Sir Roland Penrose



Not on display

Sir Roland Penrose 1900–1984
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 762 × 637 mm
frame: 805 × 950 × 80 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

Penrose was crucial in introducing Surrealism to Britain. He developed a type of word-and-image painting, like the one seen here. The poetic and painted elements relate to each other and have equal importance. Its title, Portrait, suggests it refers to an individual. The only recognisable details, however, are the man's hair at the top and what may be a cross around his neck. Penrose's abstract forms suggest, rather than depict, the subject. Portrait was rejected from an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1940 for the use of an offensive word (‘arse’). In its place, Penrose submitted a painting of a group of hands, which were later discovered to spell ‘SHIT’ in sign language.

Gallery label, August 2020

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Catalogue entry

Sir Roland Penrose 1900-1984

T03400 Portrait 1939

Oil on canvas 762 x 637 (30 x 25)
Inscribed `R. Penrose' 39 ' t.l., and as part of image `his eye | A NEEDLE | his hair air | his hair air | his hand an encyclopedia | his land norfolk | HIS lungs a street lamp | funny bone drake's drum | ankles porcupine quills | arms canary cages | teeth a church | his body a tennis court his head flies | his body a boat his bed a bird | his blood sand his ear a bus | his thighs windmills his sex flex | his arse his arse | his heart anything| his head nothing'
Purchased from Mayor Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Prov: Purchased from the artist by Mayor Gallery 1982
Exh: Roland Penrose, Mayor Gallery, June 1939 (25); Roland Penrose, AC tour, Fermoy Arts Centre, Kings Lynn, July-Aug. 1980, ICA, Aug.-Sept. 1980, Arnolfini, Bristol, Oct.-Nov. 1980, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, Nov.-Dec. 1980, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, Dec. 1980-Jan. 1981 (31, repr.); Roland Penrose, BC, Fundaci¢ Joan Mir¢, Barcelona, Feb.-March 1981 (35, repr.); Surrealism in the Tate Gallery Collection, Tate Gallery Liverpool, May 1988-March 1989, repr. p.45 (col.)
Lit: `Roland Penrose', London Bulletin, 17, June 15 1939, p.3; Claude Michaelides, `Vous montre la maison d'un collectionneur fermier', L'Oeil, no. 67-68, July-Aug. 1960, p.66 repr.; Roland Penrose, Scrapbook 1900-1981, 1981, p.126, repr. no. 305; Joanne Bernstein, `Catalogue of works' in Surrealism in the Tate Gallery Collection,, Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1988, p.32.

Roland Penrose visited Egypt early in late January 1939, and returned in late March. This painting was exhibited in June 1939 and was thus painted that spring at his house at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead. Since it is titled `Portrait' it is likely to refer to an individual, even though the only usual details are the man's hair at the top and what may be a crucifix at his neck. Penrose painted several Surrealist portraits in the later 1930's, notably of his first wife Valentine, but no others have been published that were made up to so large an extent of words.

The artist's son, Antony Penrose, and Michael Sweeney, the historian of his collection, have suggested that the portrait is on one level about Alec, the elder brother of the artist (letter to the Tate Gallery, 8 Jan. 1988). The one specific detail in the text is `his land norfolk'. Alec Penrose lived at West Bradenham Hall in Norfolk, a Georgian house that may be referred to in the four sided structure in the painting (or which may refer to a windmill, as suggested by the text). The lines of perspective going towards the horizon suggest a flat Norfolk field. The style of the hair is similar to his, and he was then becoming interested in the Roman Catholic Church, which could explain the crucifix. Antony Penrose recalls that his uncle intensely disliked modern art and was hence a suitable subject for such a portrait.

Penrose sent the painting to the United Artists exhibition which opened in January 1940 at the Royal Academy but it was rejected on the grounds that it contained an offensive word. He then submitted instead a painting of a group of hands, which was accepted, and which was later reported in the press when it was discovered that the words spelt `SHIT' in deaf and dumb language.

Another painting with text by Penrose shown at the Mayor Gallery in 1939 was `My Windows', on which is written: `My windows look sideways they are round in summer and red in Glasgow' in similar handwriting to that in `Portrait' (repr. Surrealism in England 1936 and after, exh. cat., The Herbert Read Gallery, Canterbury College of Art, 1986, p.27).

The exhibition itself was full of notices written by Penrose, such as `There is someone in this room who steals the air he breathes'. This is quoted in a review of June 1939 (Tate Gallery Archive, newspaper not recorded) which describes the Tate Gallery's painting as `an entirely new kind of portrait ... Mr Penrose tells you quite seriously that instead of the commonplace photographic likeness he is trying out this original method'.

The alliterations, puns and non-sequiturs in these texts are typical of some Surrealist poetry. Many of the British Surrealist artists also published poetry in the 1930's, including Valentine Penrose, and Roland Penrose's verse description of his visit to the Balkans `The Road is Wider Than Long' was published in June 1939. The relation between illustrations and text in this is slightly similar in its placing and oblique references, but it is narrative and about landscape, and not close to the `Portrait'.

The ornate gilt frame of this `Portait' was almost certainly used at its first exhibition in 1939, and further makes fun of a conventional portrait. This frame was previously around a portrait of the `Rev. E.J. Dark' by J. Doyle Penrose, Roland Penrose's father, according to a label on the reverse. In the artist's house it was displayed as a pendant to his father's portrait of him as a young boy (repr. L'Oeil see Lit. above).

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.545-6


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