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The Shock of the Old – Scottish Review of Books

Roland Penrose: The Life of a Surrealist

James King
Edinburgh University Press, £30, ISBN 978-1474414500,  PP328
by Tiffany Jenkins

The Shock of the Old

August 10, 2016 | by Tiffany Jenkins

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer becomes an artist after he transforms a failed barbecue pit into a much-admired objet d’art. Seeking inspiration he visits the local museum where he falls asleep. Finding himself in a surreal dream sequence, he wanders about in a world filled with melting clocks.

The elongated and oozing timepieces are lifted from the painting The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali. This once avant-garde artwork is now so much a part of our visual landscape, together with the cultural movement with which is it associated, that references to it can feature in an admittedly highbrow cartoon without requiring any supplementary information.

 The liquefying clocks were probably intended by Dali to be a recognizable image placed in an unfamiliar context, rendered in an unfamiliar way, perhaps to suggest the unreliability of time, and as a consequence disturbing. Seventy years later, the image has been appropriated by popular culture and is the poster of choice for the bedrooms of students; as an undergraduate, Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross took pride of place on my wall, a selection that was, even then, influenced by the pretensions that the painting was superior to the other more obvious Surrealist work: the runny clocks were a cliché.

Such is the general impression of Surrealism: it was cool for a while, but ultimately consisted of a thin political and conceptual content; that it is striking visually but immature. Today, much of the work appears derivative and dated; suitable for rock album covers or inspiration for advertisers, but tired. Surrealism seems to have lost the power it had to disturb.

 The movement deserves a reappraisal. Such an opportunity is presented by the superb Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, which brings together surrealist works from four significant private collections; those of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. It offers a fresh overview of Surrealism, featuring work by René Magritte, Man Ray, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dali, including his Mae West Lips Sofa, alongside the artists who inspired them: Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso.

The aim is to look at the way Surrealism was collected by individuals who knew and were close to many of the artists; how they took an active role in promoting and supporting them; and the impact they had on museum collections. The National Galleries of Scotland own a world-class collection of surrealist art and owe some of their finest and most popular exhibits to the collecting activities of Penrose and Keiller, a shy golfer, passionate about the literary aspect of the movement, who compiled a fantastic library and archive of rare books and manuscripts. Public art collections are often based on the decisions of private collectors whose influence years later is forgotten, rendered invisible. A few, like Peggy Guggenheim, may be well-known names, but others are eclipsed by famous artists who get most of the glory. This exhibition quite rightly writes them back into history.

Surreal Encounters illustrates the importance of collaboration between the collector and the artist; these collectors did more than just buy the finished picture, they shaped taste and engaged in the ideas of the movement. The relationship between Edward James and Magritte and Dali resulted in some of their most important work: Magritte’s La Reproduction Interdite, which evokes the mystery that lies in everyday visible reality, and is considered to be a portrait of James even though it is just of the back of his head, and Dali’s Lobster Telephone.

Of all collectors in this exhibition, it was the English Quaker and painter Roger Penrose who was the most active in the movement and responsible for its introduction into the United Kingdom. Alongside the art critic Herbert Read and the patron Peter Watson, Penrose was responsible for acquainting the British public with the avant-garde movements that were shaking up the continent. Of the three, there was until now no biography of Penrose, even though he was the most influential and his life, most colourful. Fortuitously, James King an American-born academic, whose other books are lives of Penrose’s friends, the artist Paul Nash, and Herbert Read, has addressed the gap with an erudite and timely biography that documents Penrose’s life, his art and influence on the art world, and his great and many loves.

One reason that Penrose may not be as recognised as he should be is that his second wife was the photographer Lee Miller, who eclipsed him in artistic talent and fame. Their passionate love affair is the emotional heart of King’s book Roland Renrose: The Life of a Surrealist. Penrose and Miller met at a surrealist party in 1937, going to bed together soon after. Swept off his feet, Penrose wrote to her the following day: ‘I have slept and woken at last from a dream.’ Both were still married, Penrose to French surrealist poet, Valentine Boué; Lee to Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey.  They agreed not to hold each other to monogamy, both taking other lovers, talking about them with astonishing candour; in one letter Penrose told Miller that his latest girlfriend occupied their bed ‘so differently [to Lee] that I almost feel ashamed to make love with her’.

