Helen Saunders

Study for ‘Vorticist Composition in Black and White’


Not on display

Helen Saunders 1885–1963
Graphite and ink on paper
Support: 184 × 118 mm
Presented by Brigid Peppin 2018


In Study for ‘Vorticist Composition in Black and White’ c.1915 angular geometric black forms push upwards to the top right of the composition counterpointed by a smaller form at the bottom pushing upwards to the left. Parallel short vertical lines and dashes are used to shade areas of white between the thick black lines. The study is a design for an uncredited tailpiece on page sixteen of the second issue of the Vorticist magazine Blast (no.2, July 1915), which can be attributed to Saunders on the basis of its similarity to this design. The composition is similar to Saunders’s Vorticist Design c.1915 (Tate T15089) in which a series of angular upward pointing and enclosed forms in tones of red, yellow, white and blue are outlined in black on a bi-coloured background of ochre and beige. The forms push upwards diagonally towards the upper right corner of the composition, where they are pierced by a single upright black and white triangular form with a yellow rhomboid form at its base.

Saunders’s work shifted from post-impressionism to draw on cubist influences between 1913 and 1914, and then between 1915 and 1916 she 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. Purely abstract works by Saunders, such as Study for ‘Vorticist Composition in Black and White’, are rarer but she drew several in 1915, perhaps connected to the work that she carried out with Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957) on mural decorations for the ‘Vorticist Room’ at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel in London. The art historian Richard Cork described Saunders’s Vorticist work as ‘a series of remarkable designs which show how much Vorticism enjoyed juxtaposing the most scalding colour oppositions to heighten the controlled structural dynamism of their forms’ (in Hayward Gallery 1974, p.22).

Saunders’s use of geometric elements to create a dynamic force in both Study for ‘Vorticist Composition in Black and White’ and Vorticist Design is characteristic of Vorticist aims to express the dynamism of the modern world through hard-edged imagery derived from the machine and the urban environment. In 1914 Lewis described how the art of the figure would be abstracted to ‘a simple black human bullet’ capturing the geometry and explosive energy that characterised his own and Saunders’s work (Wyndham Lewis, ‘The New Egos’, Blast, no.1, 1914, p.141). In 1913, just before the group was formed, he had stated: ‘All revolutionary painting today has in common the rigid reflections of steel and stone in the spirit of the artist; that desire for stability as though a machine were being built to fly or kill with … [a] realization of the value of colour and form as such independently of what recognisable form it covers and encloses.’ (Lewis 1913, quoted in Hayward Gallery 1974, p.11). Saunders, reflecting later on her role in shaping the visual identity of Vorticism, described its aims as ‘emphasising the fact that shapes and their relationships have a meaning of their own apart from any literary or representational overtones’ (letter to William Wees, 1 September 1962, quoted in Ashmolean Museum, p.45).

In April 1914 Saunders had joined the Rebel Art Centre, which Lewis founded after his break with Roger Fry (1866–1934) and his post-impressionist circle, 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 three designs and a poem to Blast no.2 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. Although she was a key member of the Vorticist movement, Saunders later claimed that only a few its members – Jessica Dismorr (1885–1939), Frederick Etchells (1886–1973), William Roberts (1895–1980), Edward Wadsworth (1889–1949) and Lewis – were known to her personally. In 1962 Saunders described Vorticism as: ‘A group of very disparate artists each working out his [sic] own ideas under the aegis of the Group and its very able leader and publicist Wyndham Lewis.’ (Letter to William Wees, 1 September 1962, quoted in Ashmolean Museum 1996, p.12.)

Study for ‘Vorticist Composition in Black and White’ 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.10, p.45.
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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