Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Some lost British surrealists

Browsing the BBC’s Your Paintings site (every oil painting in UK public collections) is one of life’s greater pleasures. The search facility may be erratic and site navigation a tad clunky, but who cares? In among the tottering heaps of sodden landscapes, zooming Spitfires and portraits of bored vice-chancellors can be found all sorts of hidden nuggets.

Here, for instance, is my selection (click to enlarge) of “lost” British surrealists from the ‘thirties to the ‘fifties – and this is only from surnames A to C. More to come in later posts, perhaps. Surprising how many of these names are Scots. Surprising too, how little ready information there is on some of them – only two Wikipedia entries here.

To be fair, some of these painters were very much on the margins of British surrealism, or even on the margins of the margins. In some cases the vogue for surrealism seems to have offered itself to otherwise anti-modernist purveyors of illusionism as the only acceptable form of modernism. Which may be telling. What emerges here is mainly a style, characterised by a kind of cool Deco tonality.

Though John Selby Bigge exhibited at the 1936 London Surrealist exhibition, he is dismissed abruptly from Michel Remy’s rather doctrinaire Surrealism in Britain on the grounds of not being surrealist enough. (Having said that, Remy similarly dismisses John Armstrong, which is absurd.) Both Edward Baird and James Cowie usually ploughed more orthodox furrows, but were clearly seduced by the still-lives-in-low-horizon-seascapes of Edward Wadsworth. Margaret Barnard seems better known for her lino cuts, having trained under Claude Flight, while of Alexander Allan, William Baillie and William Cosnahan I can say nothing except that they were born in 1914, 1905 and 1930 respectively. The painting by Angela Baynes is certainly a portrait, but for me it shares enough of a surrealist sensibility to qualify. I know nothing of her, and this seems to be the sole painting by her in public ownership.

surrealism in birminghamSadly, it seems the latter can also be said of Emmy Bridgwater, who is the odd girl out here, by virtue both of her style – anything but cool Deco – and of her role in the Birmingham Surrealist group, usefully chronicled in the catalogue to the 2001 Surrealism in Birmingham show. I include her here as not so much lost as neglected. But her tense, quirky spikiness is worth a dozen of the dutiful pastiches churned out by her Birmingham collaborator, the hugely overrated Conroy Maddox.

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10 responses to “Some lost British surrealists

  1. Jason Preater December 17, 2013 at 7:32 am

    I knew Bill Baillie as a tutor at Edinburgh College of Art. The college itself was a nepotistic community of committee-servers but he was always affable.

    • richardawarren December 17, 2013 at 9:31 am

      Jason, I wondered about the Bill Baillie at Edinburgh, but it appears that there were two painters of the same name, born some years apart. Unless your Bill Baillie painted this when he was just 16? I’m not sure …

      • Gordon Main March 22, 2014 at 8:43 pm

        The example shown in this article is William Baillie of Hamilton. He painted mostly abstracts. Lived well into his 90’s. He specified ‘no music/ no words’ at his funeral….the ‘deafening silence had the effect opposite to what he wanted I’m sure!! i knew him personally.

      • Gordon Main March 20, 2016 at 11:16 am

        It’s William Baillie of HAMILTON , born 1905…a truly inspirational man. I know that painting. I have both surreal and abstract works of his in my own collection.

    • Gordon Main March 22, 2014 at 8:40 pm

      Wrong Bill Baillie. The one shown here is William Baillie of Hamilton. last major exhibition…’Pupil & Teacher’ with William Hardie Gallery in Glasgow. I have examples of BOTH William Baillie works in my collection.

    • Gordon Main March 20, 2016 at 11:24 am

      It’s William Baillie of HAMILTON , born 1905…a truly inspirational man. I know that painting. I have both surreal and abstract works of his in my own collection. You are talking about the artist born 1923 i think who did teach at ECA.

  2. Antony Clayton December 19, 2013 at 11:11 am

    From David Buckman ‘Artists in Britain since 1945 vol. 1’:

    ‘Alexander Allan 1914-1972 Painter in gouache and of pastel portraits, pen and ink draughtsman. Born in Dundee, Allan studied art at the College of Art there under the landscape painter James McIntosh Patrick. Allan later taught part-time there. He also studied at Reimann School, London and at Westminster School of Art under Mark Gertler. Work in the collections of the Scottish Arts Council, Nuffield Foundation and Dundee Corporation. Lived at Newport-on-Tay, Fifeshire.’

    William Baillie 1905-1999 Painter, photographer and teacher, whose work embraced figurative, Surrealist and latterly entirely abstract pictures. By then, he felt that ‘the art of painting is not about other things but has an independent existence of its own.’ Baillie was born in Larkhall, Lanarkshire, son of a coal miner and gained his diploma from Glasgow School of Art in 1927, having studied with A E Haswell Miller. He had first exhibited at RSA in 1925 (at this time Baillie’s works were mostly in transparent watercolour) and he was to show there regularly, also at the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts. Baillie taught from 1928 and for this purpose made an extensive study of modern artistic trends. In 1931 Baillie had works bought to decorate the merchant ship Monarch of Bermuda. In the mid-1930s Baillie became interested in photography, in 1936 being elected a member of the Scottish Photographic Circle, at which he lectured and showed, also exhibiting with the Scottish National Salon and in 1938 at the British Empire Exhibition. In 1989 the Fine Art Society Glasgow had a show of work by Baillie and his pupil William J Bunting. Latterly Baillie lived in Hamilton Lanarkshire and was known as William Baillie of Hamilton. The museum there and Perth’s gallery hold examples.’

  3. Gordon Main March 22, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    I knew William Baillie personally. Thoroughly amazing man! Who else, in their NINETIES, would microwave water for coffee!! He was actually one of Scotland’s very first abstract artists and showed me examples from about 1925 of how he arrived at abstraction WITHOUT having been exposed to any external influences. I own examples of both his surrealist and abstracts. gordon@kendricross.wanadoo.co.uk if you want more info. He did some very good figurative work, but after briefly flirting with surrealism he was totally devoted to abstraction.

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