As Europe's surrealists met in Paris cafes to hotly debate the very nature of art, what were their British counterparts up to? Making hats in Dorset. Jane Ure-Smith on the seaside surrealists
From Monday March 5, 2007 The Guardian
'I began to discover that Swanage was surreal' ... Paul Nash's Event on the Downs.
As coastal towns go, Swanage is hardly a seaside idyll. Sprawling around a bay that stretches from the chalky cliffs of Ballard Head to the stubbier Peveril Point, the Dorset town is a hotchpotch of architectural styles. On the front, pinball alleys jostle with fish-and-chip shops. Away from the water, there is more coherence - in the neat, grey-stone high street, for instance, which climbs up to a grand-ish town hall. But Swanage is hardly, at first glance, a place to fire the imagination of artists.
Yet it was this town that inspired Eileen Agar and Paul Nash, the two British artists who came to be known as the "seaside surrealists", making art from what they saw - and found - around Swanage. The pair met and had a passionate affair while staying there with their respective partners in the mid-1930s. Agar, daughter of a Scottish businessman, was born in Buenos Aires, but came to England as a child. The quirkiness of her art - her Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse was an assemblage of objects found on a beach and turned into headwear - quickly landed her in the surrealist camp.
London-born Nash, 10 years her senior, was famous for his paintings of both world wars. He experimented with numerous modernist styles, but is probably best known now for Totes Meer, his "dead sea" of wrecked German planes painted in 1940, which he hoped would depress the Nazis. But before that, Nash went through a surrealist phase that coincided with a move to Swanage in 1934.
Nash had asthma and hoped the coastal climate would help. Living with his wife Margaret, first in a farmhouse by Ballard Head and later in a seafront flat, he regained his strength and threw himself into a series of decidedly surreal pieces. It wasn't long before he met and fell for Agar, who had taken a house in Swanage for the summer with her long-term partner, Joseph Bard.
The views from his window emerged in such works as Event on the Downs, which depicts a tree trunk and a giant tennis ball heading off together on a journey, and Landscape from a Dream, a clifftop scene with bird and mirror, praised by André Breton. But about the town itself Nash was scathing. In an essay published in 1936 by the Architectural Review, he wrote: "Modern Swanage is of such extreme ugliness, architecturally, that the inhabitants instinctively look out to sea ..."
Neither Nash nor Agar was a surrealist in the sense of being a member of the Paris-based group. The British surrealists - including artists such as Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore, neither of whom we think of as surrealists today - were a looser group. Fascinated by the strangeness of the natural world, they cherry-picked the ideas percolating in Parisian cafes. Nash bought into Breton's notion that a statue standing in the street is just a statue; if, however, the statue is lying in a field, it is "in a state of surrealism" - and becomes somewhat disquieting. It was an idea that made sense to him in Swanage.
Soon after he moved there, Nash read a review of his photographic work in a magazine. The writer, Raymond Mortimer, insisted that the pictures were surrealist and Nash found the idea appealing. "They planted ideas in my mind which, deliberately, I allowed to grow," he wrote. "I began gradually to discover that Swanage was definitely ... surrealist."
For Nash, Swanage's strangeness was complemented by the beauty of the surrounding landscapes and seascapes, and images that could suddenly take shape before his eyes. "I am not likely to forget the morning when, from my window, I beheld a solitary swan wheel over the south-west and plane down not far short of the pier," he wrote. Swanage's swan took on a mystical significance: perceiving it in the design of new seats on the esplanade, he snapped away with his camera.
During the 1930s, much of Agar's work, like Nash's, focused on natural objects. She often saw in them the funny side: her aptly named Bum-Thumb Rock is a case in point, one of a set of photographs of odd rock formations she took while on holiday in Brittany. The accident of coming across these rocks, lying like "enormous prehistoric monsters, a great buttock ending in a huge thumb, or a gigantic head tuned with organ pipes ... all sculpted by the sea ..." prompted Agar to rush off and buy a Rolleiflex and make photography a part of her repertoire.
Later, Agar was the only female artist to have her work included in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London. On Nash's recommendation, the show's organisers visited Agar's studio and selected several works. She was puzzled: "One day I was an artist exploring personal combinations of form and content, and the next I was calmly informed I was a surrealist!"
The sea held a certain terror for Nash because he almost drowned as a child, but he came to love it on the coast. With Agar, he scanned the shores for found objects to develop into artworks. Seashore Monster at Swanage, based on a "snakey monster" Agar found in the sand at Lulworth Cove, was one of their collaborations. "Digging like a child hunting for treasure, I unpebbled a long snakey monster with a bird's beak," Agar recalls in her memoirs. "It was an old anchor chain, metamorphosed by the sea into a new creation, a snake bird." They both photographed the object, Nash incorporating it into his photo-collage, Swanage.
Snakes, birds and flight had become part of the private mythology shared by Nash and Agar. When she ended their affair, Nash wrote to her: "If we break now, we break at the peak of our flight where we had climbed like two birds who make love in mid-air heedless of where they soar. We have not yet taken down our bright sky".