- 'Surrealism Found Me':British Surrealism and Encounter
The work of surrealism in Britain has been remembered via a certain kind of anecdotal history.1 It is all too easy to find our attention drawn towards British surrealism's tall tales or quirks, only to discover that these eccentric stories seem to float, almost independently, from the movement they were ostensibly attached to, lacking a critical framework to ground them. This problem of detachment is understandable, for several reasons: first of all, that the anecdotes themselves are really very good. They reward retelling, reproduced in retrospective interviews, told at second or third hand, mutating and leaking out their truthfulness over time. Who could forget, for instance, the story of British surrealists garnering publicity for an exhibition by ringing up Selfridges en masse to ask for a definition of surrealism?2 Or resist the image of George Melly concluding a poetry reading by throwing cutlery over himself, or Desmond Morris lugging an elephant's skull around the streets of Birmingham?3 But this detachment may also be attributed to British surrealism's own sense of incohesion: the uncertainty of when surrealism arrived in Britain, and whether it ever left; whether it 'failed'–and, most of all, what it was. Looking back unfavourably in 1947, E. L. T. Mesens and J.-B. Brunius, in a 'Déclaration du Groupe Surréaliste en Angleterre', blamed [End Page 1]
La structure très décentralisée de la société anglaise–qui, historiquement, pourrait être opposée à l'extrême concentration de toutes les activités françaises sur Paris, que'elles soient administratives ou intellectuelles,–n'a jamais favorisé la création dans ce pays d'un groupe Surréaliste cohérent.4
Mesens and Brunius singled out 'l'éclectisme de Herbert Read' and 'les mystifications de [David] Gascogne', and ridiculed Humphrey Jennings's OBE.5 There is something plainly funny about the British surrealists writing to the French ones, in French, to apologise for doing so badly, pinning it both on unmovable national structures and the behaviour of a few. British surrealism had lacked the singular mouthpiece of André Breton, with his Surréaliste manifestos of 1924 and 1929, the clear immediate parent of Dadaism, or even a comparable geographical concentration. British surrealist participants were more scattered, with significant stations in Birmingham as well as London, and they were often–as Mesens and Brunius suggest–more interested in exploring or engaging with surrealism alongside ongoing literary and artistic activities rather than committing exclusively to it.6 From anecdotes, then, we may feel we know the pieces, traces, and trappings of British surrealism, but lack a picture of the whole. These pieces or trappings, however, are not a distraction from writing about surrealism in Britain. Rather, they can be centred as a critical formula for understanding how the movement manifested itself over the Channel, from the late 1920s until–at least–the late 1940s. This essay brings Surréaliste theories of encounter, chance, and play to bear on how writers and artists came across surrealism in Britain, and how British surrealism understood itself.
It is tricky to manage, account for, describe, or write about the phenomenon of surrealism as it appeared in Britain, drip-fed into cultural consciousness in the later 1920s, developing more fully during the 1930s, and later finding itself outdone by war in the 1940s. British surrealism is perceived to have been too disparate, distracted, and divided to really [End Page 2] constitute a 'movement' at all–hence the prevalence of its anecdotal traces, as technicolour fragments of an artistic apparatus that, apparently, stood only temporarily. As critics, we do not seem to know what British surrealism was; though hardly to its detriment, British surrealism didn't really seem to know what it was either. This fundamental confusion, however, is central to how we ought to conceive of British surrealism: as a mood, effect, experiment, or costume, which you might encounter or associate with, or even be influenced by without quite knowing. Leo Mellor has argued for surrealism in Britain to be understood 'as a source, not a doctrine; as a template, not a movement'.7 Neither particularly exclusive...