A lost masterpiece by a leading abstract artist of the early 20th century was discovered under a portrait by a contemporary who may have painted over the original in a “pit of pique”.
Atlantic City by Helen Saunders, a member of the radical and short-lived Vorticist movement, depicts a fragmented modern metropolis, almost certainly in the vibrant colors associated with the group. A black and white image of the painting appeared in Blast, the avant-garde journal of the vorticists produced shortly before the outbreak of the First World War.
Almost all of Saunders’ vorticist paintings are thought to be lost, although drawings survive and will be exhibited at the Courtauld Gallery in London in October.
But an examination of Praxitella, a portrait of the film critic Iris Barry by Wyndham Lewis, the founder of the vorticists, by two Courtauld students revealed that it was almost certainly painted on top of Atlantic City.
Because of Praxitella’s uneven texture and flashes of bright red through cracks in the surface paint, scholars have suspected that the 1921 portrait was painted over another work.
The two students, Rebecca Chipkin and Helen Kohn, used X-ray and other imaging technology to examine the painting. They found an abstract composition beneath the portrait that was eventually identified as the hitherto lost Atlantic City.
“We realized this when we changed the image of Atlantic City [in Blast] upside down, it bore striking similarities to the composition seen in our X-ray of Praxitella,” said Chipkin and Kohn. “We were amazed. It took 100 years to rediscover Atlantic City. It gives hope that there are other hidden vorticist paintings waiting to be found.”
Saunders was one of only two women to join the vorticists. “In the pre-war years she was one of the most radical painters and draftsmen in the world. There were only a handful of people in Europe who produced that kind of abstract painting and hard-edged drawings,” said Barnaby Wright, the deputy head of the Courtauld Gallery and a 20th-century specialist.
Vorticism was a literary and artistic movement influenced by Cubism and Futurism, whose artwork typically featured bold colors, hard lines, and sharp angles. The poets TS Eliot and Ezra Pound were among the group’s supporters.
“Saunders was a very interesting figure, but she was largely overshadowed by her male contemporaries. She and Jessica Dismorr were the backbone of the group,” Wright said.
“She became close friends with Wyndham Lewis, they were very close emotionally, but after the war he turned his back on her and it was hard for her to take. One speculative theory is that Lewis painted over Saunders’ work in a fit of rage. It is entirely possible.”
There was not much of a contemporary market for the vorticists’ work, which may have contributed to the movement’s demise. “It was only later that the radical nature of the work was appreciated and celebrated,” Wright said.
The discovery of Saunders’ lost painting was “exciting”, he said, and the result of the students’ “research brilliance”. The Courtauld hopes the find will spark renewed interest in the artist’s work.
The gallery will show Praxitella, on loan from Leeds Art Gallery, alongside the X-ray and partial color reconstruction of Atlantic City as part of its exhibition of 18 of Saunders’ drawings and watercolours, tracing her artistic development.
Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel opens at the Courtauld Gallery on 14 October.