The European surrealists liked to alarm. A woman walked through the 1936 International Surrealism Exhibition in London wearing a mask of roses, carrying in one hand a model leg filled with roses and in the other a raw pork chop. The Surrealist Manifesto for a Free Revolutionary Art was co-authored by Trotsky.
The sensation stirred up by the 1936 exhibition died down and British surrealism was tamed. It was married to romanticism. Paul Nash called it “seaside surrealism” because he found a “strange fascination, like all things which combine beauty, ugliness and the power to disquiet” in the seaside resort of Swanage.
Jane Ure-Smith said of the seaside surrealists that, “Fascinated by the strangeness of the natural world, they cherry-picked the ideas percolating in Parisian cafes. Nash bought into Breton’s notion that a statue standing in the street is just a statue; if, however, the statue is lying in a field, it is ‘in a state of surrealism’ – and becomes somewhat disquieting. It was an idea that made sense to him in Swanage.”
Through their work, Britain’s seaside surrealists convey the dreams, discomforts, fears and fantasies that they experience in the ordinary and dull. They find odd and incongruous things in out of the way places. They are not competitive or motivated to succeed. Unlike Breton’s official surrealists, they are not revolutionaries. They might also be called suburban surrealists.
Nash’s Harbour and Room (above) was inspired by a stay in a hotel by the sea in the South of France. There is a similar sense of discomfort in the empty rooms and landscapes of Nash’s pupil Eric Ravilious. In such pictures, for example, Farmhouse Bedroom (below), there is a feeling that something has just left but you don’t know what it was.
Carel Weight was a later generation than Nash, Ravilious and the other 1930s British artists associated with surrealism and was not part of any school or group, but I include him because his paintings of ordinary and recognisable places were strongly charged with emotion and are unsettling to the viewer. Even his Siennese Landscape (below) looks more like Wuthering Heights than Tuscany.
Weight was a popular and influential professor of painting at the Royal College of Art from 1957 to 1974, spanning the period from abstract expressionism through pop art to conceptual art. His work is unfashionable and his paintings are relatively inexpensive. At the time of writing, none of the eight Weight paintings in the Tate’s collection is on public display.
Child’s Wonderment (above) is typical of his work. The scene is a park or riverside in winter, closely observed but not painted literally. It is executed in Weight’s characteristic loose and dry brushwork. There is nothing special in it and a large part of the foreground is taken up by a path and railings. The colours are muted and the trees are brown, the sky cloudy and the weather windy. The child in the bottom quarter, at the edge of the painting, is partly cut off by the frame. The picture shows the child’s inexplicable reaction to his ordinary surroundings. His posture seems to show not so much wonderment as anxiety. Weight was said to have been influenced by Munch and the affinity of this work to The Cry is evident in the figure, the railings, the water and its entire feeling, though Weight’s colouration here is not lurid like Munch’s.
As it is an unfashionable genre, suburban surrealism tends to be practiced by unknown artists. Martin Grover‘s painting Back to The Old House (at the top of this post) introduced me to his work when I picked up a postcard reproduction of it. His scene is perfectly suburban, the 1930s house with its 1960s wall and privet hedge, and the twin sisters, are observed with forensic objectivity. That is all there is, and yet there is something odd about it. When my daughter was a child, she disliked this picture, which indicates that the unsettling effect is not just a product of educated taste.
Like Weight, Grover lives in and paints south London, observing the streetscape and placing incongruous things and people in it. He likes to paint American soul singers in Brixton and Brockwell Park. His work is generally more humorous and less menacing than Weight’s, but there is some menace in it, as in False Security (above).
David Cheepen was influenced by de Chirico and Magritte (the archetypical suburban surrealist, bourgeois and regular in his habits). Cheepen grew up in the north London suburbs and says that as a child, on solitary walks to hilltops, airfields and deserted railway stations, commonplace objects appeared to him to be full of mysterious significance. For many years he was associated with the Portal Gallery, which specialised in naïve and fantastic art. Most of his work was done on the edge of small towns (Harrow, St Albans, Hertford and Penzance) where the suburban merges into the subrural. Like Grover, his method is precise and his surrealism is witty.
I prefer his Hertford pictures, which he painted in his forties and fifties, like Life in the Slow Lane (above), when his style was fully developed and he had achieved a high finish in his paintings. (Alas, not fully evident in the reproduction). In Cornwall, he painted standing stones whose significance was not always evident to the viewer.
Finally an anonymous photographer, who posts his pictures (above) online under the name Lost in St Leonards. They are scenes that could have been painted by Grover or Cheepen, where the ordinary and meaningless assume a vague significance because of the absence of humans and the human wish to make sense of everything.