By the start of 1935 Leonora, still aged seventeen, was by the standards of the day a well-travelled young woman. She had tasted life in Florence and Paris and visited other cities and countries in Europe including Rome, the South of France, and Switzerland. In The Hearing Trumpet she pays tribute to Maurie’s role in all of this—”thanks to my mother I did see most of Europe during my youth”—and describes some of the highlights, including Monte Carlo (‘Mother found her home in the casino’) and Sicily, where a waiter sold them a painting by Fra Angelico “which did not turn out to be authentic and was therefore not as cheap as we thought.”
And while the family had always been based in Lancashire, Leonora had also lived in Essex and Berkshire, at her convent boarding schools. London, though, was a city she was less familiar with, and that was about to change. Harold and Maurie, disappointed at their daughter’s inability to fit in at any of the schools to which they had sent her, had decided to up the tempo on getting her married off and settled down. Given her consistent refusal to conform in a variety of settings, it seems extraordinary that they still hoped she might comply with this; but hope they did, and plans were made for her to have a season as a debutante in the capital. It was an experience that would be filled with garden parties, balls, expensive outfits, an overload of other people of privilege and—crucially—opportunities to become acquainted (but not too well acquainted) with desirable young men interested in finding themselves a wife.
If it’s hard to imagine—and it is—why Leonora allowed herself to be recruited into the ranks of debutantes, it’s worth remembering that from her point of view, “coming out” meant the chance to taste London. The family took an apartment in town and the rigmarole kicked off in March that year with a presentation at Buckingham Palace. Maurie accompanied her, and the entire occasion meant a great deal more to her than it did to Leonora. “Ever since she left Ireland at the age of eighteen Mother had lived a constant round of dizzy pleasure,” Leonora writes in The Hearing Trumpet. “Cricket matches, shooting parties, jumble sales, shopping in Regent Street, bridge parties and face massage at Madame Pomeroy’s, an unfashionable beauty parlour just off Piccadilly Circus.”
A Times report of the presentation gives a flavor of all that it entailed: “Victorian frocks for debutantes and long classical gowns for older women were worn at their Majesties’ First Court of the season last night. Frilled tulle and net and taffeta or cire made most of the dresses for the young girls, the bodies sloping off the shoulders and finished with tiny puff sleeves or epaulettes. In striking contrast were the older ladies’ slim-fitting, severe gowns of lamé and tissue in rich colours, cut with short trains to the skirts. Embroidery was an important feature of all the dresses; heavy incrustations of sequins, pearls or diamanté weighted the hems of many skirts and trains, and the design of most lace frocks was outlined with dainty beading.” Queen Mary wore “a gown of opalescent paillettes embroidered with crystal and diamante”; the Duchess of York wore a gown of gold and white with a lace train. Some paragraphs later, we are told that Mrs Harold Carrington wore “a gown of rose and silver lamé” with a train of the same material lined with rose romaine, and a diamond tiara. Miss Leonora Carrington wore “a gown of citron satin embroidered with the reversed side of the material. A train to match. A petit-point dentelle fan.” Both dresses were by the designer Victor Stiebel of Bruton Street, Mayfair.
If it’s hard to imagine—and it is—why Leonora allowed herself to be recruited into the ranks of debutantes, it’s worth remembering that from her point of view, “coming out” meant the chance to taste London.
Leonora referred to the debutante season as “a cattle market,” and it’s clear that it epitomized everything she had come to loathe about the society in which she found herself: snobbery, fixed expectations, lack of spontaneity, sexism. As Maurie became more and more excited by the prospect of an ‘advantageous’ marriage that would change her daughter’s life—perhaps even opening doors into the world of old-money aristocrats for herself and Harold—Leonora was becoming more and more appalled by how limited her horizons would be if she were to buy into that world. The truth was, the Carringtons were arrivistes: they had plenty of money, and Harold was one of the most successful businessmen in northern England, but both he and Maurie came from humble stock. His background was working class—his grandfather had been a stationmaster—and she came from rural Ireland. The whirl of the London season was a window on a world Maurie had long hoped to inhabit, and which at last seemed within reach. But it all rested on her daughter’s marriage; and she had only one daughter.
Harold Carrington was less fixated on Leonora’s marriage prospects than Maurie but he shared his wife’s sentiment. He might have been a pioneer in the textile industry, but he was a conventional thinker when it came to social mores. Leonora said he “lived tied to rationality and did not know how to understand me. When I would say to him how much I was bored in the house, he would say: ‘Breed fox terriers,’ as if breeding dogs would have been of my interest; or ‘Learn to cook,’ when I was not even interested to know if to fry an egg I had to put in the pan the egg first or the oil! He was a man without pretensions. Perhaps it would have made him happy if only I would have married a wealthy man and become a dignified society lady.”
In an interview many years later, she remembered—with a sense of irony, and still shocked at the sexism—how it had felt to be a debutante. The royal garden party, she said, was “tea in a tent at Buckingham Palace, and you go around with a teacup. You have a different dress for that, very expensive. Then you go to Ascot, the races, and you’re in the royal enclosure. And, if you please, in those days, if you were a woman, you were not allowed to bet. You weren’t even allowed to the paddock, where they show the horses. So I took a book. I mean, what would you do? It was Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, which I read all the way through.”
