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)

Still more lost British surrealists

A final dozen “lost” British surrealists, or quasi-surrealists, picked from an extended plod through the latter part of the alphabet on the BBC’s Your Paintings site. (Click for enlargements / slideshow. For the previous batches use the “surrealism” tab or go here and here.) Again, the qualifying period is the ‘thirties to ‘sixties, so none of that knowing ‘eighties pseudo-surrealism, which was essentially a post-modernist look promoted in art schools.


Edith Rimmington
has only one painting in public ownership, judging by the BBC site, and this is it. And barely half a dozen visible online, it seems. A great pity, given her considerable ability and her important role in the British surrealist movement. This one is not entirely typical, but it does exemplify the interestingly violent physicality of her images. Next, lest we forget, a nice item by Grace Pailthorpe, the other half of Reuben Mednikoff; I’ve featured Pailthorpe and Mednikoff in a previous post. And then an early piece by the always interesting Julian Trevelyan. Or interesting until the later years, perhaps; at this point Trevelyan was well in the surrealist mainstream, and very much into myth, mescaline and Mass Observation.


Next, some extended perspectives, with and without extended shadows. Who was John Pemberton? Scottish, apparently, born 1908, died 1960. More I can’t say at the moment. But Since the Bombardment is a cracker. Josefina de Vasconcellos was best known as a Cumbrian sculptor, but here, interestingly, stock surrealist elements are employed to carry Christian content. But why not? No date given, though the mushroom cloud on the horizon suggests the immediate post-war period. Last in this trio is a typical trompe l’oeil piece by Oscar Mellor, a stalwart of the Birmingham surrealist group, and often remembered as a publisher of poetry, though his painting career was long and productive. Curvy chicks with their vests off feature largely in his paintings, as Google Images will quickly reveal, but his pics are always something more than banal surrealist porn. Well, almost always.


More wartime angst from Fitzrovian painter and photographer Peter Rose Pulham, represented by this single image on the BBC site. The animal skull is a recurring motif in British neo-romanticism, and this is a powerful version, with an appropriately photographic quality. Pulham knew the Paris surrealist scene, but seems to have been a more marginal figure in the British context. Angst of a post-war nuclear variety from William McCance, here working in a surrealist vein, though better known for his paintings of the ‘twenties, when his portraits borrowed strongly from Wyndham Lewis, alongside landscapes of shiny cuboid constructions. The troubled architect and painter Ralph Maynard Smith (1904-64) seems to have been quite outside organised surrealism, but his work, somewhat akin to that of Paul Nash, is well worth attention, and his legacy is now promoted by the Trust that bears his name, which maintains a revealing website.


Frederick MacDonald is another mystery, with just this single canvas on the BBC site, painted around 1960. I like the surrealist atmosphere and the period feel of these scratchy mechanomorphs. Much better known is Gordon Onslow Ford, friend of Matta and surrealist insider, though his force-line automatism deserves higher billing.

To be fair, some of these names may be rather less “lost” than others. I’ve not bothered with Dorothea Tanning, John Tunnard or Edward Wadsworth as all too well known. I’ve also left out Conroy Maddox, whom in any case I consider (despite – or rather because of – his affected surrealist ultra-orthodoxy) a mere pasticheur. Nor am I fond enough of the squidgy doodles of Desmond Morris. Well, it’s my choice. But to finish the round dozen, here’s another Birmingham name that, admittedly, is not truly “lost” – John Melville, a number of whose paintings feature children bewildered by nature. Michel Remy describes The Museum of Natural History of the Child as “one of the key paintings of British surrealism”, though he doesn’t really explain why. On the BBC site the title of the painting is altered and the image is mirrored. I imagine that Melville, who made a very spooky drawing of Carroll’s Alice, would have enjoyed that.

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3 responses to “Still more lost British surrealists

  1. Gordon Main June 2, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    Hi Richard…in your first trawl of surrealists you listed William Baillie of Hamilton. He only flirted with surrealism, (and I have a couple of examples), but he was absolutely committed to Abstraction, and in fact better known for his abstract work. I have images of some examples of his work in abstraction. Not sure if this site is active but try for both him and a pupil called Billy Bunting..
    http://www.impalerfineart.com/new_page_2.htm

  2. Gordon Main June 2, 2014 at 10:40 pm

    Oops…also meant to say that William McCance is possibly better known for Vorticism

  3. Will Prestidge January 26, 2017 at 5:32 am

    John Armstrong “Dreaming Head” if you haven’t already”…

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