Students discover lost Vorticist masterpiece under painting by her contemporary

A masterpiece by pioneering Vorticist artist Helen Saunders (1885-1963) has been discovered hidden underneath a work by fellow Vorticist member Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957). Despite her success as one of the first British artists to pursue Abstraction, Saunders’ work had fallen into obscurity and nearly all her paintings lost.

In 2019, Courtauld students Rebecca Chipkin and Helen Kohn began investigating a portrait called ‘Praxitella’, painted by Lewis in 1921 of the film critic Iris Barry (1895-1969). Scholars had previously suspected that Lewis had painted over another composition as glimpses of red could be seen through cracks in the uneven surface. By using X-ray and other imaging technology, the two students uncovered ‘Atlantic City’, a fragmented modern metropolis. It was dated to 1915 after a reproduction was spotted in Blast journal.

We realised that when we turned the image of Atlantic City [in Blast] upside down, it had striking similarities with the composition seen in our X-ray of Praxitella,” said Chipkin and Kohn. “We were flabbergasted. It has taken 100 years to rediscover Atlantic City. It gives hope that there are other hidden vorticist paintings waiting to be found.

The radical and short-lived modernist movement, known as Vorticism, was founded in London by Lewis on the eve of the First World War in 1914. Saunders was one of only two women in the avant-garde group, which rejected Victorian artistic traditions for abstract, geometric styles.

Saunders was a really interesting figure, but she was largely overshadowed by her male contemporaries. She and Jessica Dismorr were the backbone of the group,” explained Barnaby Wright, deputy head of the Courtauld Gallery.

After the war, Lewis abruptly abandoned his friendship with Saunders and possibly painted over ‘Atlantic City’ out of spite. Although most of Saunders’ paintings have been lost, many of her drawings survive and will be displayed at the Courtauld Gallery from 14 October 2022 to 29 January 2023.

We hope our findings will spark more interest in Saunders’ work and the work of other female Vorticist painters,” remarked Chipkin. “It also gives hope that there are other hidden Vorticist paintings waiting to be found.”

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