One of the aims of Picasso and Modern British Art has been to think about Picasso’s relationships with British artists and writers. One particular friend at the heart of this story is Roland Penrose, who as a collector, curator and biographer of Picasso has greatly informed our understanding of his life and work.
This week I was lucky enough to spend some time in the exhibition with Antony Penrose, son of Roland and his wife the American photographer Lee Miller. As we walked through the galleries Antony gave me a fascinating insight into the man and his work, making connections between his family and many of the paintings on display.
Antony told me that his father, as an architecture student at Cambridge in the early 1920s, made the acquaintance of the Bloomsbury set, and probably saw his first Picasso painting at Roger Fry’s house. Fry later encouraged Roland to move to Paris, where he became part of a wide circle of artists, writers and cultural figures.
Roland Penrose finally met Picasso in Paris in 1936 after being captivated by a reproduction of a Picasso work: Nude Woman Lying in the Sun on the Beach, 1932. Roland set out to track it down with the hope of buying it. When they met, Picasso bundled Roland into his car to take him to see it in his studio in Boisgeloup. Roland had expected the painting, depicting Olga reclining on the beach with the mysterious grey figure of Marie-Therese looming above her, to be gigantic and was surprised at how diminutive the canvas was in the flesh. However the magic was all there - ‘I had found my dream painting’ he said.
In 1937, Roland Penrose and Lee Miller holidayed with the Picassos in Mougins in the South of France. Picasso painted six portraits of Lee Miller dressed as an Arlesienne (women from this region were famed for their extraordinary looks). Despite his mother being very pleased with Picasso’s depiction of her, Antony recalled that as a boy he was embarrassed whenever his school friends dropped in to Farley Farm to see it, knowing that Antony’s mum had been painted by a famous artist.
In the 40s Roland was one of the founders of the Institute of Contemporary Art (where he presented numerous exhibitions of Picasso’s work). He masterminded the tour of Picasso’s Guernica and went on to curate the largest retrospective of Picasso’s work at the Tate Gallery in 1960.
Picasso stayed with Penrose at his and Miller’s Sussex farmhouse, Farley Farm, during his brief stay in Britain in 1950, making a sketch in the ICA’s visitors book of one of the bulls there and spending time with the young Antony. Antony has written a children’s book about his early encounter with Picasso: The Boy Who Bit Picasso. Apparently, in a game, Antony did bite Picasso and Picasso bit him back, saying: ‘C’est le premier anglais que j’ai jamais mordu!’ (‘It is the first Englishman I have ever bitten.’)
Farley Farm is actually open for guided tours between April and October: a fascinating place to learn about Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, and the many great artists of the twentieth century that visited.
Antony Penrose has kindly agreed to meet up with us on Twitter for a chat about his memories about Picasso and Farley Farm. You can join Antony and me on the Twitter hashtag #PicassoQ&A on Thursday 3 May from 1pm - 2:30pm BST (GMT +1), or send your questions to @FarleyFarmHouse or @Tate before that.