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)

Tag Archives: Conroy Maddox

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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“Weirdly overwrought and hysterical”: Leslie Hurry and other neo-romantics at Tate Britain

At Tate Britain the Clore Gallery has been rebranded till next June, putting Turner within the broader context of The Romantics. (Details on the Tate site via the Collection Displays pages.) The whole thing is well devised and curated, and it’s good to see the odd Blake, Palmer or Fuseli in there among the straighter stuff. And as a little bonus, it all signs off with a separately curated roomful of 20thc neo-romantics.

Which, naturally, includes a bunch of Sutherlands (always a pleasure, especially the rich early etchings) and the regulation nod to Piper and Nash. But it’s also a joy to be able to inspect a totally gonzoid Michael Ayrton, a brooding John Craxton, and Keith Vaughan’s Cain and Abel, in which Vaughan appears to have stretched the scriptural record by having Cain slay his brother, Samson-like, with the jawbone of an ass. (A weensie bit strained, and not one of his best, but what the heck? Any Vaughan on show is a gift these days, and we should be grateful for this one.)

The relevant Tate web page also appears to promise John Minton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, but no such luck. A pity. Though it’s only a small space and you can’t have everything, it is all rather Sutherland-heavy, and a sample from these three would have made things more considered. But in compensation for the omission, tucked in at the end, there is This Extraordinary Year, 1945 by Leslie Hurry.

Leslie Hurry, 'Conflict', 1944

Oo-er. Blimey! Leslie who? The name wasn’t too familiar, but on the strength of this painting it is clearly one to conjure with. It’s not possible to link to images of this or any other of his six pieces in the Tate collection, thanks to copyright restrictions (boo!), but This Extraordinary Year is an extraordinary painting, in which a glowing and naked Liberty raises the red flag among a writhing, apocalyptic mass of figures that includes a pope and a politician trampled under the revolutionary surge. Sound stuff!

Available information on Hurry seems limited, though a quick google will give an idea of his style. There is no mention of him in Remy’s irritatingly doctrinaire Surrealism in Britain, though he explored and exhibited automatic drawing, was tagged an “ultra-surrealist”, and was related to the painter John Armstrong (John Hurry Armstrong), whom for that matter Remy also writes off as less than surrealist. The last significant show of his work seems to have been in the ‘eighties. There is a nice self portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, but only one oil, Dialectic No 2, 1940, is to be found on the BBC Your Paintings site. In this the rather geometric figures look a bit Wyndham Lewis, even a bit Merlyn Evans. Most other pieces appear much more fluid. Many surviving works are designs for the theatre and ballet, though to my mind these are of lesser interest. He was also a friend of Mervyn Peake.

In The Spirit of Place, Malcolm Yorke quickly disposes of Hurry as “weirdly overwrought and hysterical”. What’s so wrong with that? Once could say the same of (for instance) the once derided but very wonderful Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, who these days have pukka status. And as British surrealists go, I’d rather take one Hurry than any number of those dry, clunky, repressed pastiches of Ernst by the amateurish and ludicrously over-rated Conroy Maddox.