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Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Jessie Dismorr- Vorticist Streets

At the end of last year, blindly searching through obscure art and literature magazines in the University Library, I made a discovery. Jessie Dismorr. I absorbed every contribution she made to Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist magazine, Blast!, and decided that I wanted to write about women walking in London and that I wanted to write about Dismorr. She brought me the revelation of my dissertation. Six months later and I am still clinging to Jessie but I have found nothing more of her than my first fruitless trip to the library had to offer.

Vorticism was a British avant-garde movement which was formed in 1914. It's manifesto stated that 'The New Vortex plunges to the heart of the present! We produce a new living abstraction!' and it aimed to 'blast' contemporary art by revolutionising it. Interested in the aesthetic of machines Vorticist paintings were about bold lines, striking contrast and powerful abstract shapes. (In June of this year the Tate will open an exhibition of Vorticist work!)

Contribution to Blast! The Engine

A largely neglected Vorticist artist, Dismorr was one of the 'little lapdogs who wanted to be Lewis's slaves and do everything for him' (Kate Lechmere), there was only one other Lapdog, Helen Saunders. There were only two female Vorticists; as a woman Dismorr's contributions and notoriety are limited. There are a few details which keep repeating in my searches; one is that she once stripped naked in the middle of Oxford Street. This makes me love her a lot.

But it is Dismorr's experience of London which really interests me. In a small vignette called June Night she writes of a bus journey with a man called Rodengo who is 'too conspicuous for daylight'. Dismorr escapes the 'unmannerly throbbing vehicle' of the bus to 'take refuge in mews and by-ways'. Her experience of this sudden night-time freedom in the streets is exciting and surreal;

'I wander in the precincts stately urban houses. Moonlight carves them in purity. The presence of these great and rectangular personalities is a medicine. They are the children of collossal restraint, they are the last words of prose. (Poetics your day is over!) In admiring them I have put myself on the side of all the severities. I seek the profoundest teaching of the inanimate. I feel the emotion of related shapes. Oh, discipline of ordered pilasters and porticoes.'

Abstract Composition, 1915

I know that she made contributions to Blast! magazine, and to Axis and Rhythm magazine. I also know that I am not the only person interested in her, but I can count the others on my hand. The first is a man named Quentin Stevenson who is writing a biography of her (which has not yet emerged). The second, Catherine Heathcock who wrote an unpublished PHD thesis on her and has the holy grail, the catalogue of all her work, (my supervisor wants me to write my own catalogue but as an undergraduate I am floundering). And finally, a journalist named Mark Archer, who is the only reason I know about any of these other people because he has made his own desperate pilgrimage for knowledge about Dismorr and has covered all of the tracks that I must now cover. My only problem is that I don't know any magical tricks for finding the email addresses of biographers, former PHD students at unidentified universities and journalists at the FT. So in part this is a kind of appeal, for help!

Here is a brilliant article, and the most information you will find written about Dismorr on the entire internet.


  1. Faith Binckes, "Magazines Modernism and the Avant-Garde: Reading Rhythm 1910-1914", Oxford University Press, 2010, says Catherine Heathcock's PHD thesis (1999) is available at University of Birmingham.

  2. You are absolutely amazing, this is exactly what I need. By the way, how do you feel about the Vorticists in general?

  3. It's interesting, that's why I researched a bit:)I know little about Anglo-Saxon avant-gardes. The pictures you put here reminds me of Russian one. That time being a female artist was very hard (in Japan, too, of course). By the way, Dr. Faith Binckes is English lecturer of Brasenose college, Oxford. His book appears interesting, too.

  4. Amazing post, Francesca. Not only is her story very interesting (certainly one I was not familiar with), but the story unfolding of her admirers searching for lost and buried information is quite beautiful. Good luck!

  5. I was lucky enough to have had coffee with Francesca and found her conversation as enlightening as her blog. I am a convert!

  6. an exhibition held at the Fine Art Society in 2000 of both Jessica Dismorr and her friend Catherine Giles was my introduction to her. There was a catalogue with some biographical stuff (written by Quentin Stevenson), which is available through various bookselles (and have seen it on ebay. Helen Saunders and Dorothy Shakespeare are also fascinating and little heard of contemporaries. Please keep us updated with your progress. I do have copies of original Rhythm magazines (with some lovely illustrations by Dismorr)and 2 watercolours by Dismorr in my colection, which i love.

  7. If you do a search for "dismorr" at you'll find a number of her poems, statements and visuals from The Little Review, as well as several drawings from Rhythm magazine. According to Quentin Stevenson's essay in the catalogue "Jessica Dismorr 1885-1939: Oils, Watercolours and Drawings (London: Mercury Gallery 1974), much of her visual work has been lost: only 3 paintings and 2 drawings survive from her vorticist period. A real pity.

  8. hello! how is your research? i'm really interested in her works
    would be great to read something about her if you published something )

  9. I too am working on a dissertation on the women Vorticists - Dismorr and Saunders.How did your research go in the end? Would be great to share ideas.

  10. The paintings are lovely and so I bet the exhibition too. Your post is great to read. I was wondering why people have different colors of life but still I participated.