In Focus: How British artists contributed to the uncanny, desirous world of Surrealism

Michael Murray-Fennell delves into the subconscious, war and desire and discovers the contribution made by British artists to the Surrealist movement.

The International Surrealist Bulletin of September 1936 announced the arrival of Surrealism in Britain. On the cover was a black-and-white photograph of Trafalgar Square with the Landseer Lions and the dome and portico of the National Gallery in the background.

Front and centre, among the pigeons, stands a woman performance artist, Sheila Legge, dressed in a satin evening dress and elbow-length gloves, but with her face entirely obscured by a mask of rose blooms.

The image combines disinhibition and desire, the uncanny and the unconscious. In the best tradition of Surrealist art, it is – even today – quite unsettling. The pamphlet with the photograph (price: one shilling) is included in a new, eye-opening survey of British Surrealism that features a combination of well-known and all-but-forgotten artists from the inter-war period and the Second World War.

Edith Rimmington The Oneiroscopist, 1947 Photo credit: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem by Elie Posner © Estate of Edith Rimmington

Edith Rimmington, The Oneiroscopist, 1947
Photo credit: The Israel Museum, Jerusalem by Elie Posner © Estate of Edith Rimmington

Surrealism was founded in Paris with a series of manifestos (the Surrealists loved a good tract) in 1924, but it wasn’t until the early 1930s that it gained a foothold in Britain – at first with exhibitions of work by the move-ment’s rising European stars.

In 1936, one such star, Salvador Dalí, took to the stage in London dressed in a deep-sea diving suit, the perfect visual metaphor, he claimed, for his desire to dive into the depths of the human subconscious.

His lecture entreating British artists to join the Surrealist movement didn’t go quite as he envisioned, however. The diving suit was perfectly sealed and the Spaniard soon began to gesticulate that he couldn’t breathe; he collapsed and the heavy helmet had to be hastily prised off before he suffocated.

L'Infante Egaree, 1944 (oil on panel) by Adnams, Marion (1899-1995); 54x43 cm; Manchester Art Gallery. Credit: Manchester Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images.

L’Infante Egaree, 1944 (oil on panel) by Adnams, Marion (1899-1995); 54×43 cm; Manchester Art Gallery. Credit: Manchester Art Gallery / Bridgeman Images.

Eleven years later, and inspired by the incident, Leicester-born Edith Rimmington painted a half-human, half-bird-like figure with a diver’s apparatus by its side.

The work’s title, The Oneiroscopist, means the interpreter of dreams; Rimmington’s creature sits on a platform high up among the clouds, the top of a ladder hinting that it will soon be descending into an ocean of the subconscious.

‘My life is uneventful, but sometimes I have an interesting dream,’ wrote Ithell Colquhoun, who was educated at Cheltenham Ladies College before studying art at the Slade. Fascinated by megaliths, she painted two stone circles in La Cathédrale Engloutie, one fully submerged in aquamarine, the other standing half in water and half on a small island, the shape of which suggests a female breast. Colquhoun makes an ancient landscape both sensual and dreamlike.

‘It became absurd to compose Surrealist confections, when high explosives could do it so much better’

Rimmington and Colquhoun are among the less familiar names in the Dulwich exhibition. As an excellent essay by Sacha Llewellyn in the accompanying catalogue makes clear, one of the reasons that they – as well as artists Marion Adnams and Grace Pailthorpe – are largely unknown is because they were women who, as Colquhoun drily reminisced, ‘were admitted but not required’ within the Surrealist movement.

Its founder, André Breton, insisted that the Surrealist tendency ‘always has existed’ and the exhibition features a number of British ‘ancestors’ of the movement, including Henry Fuseli, Lewis Carroll and William Blake.

A print of Fuseli’s The Nightmare, showing an ogre squatting on the chest of a young woman asleep, is probably the most menacing thing in the show and undoubtedly chimes with the Surrealists’ fascination with the erotic potential of dreams.

Carroll was a firm favourite of the Surrealists, who admired his topsy-turvy Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as well as John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice’s exploits. The exhibition includes a note from the British painter Eileen Agar, who describes him as ‘a mysterious master of time and imagination, the Herald of Sur-Realism and freedom, a prophet of the Future and an uprooter of the Past’.

The Old Maids, 1947, by Leonora Carrington. Credit: Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society NY/DACS

William Blake was another so-called ancestor and Paul Nash references his poem The Tyger with a collage placing a vivid engraving of an orange tiger against a black-and-white photograph of a ruin in the Forest of Dean. This juxtaposition of completely different, foreign objects was a recurring technique of the Surrealists; they quoted with relish the 19th-century French poet the Comte de Lautréamont on the beauty of ‘the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’.

Dalí’s lobster telephone is the best known example of this splicing together of unrelated items, but the exhibition includes a British equivalent by Conroy Maddox – a typewriter, with upturned nails on each key, sitting on a plump red velvet cushion with gold tassles.

A half-submerged landcape in Ithell Colquhoun’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, 1951-52. Credit: Samaritans / Spire Healthcare / Noise of Abatement Society / Christie’s Images LTD

The Second World War all but closed the British chapter of Surrealism. ‘It became absurd to compose Surrealist confections,’ recalled one of their number, ‘when high explosives could do it so much better.’

Yet some responded brilliantly to the horror on the Home Front. Edward Burra’s Blue Baby, Blitz over Britain from 1941 shows a grotesque, cartoonish (think Sesame Street) bird figure looming over a ruined scene with Edvard Munch-like figures cowering and fleeing.

It is a brilliant mixture of the comic and macabre.

‘British Surrealism’ is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, London SE21, until May 17,

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