British Surrealism Unlocked: Works from the Sherwin Collection

A GP’s art collection offers a comprehensive view of an overlooked movement

April 17, 2014

British Surrealism Unlocked: Works from the Sherwin Collection
Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, until 21 June 2014

From France to England: British Surrealism Opened Up, by Jeffrey Sherwin
Northern Artists Galleries, £10.00 (from Abbot Hall and Leeds art galleries)

In the memoir cum catalogue accompanying this exhibition, which showcases his collection of British surrealism, retired GP Jeffrey Sherwin decides to get in his apologies first.

The final page features an image of a plaster medallion by Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), where a penitent male figure is being whipped by a dominatrix. “I’m sorry”, writes Sherwin, “if this little book lacks the art-speak and finesse that you might expect from a book on art.” Along with a basic introduction to the subject and potted artists’ biographies, he hopes that he has “managed to produce the occasional smile”. For anyone used to the work of professional art historians, the tone could hardly be more startling.

His collection, which he reports is “considered by some to be of national relevance”, began when he “walked into Leeds Art Gallery in 1986”. His father was also a GP and his surgery shared premises with a local butcher, so the two-door entrance was marked Dr M. Sherwin on one side and “Home Killed” on the other; the younger Dr Sherwin “expects my interest in surrealism started there”.

Sherwin neglects all ‘art-speak and finesse’ in simply describing the artists in his collection as ‘bloody good’

In any event, Jeffrey Sherwin decided in the 1960s to set up a health centre, bringing together doctors, dentists, an optician, chiropodist and chemist on a single site. He himself practised elsewhere but by 1986 had sold off the premises to the occupiers, giving him a good deal of cash to spend on art.

Although he had not even been aware of the existence of British surrealism, Sherwin became fascinated by the movement’s work and embarked on a collection, starting with an etching by Merlyn Evans (1910-73) called The Chess Players. At £1,000, this cost more than he had ever spent on an artwork before, and he reports that he found his fingers perspiring for the first time since “I thought I couldn’t answer one question on my A-level Physics paper”.

From that core, Sherwin has built up a collection of about 300 items, although he admits that much further expansion is unlikely. “Every wall is crowded,” he says. “My pocket places limits on it, my wife has placed limits on it and I suspect age has now placed limits on it. There is a limit to the number of pictures I can lean up against the wall and the house still look like a home.”

More than 100 works are on display in Kendal. They include a gouache by René Magritte illustrating William Beckford’s Gothic novel Vathek, incorporating a portrait of Salvador Dalí sporting a comparatively restrained moustache; some matchboxes by Man Ray; a poster and pencil drawing by Max Ernst. But almost every other work is British, predominantly from the 1930s and 1940s.

To some extent, this represents a rather thin seam. A big International Surrealist Exhibition was held in London in 1936, but three years later, as Sherwin admits, “the war unfortunately wrecked everything – they had just got started and everybody had to be part of the war effort. After the war, there were lots of new movements from America, which submerged the British surrealist movement. It never got the recognition it deserved.”

Some of the British surrealists had a talent for scuppering their own careers. “Outsider” artist Scottie Wilson (1892-1972) was rescued from penury by the chance to show his drawings in London galleries, but he couldn’t resist biting the hand that fed him by standing outside and offering them for sale at far lower prices.

Also unhelpful were the schisms and excommunications, described in Sherwin’s book, within British surrealist circles. Henry Moore (represented in the exhibition by an engraving and two bronzes) was thrown out after he accepted a commission from a church. A rather facile antireligious attitude is also to be found in the works of Conroy Maddox (1912-2005), with his picture of Jesus in an expensive car on a “short cut to Calvary” and an assemblage including a severed nipple, a newspaper cutting about mafiosi monks and a photograph of the artist stabbing a nun.

Surrealist politics also tended towards the flamboyantly theatrical. At the 1938 May Day Parade, a group protested against the non-aggression pact which prevented people from travelling to Spain to support the republican cause by delivering Hitler salutes dressed up in bowler hats with “Chamberlain must go!” signs. They also brought along a float carrying a skeleton in a gilded cage and a papier mché horse’s head on an ice cream cart.

Nonetheless, the limitations of British surrealism also make it more affordable and there is a good deal of striking and sometimes disturbing work from Sherwin’s collection on display. John Banting (1902-72) produced a cream-coloured self-portrait with his face outlined in rope. Humphrey Jennings (1907-50), later a leading figure in the Mass Observation movement, produced definitively surreal photo-collages with titles such as Trees with Rainbow Stripe and Commode with Swiss Roll. And Argentine-born Eileen Agar (1899-1991) studied with a Czech cubist in Paris before being selected, rather to her surprise, for the 1936 surrealism exhibition in London.

In tracing the little-known history of British surrealism, Sherwin often brings himself into the story. He describes his efforts to create a Moore Sculpture Gallery as an extension to the Leeds Art Gallery, which gives him the chance to include a picture of himself with the Queen at the official opening. He has taken to buying a new work of art every time he or his wife comes round from an anaesthetic, just “to celebrate the fact that we are still alive”, and commissioned a diptych from Anthony Earnshaw (1924-2001), incorporating items from his surgery, after he recovered from a quadruple bypass operation following a heart attack.

A confessed “ordinary bloke” who believes that “art is meant to be enjoyed, not to be worshipped”, Sherwin neglects all “art-speak and finesse” in simply describing the artists in his collection as “bloody good”.

His book draws out some very loose connections with his home city of Leeds. (The popularity of the futurist artist Tommaso Marinetti is apparently matched by that of his cousin, who runs an excellent Italian restaurant there.) He also enjoys the culture clashes which result from the rarefied world of the arts rubbing up against those with different priorities. When Moore came to visit his new sculpture gallery, a local undertaker and city councillor couldn’t resist digging him in the ribs and asking: “Eh Enri – how can a little fellow like you knock those holes in those big women?” After an embarrassed silence, the Castleford-born Moore burst out laughing and said: “It’s great to be back in Yorkshire again.” Sherwin is also amused that “a fairly explicit representation of female genitalia” in a painting by Ithell Colquhoun (1906-88) “appears to have gone unnoticed or at least unremarked by the civic burghers of Bradford” when it featured in a 1943 exhibition.

It must be nice to have a house full of paintings like those on display at the Abbot Hall Gallery. For those keen to follow in his footsteps, Sherwin ends his book with “a practical guide to collecting”. Much can be learned, he tells us, by visiting local art galleries and speaking to the curators, since they “like to talk to members of the public who are genuinely interested in art rather than just being asked ‘where is the toilet?’”

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