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)

Monthly Archives: January 2014

Some more lost surrealists

Here’s a second batch of lesser known surrealists or quasi-surrealists, culled from a continuing trawl of the BBC’s Your Paintings site. (First batch here. More to come, no doubt.) Again, I’m keeping to the “classic” period (‘thirties to ‘fifties). Though all here lived and worked in the UK, not all were British nationals, so I’ve left the “British” out of this post. Enjoy, as they say. Click for enlargement or slideshow.

Augustus Lunn is one of the many dismissed by Michel Remy, in Surrealism in Britain, as “constitutively incomplete” – surrealists by virtue of technique alone, lacking doctrinal rigour. In Lunn’s case, this seems particularly unfair. Though with Beatrice, Lady Glenavy, Dublin aesthete, pupil of William Orpen and friend of Katherine Mansfield, we are definitely at the decorative end of surrealism. She seems to have moved from late Pre-Raph to Catholic symbolism to a sort of twee deco, but for a while in the ‘thirties, she certainly flirted with surreality. But whatever the style, her work is always highly accomplished technically. With Fergus Graham, we seem to be at the fantasy end. Beyond a show at the Lefevre in 1935, I can’t say I know much more about him.

Ditto Margarethe Garthe, who was born in 1891, lived in Beckenham, had a show at the Loggia Gallery, London, in 1972 and died in 1976. Hein Heckroth, on the other hand, was a considerable name as an art director for film and stage, well connected with the surrealist movement and with other wartime emigrés. His film work has definite Dalinian tendencies, but this portrait opts for the full bonkers effect, with tweedy military theorist and historian Liddell Hart looking splendidly out of place among the pipes, severed ears and assorted squishy objects that litter the receding desert. Thomas Esmond Lowinsky is best known as a successful purveyor of cool, classical-deco whimsy, but this fine, tight little canvas, often on show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, achieves rather more of a disturbing effect.

Poet and artist René Halkett (1900 – 1983) was a Bauhaus veteran who transplanted to Britain. Google-wise, he seems best known these days for his late collaboration with David J of the band Bauhaus, but drop his name into Google images and it’s clear that his artwork is well worth a browse, especially the earlier Dada stuff. American Charles Houghton Howard lived and worked in Britain before and after the war. His nicely clean cut biomorphism puts him at the abstract pole of surrealism, not too far from the messier and more instinctual Sam (Thomas Samuel) Haile, potter and night-time painter – the most pukka British surrealist of the lot in this selection. Remy’s chronicle rightly devotes several pages to Haile, who, he says, “aims at flaying and tearing surfaces to help vision become primary again”. Haile was a developed theorist, but his work is unsettlingly de-learned and outsiderish; it’s no surprise to find that he highly rated the work of fellow psychonauts Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff.

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Drummond Allison, bulldog poet

drummond allisonFor no particular reason, time for an honourable mention of WW2 poet Drummond Allison – possibly the only baby ever to have been named after Sapper’s thuggish gentleman detective Bulldog Drummond, on account of his strikingly pugnacious physiognomy as a newborn – at least in his mother’s eyes.

Photos and recollections reveal no thug but “an extrovert, a rackety enfant terrible with tow-coloured hair” (David Wright), resembling, as another friend remarked, an “almost grown-up” Just William. His exuberance, generosity and humour coloured his poetry, which is energetic, quirky, jagged but stately, musically alliterative, telegraphic, with little concession to poetic fashion, though he had clearly absorbed Auden and George Barker among others. Here’s a personal favourite:

O sheriffs

the yellow nightO sheriffs hung with long pearlhandled guns
Showing your stars, coachditching dark road-agents,
O Pony Express on Sioux-surrounded plains,

Mushers of huskies, dudes in border towns,
Rustlers of painted mustangs down thin gorges
And tumblers out of rustler-run saloons,

O Darrell who the revolving logs defy,
O Billy caught with bacon, mad-eyed Hardin
Daring to draw each pallid deputy.

God like a lone and lemon-drinking Ranger,
Or at a far fur-station the half-breed stranger,
Them string up undecayed and stellify.

eight oxford poetsIt could be objected that the last verse suffers by the necessary inversion of “Them string up” and by the obscurity of “stellify” (turn into a star). But let’s face it, “stellify” is a cracking word. And “God like a lone and lemon-drinking Ranger” – just how good is that?

From one boyhood constellation to another passion – cricket. Of all Allison’s poems, “Verity” may be the best known, featuring Death as a batsman, and written for the Yorkshire and England bowler Hedley Verity, killed in Sicily in 1943, a few months before Allison’s own death:

Verity

The ruth and truth you taught have come full circle
On that fell island all whose history lies,
poemsFar now from Bramall Lane and far from Scarborough
You recollect how foolish are the wise.

On this great ground more marvellous than Lords
– Time takes more spin than nineteen thirty four –
You face at last that vast that Bradman-shaming
Batsman Whose cuts obey no natural law.

Run up again, as gravely smile as ever,
Veer without fear your left unlucky arm
In His so dark direction, but no length
However lovely can disturb the harm
That is His style, defer the winning drive
Or shake the crowd from their uproarious calm.

But Allison is no mere boyish, or even Boy’s Own Paper, poet. His subjects range from suburbia, class allegiance, social change and Marxism to war, death, girls and sex. Try this study of unlucky love in which every humdrum object embodies uncertainty:

Rejection Song

Now from closing car park and last bus stop start
Vehicles whose muffled passengers and drivers
Have worked out true bearings on their loved and lovers,
But explain no variation of my heart.

collectedNow admitting it my error to have thought
You the right reply to each unsure red setter,
To the query in each clockface in each clutter
Of bewildered boulders, every doubtful fort;

Every question mark that forms on spark-scorched grass,
Puzzled stares of Greenline coach and double decker,
Unconvinced old slot machines, the startled knocker
And the flabbergasted spareroom looking-glass;

Now aware not only unity and shared
Hunts for reasons and for purposes, but looking
More than most, but kissing tired and watching waking,
Are like birds that tantalise their leader snared;

Yet before the unlit fire I know my need
Of your thighs your throat your abdomen their movements,
Yet beside the dry-voiced bookcase on pale pavements
I repeat the quite incredible my creed.

Lieutenant John Drummond Allison left for the front in October 1943. Little more than a month later he was killed in the assault on Monte Camino. He was 22 years old.

A biography by Ross Davies appeared in 2009, though I can’t pretend to have read it. At the same time, Allison’s Wiki stub still consists of just four sentences. His work, sadly, is thoroughly out of print, a 1994 Collected (published by his old school in an edition of 300, and admirably edited by Stephen Benson) being his most recent appearance. Before that, we have a 1978 Poems (Whiteknights Press in a run of 200), his posthumous 1944 collection The Yellow Night, and his modest appearance in the 1941 anthology Eight Oxford Poets.

VerityLimited editions or not, none of these are at all pricey second hand – a sure sign of neglect. Of Allison’s fellow Oxford soldier poets who never returned, Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes, Douglas is now properly regarded; Keyes remains interesting but was hugely overrated at the time. Allison stands up solidly against Douglas, and is a far more important poet than Keyes, but both the latter are still in print, with Faber and Carcanet no less. A manuscript of “Verity” in Allison’s hand, on the endpaper of a Yorkshire County Cricket Club programme for 1911, turned up at Christie’s in 2004. It made £72.

His poetry demands urgent recognition. Him string up undecayed and stellify.