After studying for three years with the artist and future social activist Rosa Waugh (1882-1971), Helen Saunders, the daughter of a solicitor, briefly attended the Slade School of Fine Art and later the Central School of Arts and Crafts. From around 1911, a modest allowance enabled her to live independently in London and to practise as a full-time artist. In that year, she participated in the ‘Coronation’ Women’s suffrage march, standing in for one of the seven hundred suffragettes imprisoned by the British government.
In 1914, H. Saunders was a co-founder of the Vorticist group. She signed the Vorticist manifesto in the first issue of BLAST, deliberately misspelling her surname to avoid embarrassing her conventional family. The second issue of BLAST (1915), to which she contributed two drawings, the poem “Vision of Mud”, and probably a tailpiece, was distributed from her flat in Chelsea. She participated in the two Vorticist exhibitions, at the Doré Gallery in London in 1915 and at the Penguin Club in New York in 1917.
H. Saunders’ name has often been linked with that of the Vorticist leader Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957). In late 1915, she collaborated with him on mural decorations, later destroyed, for the Café de la Tour Eiffel in London. Recent research has revealed that W. Lewis’s portrait Praxitella, exhibited in 1921, was painted over H. Saunders’ large abstract composition Atlantic City, which she had shown in 1915 and had illustrated with an ink drawing in the second issue of BLAST. It is not known whether this deliberate obliteration of one of her most ambitious paintings took place with her knowledge or consent.
Artistically, the differences between H. Saunders and W. Lewis were profound. W. Lewis proclaimed his preoccupation with ‘the surfaces of things’, and his work demonstrated a commitment to man-made materials and environments. In contrast, H. Saunders often used the dynamic geometry of the Vorticist language to explore inner experience. The Vorticist Edward Wadsworth (1889-1949) reviewed Wassily Kandinsky’s (1866-1944) concerning the Spiritual in Art in the first issue of BLAST, and H. Saunders seems to have shared W. Kandinsky’s belief in ‘the value of one’s feelings as the only aesthetic impulse’. Her drawing Dance, for example, demonstrates her excited response to the new rhythms of jazz.
Describing herself as ‘solitary by nature’, H. Saunders retreated into relative isolation after the end of the First World War. Remaining in London, she continued to paint, reconnecting with post-Impressionism and the work of Paul Cézanne. Many of her paintings were lost when her flat was bombed in 1940. She seldom exhibited in her later years, and her work remained unrecognized.