Though Penrose’s love life and artistic taste may not have been conventional, his upbringing was. He was born in 1900, a Quaker, into wealthy banking family, and educated at Cambridge. After graduating, he escaped Britain for Paris ‘with a cry of delight’. Leaving behind a ‘well-ordered life of soft carpets, fat woolly cats, porridge, roast beef for Sunday lunch and family prayers’, he aimed to become a painter during the early days of the Surrealist movement. ‘I was born again,’ he exclaimed in his autobiography, Scrap Book.

Penrose, King explains, ‘adopted surrealism as a style of art and as a mode of life’.  He was not a surrealist in the way the movement’s leader André Breton was.  For Breton, King writes, ‘surrealism was a political movement which found expression in works of art; for Penrose, surrealism was a style of life that he attempted to encapsulate in his art’. He said that he never set out to build a collection, but that it ‘collected itself’. He was in France pursuing a career as an artist, when, in 1926, he saw Max Ernst’s set of drawings. Histoire Naturelle, an encounter he compared to waking up in a new country. In due course he acquired work by Picasso (of whom in 1958 he wrote the first comprehensive biography), René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Paul Delvaux, Dorothea Tanning, Yves Tanguy, Eileen Agar, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore. His eye was brilliant, though he often sold pieces to fund other artistically related activity.

Penrose continued to paint but devoted much of his time and energy to collecting and promoting surrealism. ‘I knew I would never attain the stature in the arts of my brilliant surrealist friends,’ he said, so he tried ‘to bring about a wider appreciation of the poets and painters who had inspired me’. In 1935 Penrose returned to Britain to organize the International Surrealist Exhibition, designed to put surrealism on the map in the UK. At its opening a year later, Breton gave a speech dressed from head to toe in green, smoking a green pipe. Dylan Thomas offered guests teacups full of boiled string, asking: ‘Do you like it weak or strong?’ The organizers were serious about their apparent frivolity. ‘Do not judge this movement kindly,’ wrote Herbert Read, in the catalogue. ‘It is not just another amusing stunt. It is defiant – the desperate act of men too profoundly convinced of the rottenness of our civilization to want to save a shred of its respectability.’ The press was fascinated, the critics divided, and 30,000 people visited during its three-week run.

 Penrose was the only Englishman, King posits, to ‘embrace surrealism over a long period of time’. ‘Only in his life can the various threads of that movement its influence in Britain be seen.’ Penrose opened the London Gallery on Cork Street in 1937, exhibiting Henry Moore as well as the surrealists, and he was instrumental a year later in bringing to Britain, Picasso’s Guernica. And together with Read he co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London after the Second World War.

So knowledgeable is King, he appears unable to decide what the reader doesn’t need to know. We have to wade through peripheral details: names of housekeepers, street names, father’s professions of passing acquaintances, and digressions about family members, to get to the good stuff. But thankfully there is a lot of that. Penrose once said, ‘I don’t think I would ever have become a Surrealist in the ardent way I did it I hadn’t been born a Quaker.’ King suggests he used the movement to explore his inner world; not as a platform for political battles, but the contradictions in himself. Penrose was a character who was conflicted, King reflects: ‘Quakerism was central to Roland Penrose’s intellectual and artistic formation, and that although his Quakerism encouraged self-evaluation and innovation and may have liberated him, it also hindered him and created a divide within him.’

 In 1966, the art critic George Melly wrote a bitter attack against Penrose when he accepted a knighthood saying, ‘I will never have anything to do with you again’; Melly couldn’t reconcile the conventional side of Penrose with the unconventional: but he was always both. Penrose’s upbringing, ventures King, shaped his life in all its complexities and oppositions. Quakerism stresses the individual’s search for their inner light and the importance of doing good deeds. It was these traits that lay behind Penrose’s restless search for fulfillment, experimentation, and, crucially, his willingness to put his career as an artist to one side to promote others.  We are lucky he did.

 Central to Surrealism was the idea of the marvellous, echoed in the title of the exhibition, initially coined by André Breton, who wrote the first Surrealist manifesto of 1924. ‘Let us not mince words,’ he said, ‘the marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful.’ There is much in this exhibition and in the life of Roland Penrose that is marvellous to behold.


The 1935 International Surrealist Exhibition: At its opening Dylan Thomas offered guests teacups full of boiled string.

Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until September 11.

From this Issue


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