One of the striking things about Vorticism is that amongst its small membership there was a significant number of women artists - Helen Saunders, Dorothy Shakespear and Jessica Dismorr. Kate Lechmere is also included in this list as one of the founders of Vorticism, though her role was primarily as a financial backer to Wyndham Lewis.
Even though few of their works have survived, what remains is a fantastic historical record. Mark Antliff and Vivien Greene the co-curators of our exhibition, have unearthed three previously unseen watercolours by Helen Saunders, which is very exciting. Not only is it unusual to have works by Saunders that are identifiable, the fact that these works have been hidden in a drawer for eighty years means they retain their original brilliant colouring.
Saunders was an active member of the Vorticists. She signed their manifesto and contributed pieces of writing as well as imagery to Blast. Her poem A Vision of Mud was published in the second issue - the ‘War Number’ - of Blast and takes the image of the mud of the trenches to describe a wider sense of foreboding and anxiety.
The sexual politics of The Vorticists were complicated. Like several of the other women associated with the group, Saunders is thought to have been a lover of Lewis.
Helen Saunders’ watercolours have a particular character. (No oil paintings have survived. Brigid Peppin, who is a descendent of Saunders, describes how one of her oils was used by Saunders’ sister to cover her larder floor.) Like Lewis’ paintings, they have a very strong diagonal dimension, but they also have this sense of uncoiling movement - like a flower opening - which gives them a powerful dynamism. You can usually discern figurative roots to them. When you look closely you can see the suggestion of arms, legs, heads and figures.
Chris Stephens is co-curator of The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World and Curator (Modern British Art) and Head of Displays at Tate Britain.