FOCUS: Helen Saunders and the Modern City

Devised by Courtauld Educators Fran Herrick and Nadine Mahoney.

Download the PDF: Helen Saunders and the Modern City


In the years just before and following World War I (1914–18) countries all around the world developed their own modern art movements. A new generation of artists responded to radical changes in how people lived and the role of technology, which the war showed could be both helpful and destructive. They were keen to break with the past and create vibrant visions of the future. Art from this time is often described as abstract: – artists were not concerned about making their artworks look realistic, but rather using shapes, colours and forms that captured the excitement of modern life.

Helen Saunders was at the heart of Vorticism, one of Britain’s most daring, if short-lived, modern art groups. Formed in London in 1914 and led by artist and writer Wyndham Lewis, the group wanted to capture the action and chaos of the modern city. A vortex is like a whirlwind or tornado! The group published their own magazine called ‘Blast’, which suggests an explosion and blowing away the competition. Saunders’s abstract images of the city were key to getting the group’s message across.

Capturing the energy of the city

Saunders’s Vorticist paintings are not supposed to show a particular place or idea, but cleverly bring to mind associations with architecture, stories and human experiences. She used bold colour combinations that had rarely been seen in art before and created a sense of energy with overlapping and interlocking shapes. She sometimes cut out extra shapes and glued them to her works on paper, such as the circle at the centre of Vorticist composition with figures, black and white.

Look closely at the artworks above

  • In each case, which part is your eye drawn to?
  • Can you see any forms that look like people? What might they be doing in each case?
  • What do the other shapes make you think of?
  • Which work feels more dramatic / surprising – the black and white or the colourful artwork?
colourful geometrical shapes lying on a white sheet

Activity: Create a Vorticist cityscape


  • 1 sheet of white A4 paper
  • A few sheets of A4 coloured paper – or any scraps of paper
  • HB pencil
  • Coloured pencils (optional)
  • Scissors
  • Glue stick
a colorful abstract collage with geometrical shapes on a white background

Step 1:

Start by selecting an eye-catching combination of coloured papers. Roughly sketch the outlines of your favourite modern buildings and/or invent your own. Then cut these out.

a colorful abstract collage with geometrical shapes on a white background

Step 2:

Use the remaining scraps of paper to make shapes that suggest explosive energy. Saunders used forms with tight angles and sharp points. Zig-zags, triangles, parallel lines, and geometric shapes repeated at different sizes work well.

a colorful abstract collage with geometrical shapes on a white background

Step 3:

Now it is time to assemble your city collage. Arrange your building shapes on a sheet of white or coloured A4 paper. You do not have to keep to the boundaries of the paper.

You could also try deconstructing your buildings (cutting them up into smaller shapes).

colourful geometrical shapes lying on a white sheet

Step 4:

Stick the buildings down and start adding the abstract pieces that will make your artwork feel full of movement and excitement. You can also add shapes and shading using a pencil.

Activity Variations

Take your collage into 3D. Combine card and recycled materials to add even more texture.
Use a sketch of a Helen Saunders artwork as the basis for your collage.

Further resources