The story of a hidden painting, concealed for more than a century beneath one of the city’s most iconic 20th century pictures is being revealed at Leeds Art Gallery.
Praxitella has been part of the gallery’s collection since 1945, and was created by famed British avant-garde artist Percy Wyndham Lewis in around 1921.
Subtle clues including raised paint lines and a series of tiny surface cracks led experts to believe there may be a hidden, second painting underneath it, but with no way of knowing for sure the concealed composition’s true nature remained a mystery.
That was until a recent research project by two students at The Courtauld Department of Conservation in London used specialist X-ray analysis and state-of-the-art technology to reveal for the first time the story behind the artwork which had been a secret for so long.
Their discovery led them to a lost painting of Atlantic City by Helen Saunders, a contemporary of Lewis and fellow exponent of Vorticism, the radical and short-lived abstract art movement active between 1914 and 1917.
Both Lewis and Saunders turned away from the Vorticist style after the First World War and Saunders’ work subsequently became relatively obscure.
It was believed none of her paintings had survived, but the project enabled student researchers Becky Chipkin and Helen Kohn to identify a distinctive work which closely matched a drawing of Atlantic City which had featured in a contemporary publication.
The painting Atlantic City , a keywork by Saunders long thought to be lost, was included in the first exhibition of the Vorticists in London in 1915, and depicts an abstract vision of a modern city filled with the movement’s signature energy and tension.
Whilst it is not known exactly who painted over Atlantic City, the friendship between Saunders and Lewis became strained after the war and it was Lewis who, short of money and materials, reused the canvas for his own piece.
Praxitella is a portrait of Lewis’s then partner, Iris Barry, who was to become a pioneering film critic and went on to co-found the film archive at New York’s MoMA
Things Left Unsaid, a new exhibition open now at Leeds Art Gallery, explores the research project as well as the important role both artists played in Vorticism and the development of modern art as a whole.
Jane Bhoyroo, principal keeper at Leeds Art Gallery, said: “Praxitella has long been one of the most renowned works in the gallery’s collection and is rightly recognised as a hugely important piece in its own right, exemplifying the style and energy which was the hallmark of the Vorticists.
“The discovery of a completely different work beneath it adds a whole new dimension and significance to Praxitella, giving its story even more depth and complexity.
“It also creates the opportunity to discover more about Helen Saunders, a largely forgotten artist who nevertheless played an integral and pioneering role in advancing modern art in the early 20th century.”
Alongside Praxitella a fascinating series of works on paper by Saunders, part of a recent gift to The Courtauld, will be on display in a special loan to Leeds.
Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s executive member for economy, culture and education, said: “The remarkable collection at Leeds Art Gallery is filled with compelling works by artists who have made a huge impact in their respective fields.
“The gallery is not only the home of their artwork, it is also a place where the stories of those artists are told and where our visitors can learn about and engage with the collection. It’s incredible to hear that new discoveries about these artworks are still being made and that thanks to the work taking place behind the scenes, those stories are being enriched.”
Things Left Unsaid is open now at Leeds Art Gallery and is free to visit until November 5, 2023
For more details, please visit: Things Left Unsaid: Percy Wyndham Lewis, Iris Barry, Helen Saunders and the story of Praxitella - Leeds Museums & Galleries