Roland Penrose: The biographer friends with Picasso and Man Ray
- Credit: Lee Miller Archives, England. Al
Biography fetes efforts to introduce modernism to the UK and a complex love life finds Bridget Galton.
Hampstead’s reputation as a haven for bohemians, artists and intellectuals rests partly on a heady period in the 1930s.
George Orwell worked in a South End Green bookshop, Henry Moore had a studio in Parkhill Road, and architect Erno Goldfinger built his modernist house in Willow Road.
In the thick of this thriving cultural life were the artist and critic Roland Penrose and his photographer wife Lee Miller.
At their home at 21 Downshire Hill they entertained May Ray, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Ben Nichloson and Piet Mondrian.
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Moore sold them his Mother and Child for the front garden.
The artist Margaret Gardiner who lived at No35 was presumably not one of the neighbours who complained in the local press about it being an eyesore.
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“Lee keept a pet goose who would greedily gobble up food that would then disagree with its stomach with the result that they got rid of it,” says US academic Professor James King whose new biography of Penrose subtited ‘The Life of a Surrealist’ is published by Edinburgh University Press.
He describes how Penrose moved to Hampstead in 1936 on a mission to introduce surrealist art to the UK.
“He wanted to move there because it was the place to live, the intellectual powerhouse of London at the time which became a draw for émigrés like Freud and Naum Gabo.”
It was from here that Penrose organised a tour of Picasso’s Guernica to raise money for the Spanish Republican cause, planned London’s first international surrealist exhibition and co-founded the ICA.
“He was extremely influential in developing modernism in England, He opened our eyes to surrealism.”
Born in Finchley Road in 1900 to a wealthy Quaker family, Penrose’s father was a well known portrait painter.
“As a young man he decided to become an artist but not the kind that his father was.
“He went to France to discover himself as an artist he got in touch with the French spirit came back to England and said we have got to have it here.”
Briefly serving in an ambulance unit during WWI, Penrose then studied architecture at Cambridge before setting off to Paris in 1922 where he enjoyed the promiscuous lifestyle in Montmartre and met Georges Braque, Joan Miro and in 1936 Pablo Picasso; the beginning of what King calls a “complex relationship” which included Penrose becoming his biographer.
“He was intrigued by Picasso, became devoted to him and spent part of the summer with him.”
He adds: “Although he is a much more talented painter than he is given credit for, it was a huge disappointment to him when he realised early on that although his talent was above average he was not on the same level as Ernst and Miro or Picasso.
“Living by the Quaker belief of service to others he started to devote his life to promoting modern artists and modernism.”
Penrose’s married his first wife the poet Valentine Boue in 1925 but by the time of the Hampstead move, the marriage was on the rocks.
He met Miller in 1939 at a party in Paris, she was married to someone else and was already a successful model famed for her beauty.
“She was a bit hesitant at first but it was a great, great romance,” says King.
“Extremely passionate sexually, very strong.
“Both had slept with many people outside their marriages. Roland had a very wandering eye.”
They lived for a while in a ménage a trios with her lover the Life photo correspondent David Scherman with whom Miller covered the Second World War.
“Indeed her work as a war photographer is now properly feted thanks to her son Antony who has “devoted his life and energy to making his parents better known.”
His book The Lives of Lee Miller has been optioned as a movie with Kate Winslet slated to star.
But King says the post traumatic stress disorder Miller suffered following her experiences on the frontline effectively ended the couple’s physical life together.
“After the war for the last 30 years of her life she was no longer interested in sex.
“Penrose had lots of girlfriends and long affairs with at least three women but he made a distinction between sex and love and although he wasn’t always faithful, he felt he always loved her and never betrayed her.”
When the couple moved to the country in 1946, Miller gave up photography, had their son in 1947 and took up cooking.
“Penrose’s biography of Picasso is a great achievement that still stands up very well.
“Picasso was a volatile person who treated Penrose badly but alwasy recognised his impact on his career.”