Surreal and Solarised Photographs

Alix Strachey (née Sargant-Florence) (1892-1973) by Barbara Ker-Seymer and John Banting, 1930s
© reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London.
NPG x13130

Born in Nutley, New Jersey, Strachey was the daughter of the British artist Mary Sargant-Florence. After studying at the Slade School and Newnham College, Cambridge she moved in with her brother in his Bloomsbury house. Whilst attending the weekly Bloomsbury Salons she met the psychoanalyst James Strachey and they married in 1920. Alix followed her husband into psychoanalysis and the pair moved to Vienna where they worked extensively with Freud. She is shown here photographed by Barbara Ker-Seymer, a Surrealist photographer who photographed many of the English avant-garde.

Teresa ('Tess') (née Mayor), Baroness Rothschild by Ramsey & Muspratt, 1930s
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Given by Jane Burch
NPG x31085

Lettice Ramsey and Helen Muspratt opened their first joint studio in Cambridge above a row of shops in 1932. Their style of relaxed but perceptive portraiture gained popularity with Cambridge's leading pre-war intellectual and literary figures. In 1937 Muspratt married and expanded the studio to Oxford, whilst Ramsey stayed in Cambridge and continued to run the original studio until the 1970s. The National Portrait Gallery holds many works donated by Ramsey's daughter in 1988. Shown here is there solarised portrait of Baroness Rothschild who married Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild in 1946.

Barbara Ker-Seymer (1905-1993) by Humphrey Spender, 1930s
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Given by Humphrey Spender
NPG x36076

After studying at the Slade and the Royal College of Art, Ker-Seymer became an assistant in Oliva Wyndham’s studio. She quickly made a name for herself for taking radically modernist portraits and photographed many of the English avant-garde. When World War Two began Ker-Seymer abandoned photography and focused on raising her son. In 1951, inspired by a trip to New York, she opened one of London’s first laundrettes.

John Banting (1902-1972) by Humphrey Spender, 1930s
© National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG x14265

Banting was a Surrealist painter, designer and stage designer. He studied at Westminster School of Art and in Paris and was briefly associated with the Bloomsbury Group. After meeting Duchamp and his contemporaries in Paris in the early 1930s he became heavily influenced by Surrealism. He exhibited at the International Surrealist Exhibitions in London and New York in 1936. This portrait was taken by his close friend the photojournalist and artist Humphrey Spender. He is posed holding a wire violin designed for arranging flowers.

Francis Goodman by Winifred Casson, 1935
© National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG x24433

Born Francis Julian Gutmann in London but brought up in Germany, Gutmann returned to England with his German–Jewish family in 1931, aged eighteen. He worked for the photographers Cecil Beaton and Peter Rose-Pulham and collaborated with the surrealist artist John Banting. His portraits appeared in the British edition of Harper’s Bazaar and The Sketch and in 1940 he changed his name to Goodman. He is shown here in a solarised portrait by the self-taught photographer Winifred Casson.

Winifred Casson (1908-1969) by John Somerset Murray, 1934
© reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London. Given by John Somerset Murray
NPG x15478

A self-taught photographer, Casson worked as a portrait and advertising photographer. In the 1930s she had a studio in Chelsea, London and collaborated with John Somerset Murray. Casson and Murray shared equipment and skills and exhibited together at the Chelsea Arts Club in 1935. She contributed to journals including Photographie and the Photography Year Book. She is particularly known for her Surrealist photographs including her double–exposure work Accident.

John Somerset Murray (1904-1992) self-portrait, circa 1940s
© reserved; collection National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG x68226

Murray opened his first studio in Sloane Street in 1933 and largely worked on advertising. Influenced by the technical experimentation of Man Ray he too began to try new methods. He met Winifred Casson at one his lectures and taught her his technical understanding of photography. Murray left photography behind after the outbreak of War in 1939 but his photography was rediscovered when his surrealist work was shown in the Arts Council's exhibition 'Modern British Photography: 1919-1939' in 1980.

Roland Penrose (1900-1984) by Lord Snowdon, 28 June 1963
© SNOWDON / Camera Press. Given by the photographer
NPG P797(37)

On leaving Cambridge University, where he had studied architecture, Penrose moved to Pairs to become a painter. In Paris he met the leading avant-garde artists and befriended the British poet David Gascoyne. Together they decided to bring Surrealism to Britain and in 1935 Penrose returned to London to organise the International Surrealist Exhibition. Alongside his tireless promotion of Surrealism he was a fervent supporter of the Republican Cause during the Spanish Civil War. After the war he continued to promote modern art and in 1947 he helped found the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA).

E.L.T. Mesens (1903-1971) by Ida Kar, circa 1958
© National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG x129579

Born in Brussels, Mesens was influenced by the work of the Dadaists and the Surrealists. He exhibited Surrealist shows in his gallery in Belgium and then settled in London after helping to organise the International Surrealist Exhibition. He worked with Roland Penrose at the London Gallery and edited the Surrealist magazine London Bulletin.

Beatrix Lehmann by Angus McBean, 1937
© National Portrait Gallery, London
NPG P922

In December 1937 McBean began his a series of ‘Surrealised Portraits’ for The Sketch magazine with this portrait of Beatrix Lehmann. The portraits were published as a two-page feature each week between the end of 1937 and throughout 1938. This portrait was captioned ‘Vinnie Actionised’ in a reference to her performance as Lavinia (Vinnie) in Eugene O’Neill’s play Mourning Becomes Electra. Other sitters in the ‘Surrealised Portraits’ series included the actresses Mary Ellis and Peggy Ashcroft and the ballet dancer Tamara Toumanova.