Surrealism in Cornwall:
Pailthorpe & Mednikoff, Thomas, Tunnard & Colquhoun
In 1934, six years
after Ben Nicholson ‘discovered’ Alfred Wallis in St Ives, he and
Barbara Hepworth were married. By this time the power couple of British
Modernism, they became outspoken advocates of abstract art, which had
slowly begun to gain support amongst the cognoscenti in Britain. But
then, in the mid 1930's, abstraction was suddenly outflanked by a
different and more alluring alternative: Surrealism.
The term ‘Surrealism’ was first coined by the French poet Guillaume
Apollinaire, but it was given a more tangible identity, initially as a
literary movement, by poet Andre Breton who wrote its first manifesto in
1924. Adopting a bombastic tone, reminiscent of DH Lawrence and the
English Socialists, he denounces rationalism: 'Experience itself has
found itself increasingly circumscribed. It paces back and forth in a
cage from which it is more and more difficult to make it emerge. It too
leans for support on what is most immediately expedient, and it is
protected by the sentinels of common sense. Under the pretense of
civilization and progress, we have managed to banish from the mind
everything that may rightly or wrongly be termed superstition, or fancy;
forbidden is any kind of search for truth which is not in conformance
with accepted practices'.
Breton famously goes on to define Surrealism as: 'Pure psychic
automatism by whose means it is intended to express, verbally or in
writing, or in any other manner, the actual functioning of thought.
Dictation of thought, in the absence of all control by reason, and
outside of all aesthetic or moral preoccupations….Surrealism is based on
the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association
hitherto neglected, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested
play of thought. It tends to ruin, once and for all, all other psychic
mechanisms, and to replace them in solving the main problems of life'.
Surrealism did not make much of an impact on British art until June
1936, however, when the International Surrealist Exhibition opened in
The New Burlington Galleries in London. The show had been initiated by
two Englishmen, poet David Gascoyne and painter Roland Penrose. The
British artist-contributors, of which there were 27, were selected by
Penrose and art-critic Herbert Read, and the continental by Breton and
Paul Eluard (Remy, 1999). Around 400 works were jammed together on the
walls of the gallery, and talks were given by artists including,
famously, Dali dressed in a deep-sea diver’s suit. (Harrison, 1981). The
exhibition attracted great publicity, though was received with hostility
by a conservative British press. Herbert Read, in his book ‘Surrealism’
(1937), gave a less reactionary view: June 1936: the International
Surrealist Exhibition broke over London electrifying the dry
intellectual atmosphere, stirring our sluggish minds to wonder,
enchantment and derision.
British artists had been rather slow to pick up on Surrealism. Neither
of Cornwall’s best-loved Surrealist artists, John Tunnard and Ithell
Colquhoun, for example, embraced surrealism until after the 1936
exhibition. In fact it is even doubtful that there were many true
Surrealists amongst the 27 British artists that were in the exhibition.
Most had simply adopted the look, without understanding or fully buying
into the philosophy.
Ancestors l 1935 by Grace Pailthorpe. One of three
powerful automatist drawings Pailthorpe contributed to the International
Surrealist Exhibition. (Others were ‘Wind’ and ‘Ancestors ll’)
because of their involvement with psychoanalysis and their unflinching
ideological commitment to psychic automatism, Breton later singled out
two of them: Grace Pailthorpe and Rueben Mednikoff. He regarded their
contribution as ‘the best and most truly Surrealist of the works
exhibited by the British artists’. Others have said that ‘they
were the haunting conscience of British Surrealism because they explored
the unconscious in the most thorough tenacious and uncompromising way’
Since May 1935, Pailthorpe and Mednikoff had been working in a modest
bungalow in Port Isaac, an isolated fishing village near Wadebridge a
few miles up the North Cornwall coast from DH Lawrence’s wartime getaway
in Porthcothan. Theirs was a rather strange relationship, to put it
mildly, and the art they produced even more so.
Pailthorpe was a surgeon, turned psychoanalyst, who had received
prolonged Freudian analysis from Dr Ernest Jones; later Freud’s
biographer. Although she was subsequently scathing of the experience,
she went on to publish research on delinquency that led to the
foundation of the 'Institute for the Scientific Treatment of
Delinquency' (later Portman Clinic). Pailthorpe met Mednikoff in London
on February 1935 via their mutual friend and Crowley’s former magickal
partner, Victor Neuburg (Neuburg and other luminaries like Havelock
Ellis were co-founders of the Delinquency Institute). At the time
Pailthorpe, who was tall and somewhat severe, was 44, and Mednikoff, who
was shorter, only 28.
Initially Pailthorpe took the role of the doctor and Mednikoff, as her
full-time patient, would provide her with strange, nightmarish images to
interpret. At times he too would analyse them (eg referring to April
21st, 1935): Here all my savagery plays the part of defending mother.
