” in the journal, she did not sign the manifesto, and was later to describe Dismorr and Saunders (to art historian Richard Cork) as “little lap dogs who wanted to be Lewis’s slaves and do everything for him”. By 1915 she had distanced herself from both Lewis and Vorticism, and no painting by her is known to survive.

Vorticism would be ignored by art historians for more than 50 years, and during this period important works by nearly all of the movement’s participants were lost. Only two Vorticist paintings by Dismorr survive (both are in the Tate Britain exhibition); two others are known from black-and white reproductions in BLAST II. She had suffered a serious breakdown after working in the Voluntary Aid Detachment during the First World War, and it has been suggested that her Vorticist paintings and drawings were destroyed after her suicide in 1939 by her executor, who thought they revealed symptoms of insanity. Saunders’s immediate family (she was a cousin of my grandmother) was similarly unappreciative: a Vorticist oil was used by her sister to cover her larder floor and worn to destruction. However, 22 of her works on paper from c.1913 to 1915 are currently known, many of them discovered after her death at the bottom of an oak chest. A drawing and three paintings that she contributed to the Vorticists’ New York exhibition were recently discovered in Chicago by ‘The Vorticists’ curator Mark Antliff, having been presumed lost since their purchaser John Quinn’s death in 1927. These will now go on public display for the first time since 1917.

When art historians began taking renewed interest in Vorticism in the late 1960s, Lewis’s work provided the yardstick by which all the group’s painting was judged. He was, after all, the movement’s most forceful advocate and most prolific artist. Vorticism, as he conceived it, was essentially masculine in character – a line swallowed by later critics, one of whom even questioned whether the “feminine temperament” was capable of sustaining the degree of aggression necessary to create a convincing Vorticist work of art. Contemporaries and many later writers assumed that Dismorr and Saunders painted under Lewis’s influence, allowing their artistic voices to be dominated by his. The Tate exhibition, mounted in a less prejudiced age, should finally disprove his assumption.

Of Dismorr’s two surviving Vorticist works, EdinburghCastle 1914–15 connects with Lewis’s drawings in only one respect, in that the castle’s structure resembles metallic plates. The other, Abstract Composition c.1915, is original and distinctive. Its subtly coloured solid architectural forms seem to float in non-gravitational space, in a quiet but uncompromising interpretation of Vorticist ideas which were to sustain her in later abstract works such as Related Forms 1937 in the Tate collection. In the inter-war years, she maintained her commitment to the avant-garde, and as a member of the Seven and Five Society and the London Group exhibited flattened Byzantine-influenced portraits, simplified landscapes and further abstract paintings.

For Saunders, art making became a private pursuit after the end of Vorticism. She seldom exhibited professionally, though she continued to work throughout her life, returning to the freely painted representation of her pre-Vorticist years, while retaining elements of Vorticist structure. Her later professional invisibility made it easy to discount her contribution to the movement, and her close association with Lewis (she worked with him on murals at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel, acted as his unpaid secretary when he was away at the front and probably saved his life by arranging for his hospital admission when he developed pneumonia) rendered her particularly vulnerable to suggestions that her paintings echoed his. Certainly, she utilised the hard-edged geometry that was shared by all the Vorticist painters, with its insistent and sometimes jagged diagonals and overlaps. However, the Chicago rediscoveries present her Vorticist practice in a new light. Unlike her other survivals, they are works that she chose to exhibit, showing that she regarded them as finished and that she was prepared to stand by them. They are among her most striking and individual paintings.

Lewis’s works, demonstrating his interest in the “surfaces of things”, are in tune with what he described as “the cheerfully and dogmatically external doctrine of Vorticism”; those by Saunders, on the other hand, show little concern with external surfaces. She did not have to look far for other ideas. An article titled “Inner Necessity” by Edward Wadsworth, published in BLAST I, reviews and summarises Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. While Kandinsky’s “insistence on the value of one’s feelings as the only aesthetic impulse” seems diametrically opposed to Lewis’s Vorticist stance, it comes close to describing Saunders’s position. Some of her Vorticist paintings and drawings may be entirely abstract, but others indicate the presence of figures, and these in particular suggest that she shared Kandinsky’s belief in the importance of inner feeling. This quality distinguishes her paintings from those of Lewis. An early example is her proto-Vorticist Hammock c.1913–1914, where a nude, probably a self-portrait, with contorted hands suggesting extreme misery is suspended in what appears to be a winding sheet or shroud. This unexhibited pen and watercolour drawing may be expressive of her situation at that time, strung out between the values of her deeply conventional family and those of the radical avant-garde with which she had chosen to align herself.

Similar tensions are evoked in the rediscovered Balance and Dance both c.1915, where a sense ofintense emotion is generated by means of Vorticist zigzags and diagonals, as well as by juxtapositions of strong and unexpected colour. It may indeed have been Saunders’s inventive use of colour that prompted Lewis, whose particular strength was as a draughtsman, to enlist her help in executing the mural decorations at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel. Many of Lewis’s early works used a very limited palette, and it would not be surprising if the forceful colour of his oil paintings Workshop c.1914–15 and The Crowd c.1915 – both included in ‘The Vorticists’ – were the result of Saunders’s influence.

Shakespear’s connection with Vorticism followed her marriage to Ezra Pound in April 1914. A highly accomplished self-taught watercolourist, she viewed herself as an amateur, although she practised throughout her life. A drawing, Snow Scene, a tailpiece and an abstract illustration for a publisher’s announcement of Pound’s work appeared in BLAST II, and she also designed Pound’s book covers. She did not, however, sign the Vorticist manifesto, or exhibit with the group.

Though apparently excluded from Vorticist dinners, Shakespear recalled that she and Pound “often went to the ‘Rebel Art Centre’ to WL’s tea meetings and I watched it all with deep interest. I certainly never had any ‘lessons’ from him, but the movement came just as I needed a shove out of the Victorian”. Lewis “caught me painting one day – said it was too tight – ‘do something more free’. The only time he ever criticised me”. Her jewel-like abstract watercolours and economical black-and-white designs show the impact of Vorticist ideas, and seem to anticipate the Art Deco style of the 1920s.

In their exhibition The Vorticists, curators Mark Antliff and Vivien Greene set out to show how the Vorticist writers, painters and sculptors, and those closely associated with them, addressed their publics in London and New York. The exhibition celebrates the participants’ heterogeneity, presenting – in Saunders’s words – “a very disparate group of artists, each working out his own ideas under the aegis of the Group”. It also demonstrates that the women Vorticists – Dismorr, Saunders and Shakespear – were able, each in her own way, to develop a personal Vorticist language, and so make a significant independent contribution to the movement.