Index of Historic Collectors and Dealers of Cubism
Penrose, Sir Roland
London, 1900–London, 1984

Sir Roland Penrose was a British Surrealist artist, art historian, curator, and collector who also worked to promote the career of Picasso throughout the United Kingdom and to acquire Cubist paintings and works on paper for prominent British collections.

After studying architecture at Cambridge University, Penrose lived in France from 1922 to 1936. Following in the steps of his father James Doyle Penrose, a recognized portrait painter, he spent 1922–23 in Paris, pursuing a career as an artist. Penrose studied with Othon Friesz and André Lhote, and was heavily influenced by the work of Georges Braque and Picasso, particularly their Cubist collages. In 1924, he moved to Cassis-sur-Mer, where Penrose lived with the Greek painter Yanko Varda, and began painting in a style influenced by Cubism. It was here that Penrose married the French poet Valentine Boué, who would introduce him to the Surrealist poets André Breton and Paul Éluard. Breton and Éluard helped found Surrealism in 1924 and signed its First Manifesto. They introduced Penrose to their circle of Surrealist friends, which included such artists as Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Joan Miró, Picasso, and Yves Tanguy.

Éluard was largely responsible for what would become a lifelong friendship between Penrose and Picasso. The poet also facilitated Penrose’s 1937 purchase of Picasso’s Nude Woman Lying in the Sun (1932; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh), which launched his interest in collecting. With the help of his second wife, American photographer Lee Miller, Penrose began amassing a significant collection of Cubist and Surrealist work. Acquisitions typically stemmed from Penrose’s desire to support his friends. When Breton found himself in financial straits in 1936, for instance, Penrose purchased a Cubist work (Picasso’s Head [1913; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh]) from the poet’s collection. He went on to acquire Picasso’s Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier) (1910; Museum of Modern Art, New York) from René Gaffé in 1937, and in 1938 he purchased 129 Cubist, Dada, and Surrealist works from Éluard’s collection (most of which are housed today in the National Galleries of Scotland).

Following his return to London in 1936, Penrose housed his growing collection in his home at 21 Downshire Hill. That same year he and British poet David Gascoigne, as well as artists Henry Moore, Paul Nash, and Ben Nicholson, organized the First International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries. Although Surrealism was relatively unknown in the UK, the show’s opening included speeches by Breton and Dalí and caused a scandal in the British press. From the 1930s onward, Penrose would adopt Surrealism in his own artistic practice—developing a form of collage-painting that fused Max Ernst’s frottage technique and Georges Braque’s penchant for trompe l’oeil with Surrealist literary techniques, as seen in his Frottage (1932; Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice).

As an increasingly close friend and ardent supporter of Picasso, Penrose organized the British tour of Guernica (1937; Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid) to promote the artist’s career in the UK and raise funds for the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. At the tour’s end, Penrose arranged to bring the canvas temporarily to the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1938 for safety. During World War II, Penrose used his training as an artist to teach camouflage painting at the Eastern Command Camouflage School in Norwich, where he published Home Guard Manual of Camouflage in 1941. Following the war, Penrose and Picasso would go on to mount a number of exhibitions devoted to the artist and Cubism at the newly founded Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), London: in 1948, 40 Years of Modern Art 1907-1947: A Selection from British Collections featured works by Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger (some from Penrose’s personal collection); in 1951, Picasso: Drawings and Watercolours since 1893: An Exhibition in Honour of the Artists’ 70th Birthday included Picasso’s Man with a Hat and a Violin (1912; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); and in 1955, Twentieth Century Paintings and Sculptures Lent by Collectors in England, highlighted Cubist works by Picasso and Gris.

Picasso and other artists often stayed with Penrose and Miller when traveling to England in the immediate postwar period. Conversations with Picasso during this time were the fodder for the major biography Picasso—His Life and Work that Penrose published in 1958. Picasso was so pleased with Penrose’s account that he designed the cover for the French edition. Two years later, Penrose realized for the Tate Gallery the very first retrospective of the artist’s work in England, to which the artist loaned one hundred works from his personal collection and was a testament to the deep friendship between the two men.

Penrose became increasingly involved in the activities of the Tate Gallery, where he served as a trustee and oversaw several exhibitions beginning in 1960. He continued to depend on his close connections with Picasso throughout the decade to negotiate the purchase of works for the museum’s collection. Some notable acquisitions include the purchase of Picasso’s The Three Dancers (1925) in 1965 and Braque’s Mandora (1910) in 1966. Penrose also left several important works to the Tate, including Picasso’s Still Life (1914), which he had purchased from Éluard in 1938 and his Weeping Woman (1937), which was purchased from the artist just after its completion.

Contributed by Rachel Boate, August 2017
For more information, see:

Penrose, Antony. “Roland Penrose and the Impulse of Provence.” In Provence and the British Imagination, 205–18, edited by Claire Davison, et al. Milan: Ledizoni, 2013.

Penrose, Sir Roland. Picasso, His Life and Work. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981.

Picasso. London: Arts Council of Britain, 1960.