Sanders’ lost work, titled Atlantic City (ca. 1915), was detected in 2019 by two former Courtauld students beneath another painting: Praxitella, a portrait of film critic and curator Iris Barry by fellow Vorticist Wyndham Lewis. Researchers had long suspected Lewis painted over an earlier composition to create Praxitella, as the painting’s surface was uneven and odd colors were visible through cracks in the paint’s layers.
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According to the Courtland, the students, Rebecca Chipkin and Helen Kohn, undertook an X-ray analysis of Praxitella. Lurking behind the Lewis’s boldly colored figure was a fragmented black and white metropolis that was painted in a style inspired by Cubism. Chipkin and Kohn eventually identified the underpainting after spotting a reproduced image of Atlantic City in Blast, the avant-garde journal of the Vorticist movement.
“We realized 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,” Chipkin and Kohn told the Guardian. “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.”
Saunders was one of two women to join the Vorticists, a group of avant-garde painters and writers active in London in the early 20th century. The artists favored an angular style, bright colors, and urban and industrial subjects. Poet Ezra Pound coined the term “Vorticists,” which Wyndham Lewis, a cofounder, once described such: “You think at once of a whirlpool. At the heart of the whirlpool is a great silent place where all the energy is concentrated; and there at the point of concentration is the Vorticist.”
The movement largely disbanded after World War I, and few paintings from its members survive. Praxitella,on loan from the Leeds Art Gallery, will be displayed alongside the X-ray and partial color reconstruction of Atlantic City in “Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel,” opening at the Courtauld Gallery on October 14.
“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,” the Courtland said in a statement.