Escape again – meaning that by pretending to defend mother I was
escaping having my real motives discovered. The bent, double-ended penis
symbol is toothed, but in defence of mother [...] the desecrated walls
of the womb, in turn, protect the breast symbol. This I realise is now
no longer a defence of mother but me viciously attacking mother. My
savage teeth are really savage – defending myself. Fear of castration.
That which is to be protected (the stolen breast) is sheltered within
the protectiveness of mother's shattered womb [...] The voluted platform
is pleasant in character – an assumed protection of mother. The vicious
tone of its edge is indicative of its defence of my own penis. The
enclosing nature of the outer symbols again assumes the womb idea –
castration fear sends me back into mother for protection.
After moving to Cornwall together in order to continue their work in
seclusion, the boundary between doctor and patient became much more
blurred. Pailthorpe herself started painting, with positive results that
refuted her experience with Ernest Jones:...it was undoubtedly what I
had been looking for, viz another method of reaching the unconscious and
of bringing it up into consciousness. My own fruitless experience of
seven years of psychoanalysis by the strict Freudian method had left me
a complete wreck physically and psychologically. Others I knew had
suffered in the same way. I had been a most efficient doctor and surgeon
and came to analysis as a necessary part of my equipment when I decided
to specialise in psychological medicine. My career had been everywhere
successful. In the process of analysis my sublimations were all broken
down, but there was the conscious realization of what was causing this,
and the wrecking of my physical health, except the unrelieved tension
and strain of unproductive [.....] over a continuous period of 7 years
Pailthorpe became more interested in the object-relations theory of
Melanie Klein, and the couple’s research primarily concerned with the
recovery of their ‘earliest experiences, even [going back] to those
before we could talk. If that repressed child within us is to be
revived, we shall find it still the infant with the infant’s mode of
The couple’s comprehensive, unpublished ‘Notes on Colour Symbolism’
(1935) demonstrate their remarkably articulate theory of colour, in
which each colour symbolised something. They believed that colour was
therapeutic and that the unconscious refuses to work without colour. In
fact, when describing the colours of the mother's womb, Pailthorpe
states that the blue, red and green colours refer to warmth, the uterine
water, the comfort of being cushioned and body odour. She also refers to
the colour blue as a symbol of the mother figure because of its strength
and richness, yellow as representing the outside light, and black as the
symbol of death.
As a published poet himself, Mednikoff already knew David Gascoyne at
the time he met Grace Pailthorpe, and through Gascoyne, was familiar
with continental Surrealist art. It is therefore no surprise that
despite their forays into the unconscious, the couple’s work is not
completely spontaneous or automatic, and instead retains visual echoes
of Surrealists like Andre Masson. Nor is it surprising that, despite
having never shown together before, they were asked to be included in
the 1936 exhibition (Montanaro, 2010). As a professional draftsman and
one-time commercial artist, Mednikoff's work is generally more finished
and more complete in its structure and design, but both artists used the
same convulsive amoeboid shapes, and scatological references to bodily
Letters written during this period indicate that Pailthorpe and
Mednikoff remained in touch with Gascoyne after the close of the
International Surrealist exhibition, and he probably visited them in
Port Isaac. (eg Gascoyne to Mednikoff, 20th July, 1936): I imagine
you both to be hard at work in your seclusion, and am most interested to
know how it is all going [...] Taking you at your word, I am wondering
whether it would be possible for you and Dr. Pailthorpe to take me as a
paying-guest for a few weeks, if convenient just now. You were kind
enough to offer me your hospitality and, feeling in need of a change of
air and scene, it would be most pleasant to stay with people with whom I
share so much interest in common, and in such a congenial part of the
Dylan Thomas, the
poet, was one of many present at the opening of the 1936 Surrealist
show. Legend has it that, getting into the spirit of the exhibition and
inspired by the antics of Dali and the other Surrealists, he offered
visitors cups of boiled string asking ‘weak or strong?’
An indication of Cornwall’s attraction to London’s bohemia, immediately
prior to attending the exhibition in June 1936 Thomas, too, had spent a
couple of months in Cornwall with Wyn Henderson, an older fiery
red-headed libertine with whom he had a brief affair. In the late 20’s,
Henderson had worked for Nancy Cunard’s ‘Hours Press’ in Paris, where,
as the general manager she published Havelock Ellis’ 'The Re-evaluation
of Obscenity'. (In fact she apparently told Dylan Thomas, proudly, that
Ellis had taught her to urinate standing up (Lycett, 2003)). Returning
to London to live next door to Virginia Woolf’s brother Adrian Stephen
in Gordon Square, she had subsequently helped put Antonia White into
print (Frost in May, 1933). However by 1936 she had been declared
bankrupt and retreated to Polgigga near Lands End, to run a B&B.
