Heritage: Flag-bearer Sir Roland Penrose brought the Surrealists to Hampstead

Sir Roland Penrose. Picture: © Lee Miller Archives, England 2010. All rights reserved.

Sir Roland Penrose. Picture: © Lee Miller Archives, England 2010. All rights reserved. - Credit: © Lee Miller Archives, England 2010. All rights reserved.

In the latest of our series commemorating the life and work of people honoured with blue plaques, Adam Sonin learns more about artist, writer and exhibition organiser Sir Roland Algernon Penrose, a pioneer of the surrealist movement.

The blue plaque commemorating Sir Roland Penrose and Lee Miller in Downshire Hill. Picture: Nigel Su

The blue plaque commemorating Sir Roland Penrose and Lee Miller in Downshire Hill. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Inspired by his adventures in Paris, Sir Roland Algernon Penrose introduced the Surrealist movement to Britain via the hillside heights of his Hampstead home and headquarters, which now bears a blue plaque.

Immediately after moving to 21 Downshire Hill, NW3, in 1935, Penrose proceeded to plot and plan the first London International Surrealist Exhibition (1936) with poet David Gascoyne, sculptor Henry Moore, artist Ben Nicholson and art critic Herbert Read.

A Quaker, pacifist and supporter of a Spanish Republic, Penrose was privileged to be present, with Moore, at Pablo Picasso’s Paris studio when the artist first began drafting Guernica – Picasso’s provocative response to the bombing of the Basque town of the same name.

In 1938 Penrose brought the painting and other associated pieces to England, to tour. In the same year, in support of the Spanish people, he demonstrated in Hyde Park, marching with Henry Moore.

Penrose’s back garden in Hampstead was home to a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, whilst the front played host to Moore’s, Mother and Child. Moore’s work caused a scandal and was supported by a brief press campaign favouring its removal.

House guests and friends included the poet Paul Éluard, the artist Man Ray, painter Max Ernst and émigré artist, Piet Mondrian.

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Penrose founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1946, located on the Mall and was a lifelong friend, and biographer, of Picasso. His services to art in Britain were recognized by appointment as CBE in 1961 and a knighthood in 1966.

Art historian Norbert Lynton wrote “what matters to him is life, openness, receptivity, involvement, appetite, energy” and saluted him “as one whose very life has been an unconscious work of art performed to the benefit of all”.

Sir Roland Algernon Penrose (1900–1984), artist, writer, and exhibition organiser, was born at 44 Finchley Road on October 14. His father was a portrait painter who disapproved of the modern art which enchanted his son, but nevertheless stimulated and supported the youngster’s love of the subject. Roland’s mother was a lady of leisure, the daughter of a wealthy banker from Wisebech, in East Anglia, who encouraged his grandson to enjoy and exploit his extensive library and collection of art.

Penrose caught the tail end of the First World War and joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) in August 1918, later being seconded to the 1st British Red Cross ambulance unit in Italy. He was demobbed in 1919 and went up to Queens’ College, Cambridge. Penrose had hoped to become a painter but art wasn’t taught. He ended up studying architecture and “nearly died of boredom”.

Whilst at Cambridge he met the artist, critic and Bloomsbury Group member Roger Fry. Fry, already responsible for bringing the works of many unknown artists to England, starting with the Post Impressionists, encouraged the young Penrose up the learning curve of contemporary art. He showed Penrose his extensive collection, which included a Picasso.

Taking Fry’s advice, in 1922, Penrose set off for Paris to become a painter. He promised his father that he’d stay away from the art studios specialising in nudes. The promise was short lived and Penrose quickly found himself an enthusiastic pupil of André Lhote, studying Cubism and majoring in promiscuity. Penrose was introduced to the “startlingly heterosexual lifestyle of Monmatre” and gravitated towards all the indulgences the city had on offer.

His friends, and influences, composed mainly of artists and surrealists, included Paul Éluard, Georges Braque, Man Ray, Max Ernst, André Derain, André Breton, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. It seems likely that the delights of Hampstead were first mentioned in Paris after meeting Ernö Goldfinger the architect, who built his now famous house in Willow Road, NW3.

After a colourful and busy 18 months, Penrose headed to Cassis sur Mer, a tiny fishing village on the Mediterranean, midway from Marseille and Toulon. He had heard of the spot from various Bloomsbury Group members and at the time, the novelist, Virginia Woolf was living close by. Penrose bought a house called Villa les Mimosa and began painting charming nostalgic pictures inspired by Cubism and architecture. He met, fell in love with and married, in 1925, a beautiful young Gascon poet, already known to the Surrealists, named Valentine Andrée Boué.

In 1928 he held his first one-man show in Paris and through Boué met Max Ernst, the pioneer of the Dada movement and prominent Surrealist. Penrose helped publish Ernst’s 1934 graphic novel, Une semaine de bonté (“A Week of Kindness”) and the men became close friends. Later, in 1961, Penrose interviewed Ernst for the BBC’s flagship arts programme, Monitor. Meanwhile, Penrose and Boué separated in 1935. Penrose had met the young English poet, David Gascoyne, who shared his love for surrealism. The pair returned to London, and to Hampstead, with the intention of converting the British to the surrealist faith, establishing a headquarters for the movement at 21 Downshire Hill, NW3.

With the help of Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Herbert Read and others, Penrose organised the first International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries, London, in June 1936. Works by every major Surrealist was exhibited, as well as ‘outsider art’ by the mentally ill. The opening was attended by more than a thousand people, including Breton, Éluard and Salvador Dalí - the latter famously becoming trapped inside the cumbersome diving suit in which he gave his lecture. The following day the Daily Mail poured scorn on the “fashionably dressed and slightly exotic young men of the ‘Mayfair Modernist’ school”. Establishment figures from the Tate Gallery also panned the works which now, ironically, nestle neatly and proudly in their permanent collections.

A fortnight after the exhibition closed the Spanish Civil War broke out and Penrose worked with French art collector and writer, Christian Zervos, in Spain, on a book called Catalan Art (1937). By the time the book was published Catalonia had fallen and it was all over for Republican Spain. Regardless, Penrose was tireless in raising money, supporting republican refugees and putting pressure on the British government to back the cause.

In 1937 Penrose founded the London Gallery in Cork Street, a catalyst for surrealism and modern art in Britain. He mounted countless exhibitions, published numerous works (by various artists) and generally raised awareness by bringing modern art to a rapidly ravenous public. It was through the London Gallery that Penrose organised the 1938 British tour of Picasso’s painting Guernica and its associated works. The money raised by the exhibition was donated to the Spanish Republican cause.

He visited Paris in 1937 to fundraise. One evening Max Ernst took Penrose, dressed as a beggar in paint-encrusted trousers, to a Surrealist costume ball. Penrose’s English appearance – he was lean, with blue eyes and black hair – was accentuated by his having his right hand and left foot dyed bright blue. He was introduced to a young woman, of whom he wrote, “Blond, blue-eyed and responsive, she seemed to enjoy the abysmal contrast between her elegance and my own slumlike horror... I asked Max if he knew a fabulous beauty called Lee Miller. ‘Of course’ answered Max, ‘Let’s ask her to dinner tomorrow’.”

* For more on Lee Miller, see next week’s Ham&High.