Sir Roland Penrose CBE
Roland Penrose was brought up in a very strict Quaker family, near Watford. He studied architecture at Cambridge, then painting in France, where he lived from 1922 to 1935. In Paris he was strongly influenced by the Cubist works of Picasso and Braque. He moved to Cassis sur Mer where he met his first wife, the French poet, Valentine Boué in 1924. It was mostly through her that he met the Surrealist poets André Breton and Paul Éluard, who introduced him to Max Ernst, Joan Miró and other members of the movement.
Penrose’s work as an artist was much influenced by Ernst who encouraged his use of frottage and collage. Although Penrose painted little after the 1950s, he continued to make collages, returning wholeheartedly to the medium in the last years of his life. Penrose’s work demonstrates his strong and consistent commitment to Surrealism. He had a great affinity with the Surrealist moral, philosophic and artistic ideals, but this created tension between him and Valentine and they separated in 1936. In the same year, Éluard introduced Penrose to Picasso, who became a life-long close friend. Penrose met Lee Miller in 1937 and, prior to the War, they travelled extensively together in Romania and Egypt.
Roland Penrose and the poet David Gascoyne initiated the First International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936 at the New Burlington Galleries. The committee included Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson and the film maker Humphrey Jennings. This exhibition, opened by André Breton at an event attended by Salvador Dali, Paul and Nusch Eluard and the British Surrealists S.W. Hayter and Eileen Agar, marked the beginning of Surrealism in Britain. It was an outstanding success, attracting massive attendance - and the scorn of the critics and the establishment.
In 1938, Penrose bought the London Gallery in Cork Street and ran it with the Belgian Surrealist, E. L. T. Mesens. They produced The London Bulletin, which showcased Surrealism and modern art, and organised the 1938 British tour of Picasso’s Guernica.
Two major, one-man exhibitions by Penrose were held: at the Mayor Gallery in 1939, and the London Gallery in 1947. Penrose, Mesens, Herbert Read and others founded the ICA, in 1947, as a space for experimental art of all kinds. Penrose organised its first show in 1948, 40 Years of Modern Art, followed by 40,000 Years of Modern Art. Both exhibitions were ground-breaking events, presenting modern art, cave paintings and ethnographic art to a British public who were still struggling to get over Post-Impressionism. Penrose remained a guiding force at the ICA for thirty years: in 1968 he was instrumental in raising the necessary funds to move it to its present location.
Roland Penrose organised the highly acclaimed Picasso exhibition for the Tate Gallery in 1960, and was key to securing the Tate Gallery’s purchase of The Three Dancers, at a reduced price for the institution.
In 1949, Penrose and Miller bought Farley Farm House, a small dairy farm in East Sussex, which became a well known gathering place for many artists and other figures from the art world. Picasso visited in 1950, and Eluard, Man Ray, Miró, Max Ernst, Henry Moore, and other old friends were frequent visitors. Valentine, Penrose’s first wife was among the first visitors, and stayed for long periods.
Books by Roland Penrose include Picasso his life and work (1958), Miró (1970) Man Ray (1975) Tàpies (1978), and his autobiography Scrap Book, 1900 - 1981, (1981). He also wrote many catalogue essays and lectured internationally on Picasso and Ernst.
In 1980, the Arts Council organised a major exhibition of his work. It contained 74 works and toured six venues, ending at the Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona.
Roland Penrose died at Farley Farm in 1984.