Wyn Henderson by Augustus John on Hotel De La Tour Eiffel paper
By the time Dylan
Thomas returned to Cornwall again a year later, in the summer of 1937,
he had fallen in love with Caitlin Thomas. With the help of board and
lodging from Wyn Henderson, who by then had taken on the Lobster Pot in
Mousehole, he and Caitlin were married in Penzance Registry Office on
11th July. Caitlin and Dylan had their honeymoon in Cornwall and are
known to have met Dod Procter and Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand, who
cooked them a fiery curry (Lycett, 2003).
There were some other notable Surrealist comings and goings that summer.
In June British Surrealist Roland Penrose organised a month’s holiday
for some of his friends in Cornwall at a house between Truro and
Falmouth, called Lambe Creek. The party included several artists who had
taken part in the 1936 exhibition. ELT Mesens, Eileen Agar, Max Ernst,
Leonora Carrington (his younger, English girlfriend), Paul Eluard, Lee
Miller and Man Ray, all managed to squeeze into a modest, white,
creekside property looking upriver towards Truro. The police had issued
an arrest warrant for Max Ernst on the basis that his recent exhibition
at The Mayor Gallery was pornographic. Despite this, the artists did
little to try to avoid detection, and engaged in plenty of playful
exhibition-ism in the garden on the bank of the Truro River: pulling
shapes, and posing for two of the century’s most renowned photographers,
Lee Miller and Man Ray.
Then in August 1938, occultist Aleister Crowley stayed in the Lobster
Pot in Mousehole. He was visiting friends in Cornwall, notably Pat
Doherty and his son Ataturk. By this time, however, Wyn Henderson, who
had known Peggy Guggenheim earlier in the 30s, was back in London. Early
in 1938 she was asked by Guggenheim to run a new gallery. Henderson
suggested the name - Guggenheim Jeune - and designed the branding. By a
strange twist of fate it would be important to the careers of a number
of British Surrealist artists.
Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were amongst the first to be asked by Henderson
to show there, and would have travelled up from Cornwall for meetings:
Dear Wyn Henderson,
Many thanks for your letter and the enclosed Bulletin.
I expect to be up in London the last week of July (1938) and would like
very much to come to lunch with you and meet Miss Guggenheim.
Is this Peggy or another Guggenheim?
R. Mednikoff and I have been asked to show our pictures at all
surrealist shows since the International in 1936, both at home and
abroad - New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston. We were asked to show in
the Belgium show, but the show eventually did not come off, I forgot
why. I am interested to see that you are showing surrealist works.
I shall look forward to seeing you soon.
John Tunnard was another artist living in Cornwall who visited
Guggenheim Jeune in 1938, and was offered an exhibition there the
following year. Born in 1900, Tunnard enrolled as a student at The Royal
College in 1919, where he became acquainted with sculptor Henry Moore.
Tunnard married Mary ‘Bob’ Robertson in 1926, and in 1929 gave up a
promising career as a commercial artist to become a full-time painter.
He spent most of the next few years in West Cornwall, and when he was
offered a show at the Redfern Gallery in 1933, most of the exhibits were
landscape paintings of the area: naive and expressionistic and similar
in their feel to the 7 and 5 Society era paintings of Ben Nicholson. (Glazebrook,
1977). Tunnard and ‘Bob’ went on to buy a gypsy caravan in which they
lived in Cadgwith on the Lizard peninsula, and he is known to have been
given a copy of Herbert Read’s Surrealism by Bob for Christmas, 1936. He
is reputed to have said ‘it’s all in there, it’s all in there’.
In fact Tunnard drew equally from abstract art, and artists like Juan
Miro, Alexander Calder and Ben Nicholson in arriving at his mature
style. However his use of space, and his habitual tendency to place
biomorphic modernist forms in front of a long featureless horizon, so
they appear to float within a strange futuristic landscape, has always
suggested a strong affinity of with Surrealism, and accordingly he was
included in several Surrealist shows in the late 30s.
It was in 1938 that he presented himself to Peggy Guggenheim: One day
a marvelous man in a highly elaborate tweed coat walked into the
gallery. He looked like Groucho Marx. He was as animated as a jazz band
leader, which he turned out to be. He showed us his gouaches which were
as musical as Kandinsky’s, as delicate as Klees and as gay as Miros. His
name was John Tunnard. He asked me very modestly if I thought I could
give him a show, and then and there I fixed a date’.
PSI by John Tunnard. Shown in the Guggenheim Jeune
exhibition, and bought afterwards by Peggy Guggenheim herself.
Whilst Tunnard may
have only been obliquely influenced by the 1936 International Surrealist
exhibition, the same cannot be said to be true of another artist who
later would be his near neighbour in Cornwall, namely Ithell Colquhoun.
