The opening of the Vorticist room in the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at number 1 Percy Street was greeted in 1916 with the headline: “Perils of a West End Restaurant.” For modernist artist Helen Saunders those perils included the virtual cancelling of her creative contribution to the room by the radical art group’s unofficial leader, Percy Wyndham Lewis. Happily, a brilliant exhibition at London’s Courtauld Gallery (ends 29 January 2023) has done an excellent job of restoring Saunders’ surviving work to the light of day. Sadly this doesn’t include her input to the Vorticist room. In the 1930s the Eiffel Tower went bankrupt and its contents were auctioned in 1938.
The Eiffel Tower Restaurant had been opened in 1910 by Austrian chef Rudolf Stulik, and it soon became a favourite haunt of aristocrats and bohemians alike. The latter set included writer and painter Wyndham Lewis, who didn’t have to travel very far to eat there. At the time he was living in Percy Street itself, at number 4. Later he set up home, and studio, at 18 Fitzroy Street.
Life was never so straightforward for Helen Saunders, who was born in 1885 into a comfortable middle-class family in Bedford Park, North-West London. From 1903 to 1906 she attended a teaching studio for women set up in Ealing by the artist Rosa Waugh. Later she took classes at the Slade and the Central School of Art, where she began to immerse herself in the principles of Post-Impressionism pioneered in Britain by Roger Fry, founder of the Omega Workshops in Fitzroy Square. By 1912 Saunders was showing her work in exhibitions organised by London’s avant-garde, alongside artists like Fry and Vanessa Bell. She had also by 1912 become friends with Wyndham Lewis. By that time, she had left the parental home, “to spare her family embarrassment”, and for the next few years she enjoyed a bohemian and far less affluent existence in a succession of rented rooms. In 1919 she was living at 49 Maple Street.
Saunders’ drawings and water colours illustrate beautifully her move into “hard-edged abstraction”, executed with skill and dynamism. In leading the eye away from the margins and into the turbulent centre of the compositions, these pieces vividly demonstrate why Saunders became involved in the Vorticist movement, which she helped Lewis to found in 1914. The Vorticists were looking to immerse their viewers in the realities of rapid industrialisation, and to this end they celebrated the machine as a potent symbol of modernity.
The artist William Roberts was associated with the Vorticists, and his painting in Tate Modern provides us with an imaginative reconstruction of one of their gatherings at the Eiffel Tower restaurant. Wyndham Lewis presides at the centre, third from the right of the seated figures, wearing a fedora hat; while Helen Saunders stands at the left in the doorway — we might say that she has been marginalised, along with the other woman member of the Vorticists, Jessica Dismorr. The proprietor Rudolph Stulik is in attendance on the right, serving a piece of cake. Champagne glasses are much in evidence, but the cake is the only food in sight. Painter and architect Frederick Etchells, seated second on the right, is holding the first volume of the short-lived Vorticist magazine Blast!.
Little is known today about the wall panels painted by Lewis and Saunders which once decorated an upstairs room at the Eiffel Tower. But a number of writers and artists of the time do mention them briefly, so there are a few things to go on. The article published in The Pall Mall Gazette on 15 January 1916 under the headline “Perils of a West End Restaurant” refers to “a frieze of dazzling blue and gold”; and it’s thought that this pencil, chalk and watercolour piece by Saunders, now in the Tate, may represent one of her designs for the room. Later there was a tendency to credit Wyndham Lewis with the entire scheme of decoration, but we know from other sources that Saunders collaborated with him on the design and on the execution.
As a movement Vorticism did not survive the First World War, perhaps in part because the machines which these artists had embraced so vividly had proved to be quite horrific in their impact. People were looking for something altogether calmer and greener in their living rooms. Saunders herself took up a more naturalistic style, and distanced herself from affiliations within the competitive and male-dominated art world. The close friendship between Saunders and Lewis also came to an end, and in the spring of 1919 there was a serious rupture. The pair may have been lovers, though we cannot be sure; but Saunders certainly experienced a period of depression after their estrangement, while Wyndham Lewis seems to have become angry and vindictive.
Saunders never stopped drawing and painting, and she continued to live quite close to Fitzrovia. In 1933 she moved with a friend to 10 John Street in Holborn. When this was bombed in 1940 many of her paintings were lost; and she found new lodgings on Great Ormond Street and later at 39 Gray’s Inn Road. She was still living there when she died in 1963. By this time her revolutionary work was virtually unknown. Wyndham Lewis, who had died in 1957, contributed — quite deliberately it seems — to this obliteration.
Unfortunately the Courtauld exhibition which throws such a brilliant new light on Saunders’ achievements ends on 29 January. But we have till 12 February to view the outline of another of her large-scale abstract works, Atlantic City, which Wyndham Lewis appears to have painted over when he needed a canvas for his Praxitella, a portrait of one of his mistresses. Rebecca Chipkin and Helen Kohn, two postgraduate students at the Courtauld, have recently discovered the Saunders work hidden beneath its thick uneven paint. The identity of the hidden painting has been clinched by comparing it with a black-and-white print of Atlantic City which was published in Blast. The story is an exciting one, enriched by a reconstruction in colour of the Saunders original. Congratulations to all at the Courtauld for a truly enlightening experience.
Helen Saunders: Modernist Rebel, until 29 January 2023, at the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery; A Modern Masterpiece Uncovered: Wyndham Lewis, Helen Saunders and Praxitella, until 12 February 2023, at The Project Space. The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN.