Legacy of a Sir-Realist

The surrealist Sir Roland Penrose, who married Lee Miller, befriended Picasso, and co-founded the ICA

“Roland Penrose working on ‘The Dew Machine’”, 1937, by Thea Struve (Courtesy The Penrose Collection)

Roland Penrose first made his mark when he and David Gascoyne brought Surrealism to London in 1936. The International Surrealist Exhibition was held in the New Burlington Galleries, not a venue that then figured largely in the public mind; its two large rooms, on the third floor and reached via a lift, were, Penrose later recalled, “more frequented by cats than human visitors”. James King, in his entertaining but flawed new biography (Roland Penrose: The Life of a Surrealist, Edinburgh University Press, £30) describes the building as “prosaic”. He somewhat rewrites the geography of London by remarking that, on the first day, “traffic was stopped along the length of Bond Street as far as Piccadilly Circus”, but one gets the gist, and 1,150 people crowded into the galleries to hear the spokesman of Surrealism, André Breton, give the opening speech.

Minor distractions included Dylan Thomas offering boiled string in teacups and inquiring whether visitors wanted it weak or strong, and a “Surrealist phantom” wandering through the crowd in a long white satin gown, her face obscured by a  veil of roses, clutching a dummy leg in one hand and a pork chop in the other. The heat soon obliged her to discard the latter. Meantime, Salvador Dali, who had rented a diving suit for the occasion, including a heavy, old bubble helmet which had been very securely screwed into place, began to expire from too much heat and lack of air. While someone was sent to look urgently for a spanner, the collector Edward James seized a billiard cue and managed to prise open the helmet’s front port.

Chiefly what made the event memorable was the spectacular display of Surrealist paintings and sculpture, mixed with Oceanic, African and American objects, amounting to 392 items in all. The walls were hung two or three rows deep. A huge Man Ray painting of a pair of red lips, floating over a landscape, surmounted one doorway, and everywhere were works of art which to a greater or less degree demonstrated the Surrealists’ ability to jar the mind and set it dreaming. T.S. Eliot is said to have become obsessed with Meret Oppenheim’s Fur-Covered Cup, Saucer and Spoon. The artist Eileen Agar, who had found herself suddenly labelled a Surrealist and drawn into the exhibition, thought the intensity and brilliance of this nine-day event impossible to sustain. Herbert Read delivered a fearsome speech in the galleries: “Do not judge this movement kindly. It is not just another amusing stunt. It is defiant — the desperate act of men too profoundly convinced of the rottenness of our civilisation to want to save a shred of its respectability.” Most English critics, with their usual hostility to foreign importations, took his first command literally and damned the show. And there was a general suspicion that Surrealism was in fact less desperate than romantic.

Penrose’s route into Surrealism was first revealed in his 1981 Scrapbook. The revelations in this fast-moving autobiography, bursting with more pictures and photographs than text, and with colourful endpapers of his own invention, left this reader puzzled. Surrealism, which grew out of nihilistic Dadaism, had a dark side and was more preoccupied with sexuality than any other art movement. How was it that Roland Penrose, whose appearance, in photograph after photograph, seemed an expression of conventional English reserve, moved so swiftly into the dangerous heart of the Surrealist movement? Admittedly, James King here reminds his readers that Breton, too, mostly adopted a conservative manner of dress and a correct demeanour. And, of course, so too did the Belgian Surrealist Magritte. If you are intent on plumbing the subconscious, then perhaps surface arrangements are a mere formality. But the dichotomy in Penrose was very apparent. The eminent zoologist Desmond Morris, who also painted in a surrealist manner, observed that Penrose was “an intellectual rebel but a social conformist”, and that he dressed like a London clubman and went to the best barber in Mayfair. Certainly his love of order ran deep. His friends recall that, after a heavy night, he was always well-groomed and at his desk the next morning, briskly attending to his papers. Without this ingrained orderliness he might not have achieved as much as he did.

Blithely, Penrose explained his silver-spoon heritage: “I was born in a cloud smelling strongly of oil paint, honest banking and piety.” In other words, his father James Doyle Penrose was a popular academic painter, while his mother Josephine Peck-over was descended from the Peckovers of Wisbech who had set up a bank, and eventually went into partnership with the Gurneys of Norfolk. Both parents were devout Quakers. Thus, like Roger Fry, who also changed the public understanding of art in this country, Penrose grew up familiar with a way of life that stemmed from dissent; and both men had a readiness to stand apart from mass opinion and trust the evidence of their own experiences. It was Fry who persuaded the young Penrose that he should take up art and study in Paris, which eventually he did after a stint at the tail end of the First World War as an   ambulance driver and his studies, first in history, then architecture, at Cambridge.

After Penrose’s puritanical upbringing, Paris proved liberating. He left behind “the well-ordered life, soft carpets, fat woolly cats, porridge, roast beef for Sunday lunch and family prayers” and “with a small allowance in my pocket I was born again”. He studied under the painter André Lhote and met the artist Janko Varda, who introduced him to Cassis. There, in 1923, Penrose bought a boat and a house, the Villa les Mimosas. He constructed a studio in its garden and employed a housekeeper, Else Anghilanti, who later looked after Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant when they too began spending the better part of the summer in this area. Less happy was Penrose’s emotional life. Having had a brief affair with George (Dadie) Rylands at Cambridge, he lost his inhibitions with regard to women after Varda took him off to a brothel, and then met the beautiful and mysterious poet Valentine Boué, with whom he became infatuated and soon married.

James King gives the wrong date for the naming of the Royal College of Art and misinterprets the subject matter in the murals which Bell and Grant painted in the early 1920s for Maynard Keynes’s rooms in Cambridge, but he is good at getting inside other people’s muddles, particularly where relationships are concerned. And there are difficult relations throughout Penrose’s life, most noticeably with his two wives, with Picasso, whom he idolised, and with the brutally acerbic critic and collector Douglas Cooper, who tried to undermine many of the major projects which Penrose worked on in his later years.

With hindsight, it seems that Valentine’s psychological problems may have been more of an issue than her gynaecological ones, which made full love-making impossible. She was never entirely taken with the Surrealists when Roland, through his friendship with Paul Éluard and Max Ernst, began to draw her into this group, and hated the sadism behind Ernst’s story about the seal thrown into boiling water so that its reactions could be observed. When they joined a party of artists, which included Picasso at Mougins in the Riviera, where sunbathing and beach-combing were the order of the day, Roland felt himself to be inside “a unforgettable dream of marvels” but, in the photographs at least, Valentine looks pained. Eventually the marriage was dissolved on the grounds of non-consummation. And a year or two later Penrose met an American with a remarkable hunger for life, the photographer Lee Miller.

With this “Hellenic beauty . . . full of élan vital”, in Eileen Agar’s words, Penrose again stepped onto an emotional roller-coaster. His immediate obsession with Lee’s beauty suggests that he may have bought into the Surrealist ideal of female beauty, which may have prevented their relationship from deepening. The belief in the need for sexual freedom, which caused a great deal of wife-swapping among the Surrealists, seemed necessary to both, but it undeniably troubled their marriage. Nevertheless Roland cared for Lee deeply.

He cared also for Picasso who, Penrose once observed, seemed to charge everyone’s emotional batteries. Although Penrose had by the 1930s become a good artist, in a Surrealist vein, he also had a very sharp eye for the work of others. After seeing a reproduction of Picasso’s Femme nue couché au soleil sur la plage he was left with a “longing to see and if possible own the original”. Accompanied by Éluard, he went to see the artist in Paris to ask if he could buy it. Picasso agreed, but said they would have to fetch it from Boisegloup, his country property in Normandy. Within a few minutes the artist’s chauffeur had been summoned and all present, including Picasso and his son, set off. The picture was smaller than Penrose expected, but it remained his “dream painting” and marked his first acquisition of a work by this great artist. This experience appears to have started Penrose on a new wave of buying: James King accurately claims that within a short space of time Penrose assembled the most important collection of Cubist and Surrealist paintings in England, among them two masterpieces now in the Tate collection — Max Ernst’s Célèbes and Picasso’s The Weeping Woman.

But Penrose brought Picasso closer to us in other ways. A key figure behind the founding of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1947, he persuaded the Museum of Modern Art in New York to lend Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to one of its earliest exhibitions in 1948 — 40,000 Years of Modern ArtComparison of Primitive and Modern, held at the Academy Cinema, London, which sat next to a bombsite. The painting was so large that a hole had to be knocked into an exterior wall in order to get this huge painting inside the building. Victor Gollancz then asked Penrose to write a biography of Picasso, which he did, despite the difficulties this task presented, for by this stage Picasso, now sometimes weary and depressed, could behave like an emperor. Then in 1959 Penrose organised, at the Tate Gallery’s request, a major Picasso exhibition, and he also helped persuade Picasso to sell to the Tate a key work — The Three Dancers.  It is not surprising that he was offered a knighthood, but he havered over whether to accept it, as he had persistently upheld all his life the importance of the imaginative and unconventional. He consulted Herbert Read who advised that acceptance would benefit the ICA. When asked, after being knighted, if he could still call himself a Surrealist, he replied, “I am now a Sir-Realist”. It was a neat reply and perhaps, too, an oblique recognition of the dichotomy within him.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"