A Modern Masterpiece Uncovered: Wyndham Lewis, Helen Saunders and Praxitella

14 Oct 2022 – 12 Feb 2023
The Project Space

This display in The Courtauld’s Project Space will present an important lost masterpiece by one of the early 20th century’s most radical female abstract artists, Helen Saunders (1885-1963).

In 2019, two Courtauld students, Rebecca Chipkin and Helen Kohn, were researching Wyndham Lewis’s (1882-1957) major modernist portrait Praxitella (1921), on loan from Leeds Art Gallery, as part of a research project at The Courtauld’s Department of Conservation. The painting depicts a portrait of pioneering film critic and curator Iris Barry. Scholars have previously suspected that Lewis painted over an earlier composition, as the surface of the painting has an uneven texture and forms lurking underneath, as well as different colours visible through cracks in the paint layers.

During their six-month technical analysis of Praxitella, the students painstakingly analysed X-rays of the huge canvas, examining the painting’s chemical composition using high-resolution scanning equipment. It was only after they spotted a reproduced image of Atlantic City (c.1915) in Blast, the avant-garde journal of the Vorticist movement, that the students identified the artwork beneath Wyndham Lewis’ painting as one by his friend and colleague Helen Saunders – a fellow member of the radical, short-lived British Vorticist group who was known to have fallen out with him.

All of Saunders’ Vorticist paintings were thought to be lost before now, and this new display will present Lewis’ Praxitella alongside the x-ray and partial colour reconstruction of Atlantic City, as well as a range of technical material to tell the story of this extraordinary discovery.

It is hoped the rediscovery of this major work will spark greater interest in Saunders’ work and the work of other female painters, whose work has historically been overshadowed by their male contemporaries.

To coincide, The Courtauld’s Gilbert and Ildiko Drawings Gallery will stage the first exhibition in over 25 years of Helen Saunders work, featuring a major group of 18 of her drawings that were generously presented to The Courtauld in 2016 by the artist’s relation Brigid Peppin. Thanks to this gift, The Courtauld holds the largest public collection of the artist’s work.


The Mystery of Atlantic City: Helen Saunders’ Secret Painting

Rebecca Chipkin (PG Dip Conservation of Easel Paintings) and Helen Kohn (MA 2020) talk about their discovery of a long-lost Helen Saunders painting which had been concealed for decades beneath a painting by fellow Vorticist Wyndham Lewis.

To read the full article, please view the latest edition of The Courtauld News, Issue 44

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