Colquhoun, artist, painter, writer and occultist and Cornwall-ophile was
born in India in 1906. She attended Cheltenham Ladies College before
gaining entry to the Slade School of Art in 1927. Whilst there, she
painted classical and mythological subjects in a modernist, figurative
style and made some tentative forays into the esoteric world of the
Qabalah by getting involved, and contributing to The Quest Magazine. (Ratcliffe,
After leaving the Slade she went travelling throughout Europe, and
managed to have a formal portrait taken by Man Ray in Paris in 1932.
However Colquhoun only really got turned onto Surrealism after
witnessing the 1936 exhibition in London: When I went to Paris in
1931 I read a booklet called what is Surrealism by Peter Negoe – and
American, I think, of whom I have never subsequently heard. I saw
paintings by Salvador Dali in small mixed exhibitions. Dali had not then
been excommunicated by Breton. Only in 1936 did the movement
(Surrealism) make its full impact on me…..Andre Breton, robust and
thickset, with wavy hair of a length at that time conspicuous, and other
also spoke, but who could follow Dali? It seemed that he did actually
evoke phantasmic presences which generated a tense atmosphere; the white
cloth stretched to form a lowered ceiling vibrated as in a strong wind,
though the weather was still and sultry. Dali was minute, feverish, with
bones brittle as a birds a mop of dark hair and greenish eyes.
Responding to the provocation of Surrealism, and its problematisation of
sexuality, between 1937 and 1939 Colquhoun produced her most
characteristic surrealist works. She subsequently referred to this as
her 'Dali phase'. In June 1939 she had a joint show with Roland Penrose
at the Mayor Gallery, and shortly afterwards visited Paris to see
Breton. She formally joined the Surrealists late in 1939.
When war was declared in September 1939, Pailthorpe and Mednikoff moved
from Cornwall to Hertfordshire, and attempted to organise a Surrealist
exhibition at the British Art Centre. The gallery had been recently
established by Guggenheim and Herbert Read. Previously the British
Surrealists had rather relied on the London Gallery and the London
Bulletin for exposure, and their demise at the outbreak of war had very
much threatened the survival of the British group.
During the lead-up to the event, Mednikoff sent a letter to the
Surrealists inviting them to dinner at the Barcelona Restaurant:
At a meeting between Dr Pailthorpe, Roland Penrose, W Hayter and
myself, it was decided that arrangements be made for a gathering of
Surrealists for the purpose of planning the reforming of the Surrealist
Group in England.
Dr Pailthorpe and I suggested the reforming of the group with freedom
from political bias or activity as part of its constitution. As it was
felt by us all that Surrealism’s vital purpose would benefit
considerably by the reforming of the group, it was agreed that
arrangements be made for a dinner, to be followed by a discussion in
which all views could be made known and a constitution formulated.
The plans for this are now in progress. The dinner will be held on
Thursday, April 11th, at 7.15pm, and the price will be 3/6 per person.
The final arrangements cannot be made until the exact number of people
who will be present is known, therefore, it is essential that I am
quickly notified of your intention to be present. As soon as I receive
this information the address of the rendezvous will be sent to you.
Because there is very little time to spare an immediate reply will be
Ithell Colquhoun supported the couple’s arrangements for the meeting. In
a handwritten letter dated 5th April 1940, she wrote: I shall be very
pleased to come to the dinner you and Dr Pailthorpe are arranging to
discuss the future of Surrealism in England. As you know I am in
agreement with your idea of the non-political basis of any group which
may be formed.
ELT Mesens, however, was committed to retaining a much more principled
political stance, prompted by the rise of Fascism, and Breton’s recent
endorsement of Marxism. As the leader he demanded that any one wishing
to remain in the British Surrealist group would have to commit to the
1. Adherence to the proletarian revolution
2. Agreement not to join any group or association, professional or
other, including any secret society, other than the surrealist
3. Agreement not to exhibit or publish except under surrealist auspices.
Pailthorpe, Mednikoff and Colquhoun, along with Eileen Agar and Henry
Moore, could not agree to these rules, and left the group. Paithorpe and
Mednikoff ended up moving to the US. Colquhoun, on the other hand,
started visiting Cornwall more regularly, and eventually settled here.
C (1981) English Art & Modernism; Remy, M (1999) Surrealism in Britain;
Glazebrook, M (1977) John Tunnard; Read, H (1937) Surrealism;
Lycett, A (2003) Dylan Thomas: A New Life;
Ratcliffe, E (2003) Ithell Colquhoun: Pioneer Surrealist
Artist, Occultist, Writer and Poet.
See Lee Ann Montanaro
see 'exhibitions' for Pailthorpe & Mednikoff's 'A
Tale of Mothers Bones'
Written in 2013 as a chapter in
Magic&Modernity, uploaded in 2019