A century-long mystery surrounding one of Leeds’ most iconic 20th-century paintings has finally come to light at the Leeds Art Gallery. Praxitella, a renowned piece created by the celebrated British avant-garde artist Percy Wyndham Lewis in approximately 1921, has concealed a hidden treasure beneath its surface.
Experts had long suspected the presence of a second painting beneath Praxitella, guided by subtle clues such as raised paint lines and minuscule surface cracks. However, the true nature of the concealed composition remained shrouded in uncertainty. That was until two students from The Courtauld Department of Conservation in London embarked on a recent research project, utilising state-of-the-art technology and specialised X-ray analysis to unlock the secrets hidden within the artwork.
The findings of the project unveiled a lost painting entitled Atlantic City by Helen Saunders, a contemporary of Lewis and a fellow exponent of Vorticism—an abstract art movement active between 1914 and 1917. While both Lewis and Saunders moved away from the Vorticist style after World War I, Saunders’ works gradually faded into relative obscurity.
Previously believed to have been lost, Atlantic City was a significant artwork included in the inaugural exhibition of the Vorticists in London in 1915. The painting showcases an abstract vision of a modern city, pulsating with the signature energy and tension of the movement.
The circumstances surrounding the concealment of Atlantic City remain uncertain. However, strained relations between Saunders and Lewis following the war and Lewis’ scarcity of funds and materials likely led him to reuse the canvas, painting over Saunders’ masterpiece with his own creation, Praxitella.
Praxitella, a portrait of Lewis’ then-partner Iris Barry, who later became a pioneering film critic and co-founder of the film archive at New York’s MoMA, has long held a prominent place in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection. Now, with the discovery of a completely different work beneath it, Praxitella takes on a new dimension, adding depth and complexity to its story.
A new exhibition titled “Things Left Unsaid” at Leeds Art Gallery showcases the research project, shedding light on the integral roles both Lewis and Saunders played in Vorticism and the evolution of modern art. The exhibition also features a captivating series of works on paper by Saunders, generously loaned from The Courtauld, providing visitors with a comprehensive view of the artist’s talent.
Jane Bhoyroo, the principal keeper at Leeds Art Gallery, expressed her enthusiasm for the discovery, stating, “Praxitella has always been one of the most renowned works in the gallery’s collection and is rightfully recognised as a significant piece in its own right, exemplifying the style and energy that characterised the Vorticists. The revelation of a completely different work beneath it adds a whole new dimension and significance to Praxitella, deepening its story even further.”
Councillor Jonathan Pryor, executive member for economy, culture, and education at Leeds City Council, commended the ongoing discoveries at Leeds Art Gallery, remarking, “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.”
The exhibition “Things Left Unsaid” is currently open at Leeds Art Gallery, welcoming visitors to explore the captivating story behind Praxitella and the significant contributions of Percy Wyndham Lewis, Iris Barry, and Helen Saunders to the world of art. Admission to the exhibition is free and can be enjoyed until November 5, 2023.