Dulwich Picture Gallery will present British Surrealism, an ambitious and wide-spanning survey of the origins of surrealist art in Britain, and the first to trace its roots back to 1620 through supporting archive material. Marking the official centenary of surrealism, when founder André Breton began his experiments in surrealist writing in 1920, it will present a fresh take on this revolutionary movement, through over 70 eclectic works. 

British Surrealism will explore the contribution and responses that British artists made to the movement, whether they were involved directly as surrealists, or were significantly influenced by it. Bringing together over 40 artists, including Leonora Carrington, Edward Burra, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Ithell Colquhoun, John Armstrong, Paul Nash and Reuben Mednikoff, the exhibition showcases paintings, sculpture, photography, etchings and prints made between the years 1783 and 1952. Revelatory works from less familiar yet innovative figures will also feature, including Marion Adnams, John Banting, Sam Haile, Conroy Maddox and Grace Pailthorpe – all of whom were united by a motivation to blur the boundaries between reality and dreams. 

Conroy Maddox – Onanistic Typewriter

In the First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924), Breton named 25 poets, novelists and playwrights from the 17th to the 19th centuries who shared and inspired the subversive qualities and absurdities of the movement. In a playful twist, the exhibition will include works and books by some of these so-called ‘ancestors of surrealism,’ including William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Henry Fuseli, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Literary highlights in the exhibition include rare manuscripts such as a notebook containing Coleridge’s 1806 draft of his poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and a playscript for Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1859). 

The exhibition itself will echo elements of the uncomfortable, rejecting order and chronology to channel the mischief and provocation of the movement. It will be arranged to reflect the modes and methods of surrealism, with themes of war, dreams, the unconscious, the uncanny, radical politics, sex and desire. The common creative urge between all artists will be highlighted throughout, revealing the power of the subconscious, and the liberation of the imagination. 

Jennifer Scott, The Sackler Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery, said: 

“If you thought surrealism was solely born in France, think again! There is often something absurd and imaginative within British creativity, from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll to Henry Moore. Visitors will be invited to embark on their own adventures into the illogical through some spectacular loans and inventive exhibition design; it is not to be missed.” 

Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, Dulwich, SE21 7AD from 26th February – 17th May. Times: Tues – Sun 10am – 5pm. Admission: £16.50, £8. Phone: 0208 693 5254.


Main Photo: Leonora Carrington