Andrew Lambirth

The artist as lover

What with marriage to Lee Miller, orgies and a long friendship with Picasso, Penrose’s life was scarcely dull. But James King’s clunky biography makes it seem so

Roland Penrose (1900–84) was a Surrealist painter and object-maker, a collector and art world grandee, a writer and organiser of exhibitions, co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and biographer of Picasso. He amply illustrates Goethe’s dictum that we are rich at the price of our contradictions. Born a wealthy Quaker, Penrose rebelled and became an artist. He was deeply involved with the revolutionary practice of Surrealism but was also an establishment figure: a substantial landowner who accepted a knighthood for services to the arts. His private life was equally divided. His first marriage, to the poet Valentine Boue, was never consummated. His second and more famous wife was the photographer Lee Miller.

Roland and Lee had an open relationship and, in the early years, happily told each other of their lovers. Later, when Miller began to drink heavily and lost her mesmeric good looks, she felt threatened by Roland’s continued infidelities. Roland, despite his genuine love for Lee, carried on having affairs, notably with the circus acrobat Diane Deriaz, who also entranced (among others) Lawrence Durrell. Penrose the art-world mover was dedicated to advancing the careers of others, but did he take refuge in this activity because it was less challenging than being an artist himself? Certainly, he stopped making art in order to be a writer (though he had little natural talent for it), and specifically to write the biography of his hero, Picasso.

He also spent much time curating exhibitions by his friends Max Ernst, Miró and Man Ray, as well as Picasso. He owned some marvellous paintings by these artists, but he has been accused of becoming a ready-made collector by purchasing his friend Paul Eluard’s collection and not using his own taste and discrimination. Other contradictions include the theory that he was homoerotically involved with Picasso, that old fascinator, despite his manifest love of women.

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