Helen Saunders: Trailblazing art rediscovered at The Courtauld

3 min


Modernist rebel

Pioneering artist Helen Saunders is described as a trailblazer and a modernist rebel for her approach to painting. 

She is one of the first British artists to pursue concepts around abstraction before her work, sadly, fell into obscurity for years.

Helen Saunders (1885-1963), Vorticist composition (Black and Khaki) c. 1915 Drawing The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © Estate of Helen Saunders

The finishing touches are currently being put on a new exhibition being held at The Courtauld in London. It aims to celebrate the life of this incredible woman who was born in 1885. 

She was one of only two female painters to join the Vorticists – a group is often seen as being radical. The movement was short-lived artistic having emerged into the London scene shortly before the start of the First World War. 

Exhibition organisers say Helen Saunders’ extraordinary drawings reveal her gifts as a colourist and show she had a real ‘knack’ for complex literary allusions. It’s felt she captured the dynamism of modern urban life and the horrors of mechanised warfare. 

In the years that followed the war she turned her back on Vorticism and pursued her own path by working in a more figurative style.

She fell into obscurity through Vorticism’s post-war ‘fall from favour.’ Her decline in popularity was fuelled by the ‘minimisation’ of her contribution to the art world – often by other male Vorticists. She also lost a significant number of her paintings. 

Vital to the story of British Modern Art 

Only in recent years has her work begun to be rediscovered and recognised as a vital piece in the story of British Modern Art.

Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel will be the first monographic exhibition devoted to the artist in more than 25 years. It will showcase a remarkable group of 18 of her drawings and watercolours. 

The Courtauld now houses the largest public collection of Saunders’ work in the world. The drawings trace her artistic development, including glimpses into her early period as an artist through to her work during her Vorticist period.

Helen Saunders (1885-1963) Vorticist composition with Figures, Black and White c. 1915 Drawing The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © Estate of Helen Saunders

There are also landscapes created in L’Estaque in the south of France in the 1920s. They reveal Saunders’ response to her environment and to the art of predecessors who had worked there in earlier times – such as Paul Cézanne and Georges Braque.

The exhibition will be presented in The Gilbert & Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery at The Courtauld from 14 October 2022. It will run until the start of the new year.

Featured Image – Helen Saunders (1885-1963) Vorticist composition, Blue and Green c. 1915 Drawing The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © Estate of Helen Saunders

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