Helen Saunders was one of the first British artists to pursue abstraction and one of only two women to join the Vorticists, England’s first radical avant-garde group.
She was a progressive female artist with her own ideas about the modern world she lived in.
Vorticist Composition with Figures, Black and White (Around 1915) by Helen SaundersThe Courtauld Institute of Art
Vorticism was a radical literary and artistic movement that opposed 19th-century sentimentality by embracing the dynamic energy, contradiction and humour of modern machinery.
The movement was short-lived, flourishing in England between the years of 1914 to 1915.
Saunders' extraordinary drawings capture both the dynamism of modern urban life and the horrors of mechanised warfare.
This bold, hard-edged composition fills its paper with sharp geometric forms, lines, and angles.
The viewer’s eye is structurally drawn to the centre of the sheet, where a prominent circle can be interpreted as a giant eye or sun.
The circle was actually drawn on a separate piece of paper and glued down onto the composition.
The forms in the lower half of the drawing suggest human figures at the mercy of a colossal machine, undoubtedly referencing the harsh events of the First World War.
In the 1914 Vorticist manifesto BLAST vol. 1, Saunders misspelt her name as 'H. Sanders' to avoid embarrassing her family in accordance with social conventions.
Following the war, she turned from the avant-garde and pursued a more figurative style, eventually falling into obscurity.
As a result, subsequent studies in Vorticism overlooked her work and contributions to the movement.
For a long time, her artistic contributions were overshadowed by her male contemporaries, such as Wyndham Lewis.
It was not until recently that Saunders's work has finally been re-assessed and recognised as a vital contribution to British modernism.
Helen Saunders (1885-1963), Vorticist Composition with Figures, Black and White, 1915 © Estate of Helen Saunders