Helen Saunders

Portrait of a Woman


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Not on display

Helen Saunders 1885–1963
Graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 344 x 256 mm
Presented by Brigid Peppin 2018


In Portrait of a Woman 1913–14 angular shapes drawn in pencil are used to outline the head and shoulders of a female figure. Watercolour washes have been applied to create shading on the left side of the face and neck, describing the head as a faceted geometric form in which abstract shapes created by shadow seem both to float free of the composition and to model the form. The sitter is the artist’s friend Blanche Caudwell whom she had known since 1908; later in life they shared a flat from 1933 until Caudwell’s death at the end of 1950, and Caudwell became Saunders’ most frequent sitter. Saunders exhibited a painting entitled Portrait of a Woman in the exhibition Twentieth Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in May 1914 and this drawing may be a study for that painting. Saunders’ faceted approach to the figure shows her exploring cubist ideas in a period when she was moving towards abstraction and away from post-impressionism and the circle of artists around Roger Fry (1866–1934) with which she had first exhibited. She had been invited by Fry to show in his exhibition Quelques Independents Anglais at the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris in May 1912, alongside Frederick Etchells (1886–1973), Charles Ginner (1878–1952), Spencer Gore (1878–1914), Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957), Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) and Duncan Grant (1885–1978), but in 1912 she also became friends with the future Vorticists Wyndham Lewis and Jessica Dismorr (1885–1939).

Saunders would become one of the key members of the Vorticist Group although she later claimed that only a few of the Vorticists – Dismorr, Etchells, William Roberts, Edward Wadsworth and Lewis – were known to her personally. In April 1914 Saunders joined the Rebel Art Centre which Lewis founded after his break with Fry and two of her works were selected for the important survey exhibition Twentieth-Century Art: A Review of Modern Movements at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in May 1914. She signed the Vorticist Manifesto published in Blast no.1 in July 1914, contributed designs and a poem to Blast in July 1915, and exhibited in the two Vorticist exhibitions at the Doré Gallery, London in June 1915 and the Penguin Club, New York in January 1917. Between 1915 and 1916 Saunders produced a series of powerful Vorticist compositions which employed a distinctive interpretation of the dynamic geometric language of the movement in the combination of jagged diagonal forms with curved shapes and figurative elements, as seen in Abstract Multi-coloured Design c.1915 (Tate T00624) in which a figure is mounted on a form that resembles a diagonally thrusting rocket. Like other Vorticist artists she returned to figuration after the First World War, working again in a post-impressionist idiom.

Portrait of a Woman is one of a group of works by Saunders in Tate’s collection that were inherited by the artist’s sister Ethel and remained in her family by descent until being acquired by Tate.

Further reading
Richard Cork, Vorticism and its Allies, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council of Great Britain, Hayward Gallery, London 1974, pp.93–4.
Brigid Peppin, Helen Saunders 1885–1963, exhibition catalogue, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and The Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield 1996, cat. no.4, p.44.
Jane Beckett and Deborah Cherry, ‘Modern Women, Modern Spaces: Women, Metropolitan Culture and Vorticism’, in Katy Deepwell (ed.), Women Artists and Modernism, Manchester 1998, pp.46–7.
Mark Antliffe and Vivien Greene (eds.), The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2011, pp.117, 188.

Emma Chambers
January 2018

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