Roland Penrose bigraphy, stories - Historians

Roland Penrose : biography

14 October 1900 - 23 April 1984

Sir Roland Algernon Penrose CBE (14 October 1900 – 23 April 1984) was an English artist, historian and poet. He was a major promoter and collector of modern art and an associate of the surrealists in the United Kingdom.. During the Second World War he put his artistic skills to practical use as a teacher of camouflage.



Early life

He was the son of James Doyle Penrose (1862–1932), a successful portrait painter, and Elizabeth Josephine Peckover, the daughter of Baron Peckover, a wealthy Quaker banker. He was the third of four brothers; his older brother was the medical geneticist Lionel Penrose.Richard Cork, "Penrose, Sir Roland Algernon (1900–1984)", rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 Roland grew up in a strict Quaker family in Watford and attended the Downs School, Colwall, and then Leighton Park School, Reading, Berkshire. In August 1918, as a conscientious objector, he joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit, serving from September 1918 with the British Red Cross in Italy. After studying architecture at Queens' College, Cambridge, Penrose switched to painting and moved to France, where he lived from 1922 and married his first wife the poet Valentine Boué. During this period he became friends with Pablo Picasso, Wolfgang Paalen and Max Ernst, who would have the strongest influence on his work and most of the leading Surrealists.


Penrose returned to London in 1936 and was one of the organisers of the London International Surrealist Exhibition, which led to the establishment of the English surrealist movement. Penrose settled in Hampstead, where he was the centre of the community of avant-garde British artists and emigres who had settled there, and he opened the London Gallery on Cork Street, where he promoted the Surrealists as well as friends Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and Naum Gabo. Penrose commissioned a sculpture from Moore for his Hampstead House that became the focus of a press campaign against abstract art. In 1938, Penrose organised a tour of Picasso's Guernica that raised funds for the Republican Government in Spain. Penrose and Boué's marriage had broken down in 1934, they divorced in 1937, and by 1939 Penrose had begun his relationship with model and photographer Lee Miller; they finally married in 1947. They lived at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead, London, which now bears a blue plaque.

World War II camouflage work

As a Quaker, Penrose had been a pacifist, but after the outbreak of World War II he volunteered as an air raid warden and then taught military camouflage at the Home Guard training centre at Osterley Park.Newark, 2007. This led to Penrose's commission as a captain in the Royal Engineers. He worked as Senior Lecturer at the Eastern Command Camouflage School in Norwich, and at the Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham Castle, Surrey. During his lectures, he used to startle his audiences by inserting a colour photograph of his partner Lee Miller, lying on a lawn naked but for a camouflage net; when challenged, he argued "if camouflage can hide Lee's charms, it can hide anything".Forbes, 2009, page 151. Forbes suggests this was a surrealist technique being put into service. His lectures were respected by both trainees and colleagues.Forbes, 2009, pages 151-152. In 1941 Penrose wrote the Home Guard Manual of Camouflage, which provided accurate guidance on the use of texture, not only colour, especially for protection from aerial photography (monochrome at that time).

In addition to working as an early staff member of the Camouflage Development and Training Centre, Penrose was influential in securing passage from Europe for many artists (including Kurt Schwitters and Salvador Dali) and finding them work and accommodation in England or onward travel to the US.


After the war, Penrose co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, with the art critic and writer Herbert Read in 1947. Penrose organised the first two ICA exhibitions: 40 Years of Modern Art, which included many key works of Cubism, and 40,000 Years of Modern Art, which reflected his interest in African sculpture. Penrose was a presence at the ICA for 30 years; he produced a number of books, which cover the works of his friends Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Man Ray and Antoni Tàpies. He was also a trustee of the Tate Gallery; he organized a survey of Picasso's work there in 1960 and used his contacts to negotiate purchases of works by Picasso and the Surrealists at discounted prices.

Farley Farm

Penrose and Miller bought Farley Farm House in East Sussex in 1949, where he displayed his valuable collection of modern art and in particular the Surrealists and works by Picasso. Penrose also designed the landscaping around the house as a setting for works of modern sculpture. In 1972, thieves broke into his London flat, stole a number of works, and then demanded a ransom. During a BBC TV interview, Penrose stated he would refuse all demands for a ransom. The paintings were later recovered as a result of diligent police work. Some were damaged but were restored by the Tate Gallery. After the death of his wife, Penrose loaned several key paintings from her collection to The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, a practice that Penrose's descendants have continued with his collection.

Penrose's former home at Farley Farm House - now owned by his son, Antony Penrose - is now a museum and an archive which is open to the public for guided tours on pre-determined days.

Audio recording

An interview with Roland Penrose (and Lee Miller) recorded in 1946 can be heard on the audio CD .


His bold and enigmatic surrealist paintings, drawings and objects are some of the most enduring images of the movement. He is remembered for his postcard collages, examples of which are found in major national collections across Britain. He was awarded the CBE in 1960, and he was knighted for his services to the visual arts in 1966. The University of Sussex awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1980.

Penrose is the uncle of the physicist and polymath Sir Roger Penrose. He and Lee Miller had a son, Antony Penrose, who continues to run Farley Farm House as a museum and archive.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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