Anthony Earnshaw



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Not on display
Anthony Earnshaw 1924–2001
Engraving on paper on board
Support: 185 x 115 mm
Purchased 2012


Untitled 1948 is a collage based on an architectural engraving of a classical interior by I. Carnitham dated to 1739. Two parts of the original engraving have been joined together in such a way as to upset the viewer’s perception of space. The top half of the collaged image depicts this interior with a sharply expressed perspectival recession, emphasised by the geometrically patterned floor. The lower half of the collage, however, plays on this orthodox representation of perspectival space by flatly rendering the geometric pattern in such a way as to suggest that the floor suddenly shifts in space to appear as a flat wall. At the point at which the recessive space shifts to a continuation of the floor as flat pattern, Earnshaw has placed a cut out print (to which he has made ink additions) of a small girl blindfolded, her arms outstretched, as if playing the popular children’s parlour game blind man’s buff. She is walking into the space where dimensions shift and where she may fall into the chasm denoted by the patterned floor. To the left of the girl, and safely within the recessive space of the interior, two men wearing togas are shown in deep discussion, unaware of the harm that may shortly befall the playing girl. The work was framed by the artist in his characteristic manner, using a dark card mount and a found wooden frame.

On visits to Leeds City Library in the mid-1940s Earnshaw discovered, in quick succession, the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud (in Norman Cameron’s 1942 translation) and surrealism, at which point he began to paint. In 1947 he made the first of a number of visits to London to visit the London Gallery, run by the Belgian surrealist E.L.T. Mesens (1903–1971). There he first met the critic and jazz musician George Melly who would later become a supporter of his work. Like Melly, Earnshaw’s embrace of surrealism was grounded in an adherence to an engaged anarchist spirit and a love of hot jazz. The displacement and subversive disruptions that are at the heart of his work reflect this and also emphasise the extent to which, for Earnshaw, surrealism was not about following an artistic style but rather, as fellow artist Patrick Hughes (born 1939) put it, about ‘a spirit of rebellion which can express itself in humour, cocking the snook, upsetting the applecart to criticise Western culture with all its arrogance’ (quoted in Coleman 2011, p.36). For Melly too, Earnshaw ‘belongs, together with Magritte, Marien and the great precursor Alfred Jarry, to the creators of Black Humour, to those who “see the joke”’ (quoted in Leeds City Art Gallery 1987, unpaginated).

Earnshaw’s drawings, paintings and collages of the late 1940s emanate from dreams (and more exactly daydreams) which he accepted as poetic fact rather than as material for analysis. A group of drawings and watercolours contemporary with Untitled 1948 (In Aylesbury’s Ancient Days 1–7 1948, estate of the artist) reveals a similar sense of space to that found within Untitled. These depict a severed wolf’s head with its teeth clamped to a rope in a number of different settings. The art historian Dawn Ades has explained that:

the dream space is thoroughly disorienting; there is no ground as the gulf between the buildings seems to plunge endlessly … The plunging space is reminiscent of scenes in Amazing Stories, the world’s first science fiction magazine … which often featured futuristic structures and buildings suspended in a void, although Earnshaw has anchored his to familiar, solid brick buildings with windows.
(Ades in Coleman 2011, p.37.)

It is partly this prosaic matter-of-factness, allied to the disorientation of representational register, that gives Untitled 1948 its uncanny impact.

Further reading
A View from Back O’ Town: Anthony Earnshaw: Work 1945–1987, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds 1987.
Les Coleman (ed.), Anthony Earnshaw: The Imp of Surrealism, Sheffield 2011.

Andrew Wilson
March 2012

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