Many years after she was a deb, Leonora still remembered “the tiara—biting into my skull” But her “season” provided rich material; not, on this occasion, for a painting, but for a short story written a couple of years later. “The Debutante” is a glorious mixture of fact and fiction, the actual and the imagined, events real and events surreal. Leonora describes how, as a debutante, she often visited the zoo: “I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew the girls of my own age. Indeed it was in order to get away from people that I found myself at the zoo every day.”
The animal she came to know best, she writes, was a hyena, who was very intelligent. “I taught her French and she, in return, taught me her language.” When Leonora’s mother organizes a ball in her honour (“I’ve always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honour”), Leonora complains about it to the hyena, who replies that she would love to go. Why doesn’t she go in her place, Leonora suggests—and after a quick murder, which means the hyena can disguise herself with the face of a sacrificed maid (“a brief cry, and it was over”—she would never have done it, Leonora assures us, if she hadn’t hated the idea of the ball so much), the camouflaged creature takes her place at the sumptuous event, leaving Leonora to sit alone in her room reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.
In life as in her story, Leonora rejected the debutante experience. But it had given her, as she had hoped it would, an introduction to life in London and to the expanding art scene it had on offer. Indeed, the following year, 1936, would see a pivotal event in the story of surrealism in Britain: the first International Surrealist Exhibition, held at the New Burlington Galleries from 11 June to 4 July. This show brought to London the work of artists including Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Leonor Fini, Paul Klee, René Magritte, Joan Miró and Meret Oppenheim. Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia and of course Max Ernst were also in the line-up. British artists represented included Roland Penrose, Eileen Agar and Edward Burra; and there was (according to art historian Herbert Read, one of the exhibition’s organizers) much to be excited about in terms of the British contribution to the movement. In his introduction to the catalogue, Read wrote: “A nation which has produced two such superrealists as William Blake and Lewis Carroll is to the manner born. Because our art and literature is the most romantic in the world, it is likely to become the most superrealistic. The English contribution to this Exhibition is comparatively tentative, but our poets and painters have scarcely become conscious of this international movement. Now that it has been revealed in all its range and irrationality, they may recover, shall we say, the courage of their instincts.”
Read’s optimism for the future of British surrealism was, it would turn out, misplaced; the 1936 exhibition was the movement’s last, as well as its first major hurrah on its territory. But for Leonora it brought what would turn out to be a crucial introduction to the work of the German surrealist Max Ernst. “I fell in love with Max’s paintings before I fell in love with Max,” she told me in 2006. And her first sight of his work was contained within Read’s book Surrealism, published to mark the 1936 exhibition. Her copy was given to her, she remembered, by the unlikeliest of people: her mother, Maurie. The work that particularly appealed to Leonora was Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (1924), a mixed-media piece that Ernst later said was the product of a “fevervision” he had experienced while sick with measles as a child. It shows a haunting image in which a tiny nightingale, barely a speck in the sky, appears to be somehow endangering the lives of two young girls. One of them brandishes a knife in the bird’s direction; the other is in the arms of a man who seems to be trying to take her to safety across a rooftop.
The painting spoke to Leonora. Indeed, in one interview she said it totally shocked her. “I thought, ah, this is familiar: I know what this about. A kind of world which would move between worlds. The world of our dreaming and imagination.”
Leonora dispensed with being a debutante as briskly as she had dispensed with being a convent schoolgirl and a finishing-school pupil; but giving up the frivolity of the season didn’t mean giving up the artistic opportunities London had to offer. Somehow she persuaded her parents (who perhaps continued to hold onto the slender hope that if they played along, she would eventually acquiesce and settle into conventional upper-class life) to allow her to enroll at the Chelsea School of Art. “I had scrambled eggs on a gas range, and I did a lot of painting. But my father had a spy there, in London, who used to see me weekly, Serge Chermayeff,” she remembered. Chermayeff was the designer, with his partner Erich Mendelsohn, of the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, East Sussex. They probably got to know Harold Carrington because Mendelsohn was involved in the construction of the ICI Dyestuffs Laboratory at Blackley, Manchester, which Harold would have known through his work in the textile industry.
It was certainly Chermayeff who got Leonora into the Ozenfant school, as she remembered later. “(He) said, you’d better at least try and learn to draw. Go to Amédée Ozenfant.” So she left the Chelsea School, and signed up for the Ozenfant Academy of Fine Arts.
Ozenfant was a fifty-year-old French cubist painter who had recently moved to London. The name of his art school was rather grander than its humble location, which Leonora described as “a barn in west Kensington.” The venue was a mews block on Warwick Road, round the corner from Kensington High Street tube station. Leonora went along to see Ozenfant, taking some work she’d done already. He replied that she could start the following day and warned that she was about to do some real work. “Then he made me work like bloody hell. You had to know the chemistry of everything you used, including the pencil and the paper. He would give you one apple, one bit of paper, and one pencil, like a 9H, which was like drawing with a bit of steel. And you had to do a line drawing, with one line. I was drawing the apple for six months, the same apple, which had become a kind of mummy.” Like the Renaissance masters whose work Leonora had come to know during her time in Florence, Ozenfant worked alongside his small number of pupils. According to the school’s prospectus (a few sheets of printed paper), the Master, unlike in other schools, would almost always be present while his pupils worked. The philosophy was “to create for the benefit of his pupils a technical, theoretical and empirical spirit, which constituted the value of studios of the past, where the master worked in company with his novices.”
Leonora could hardly have found a man more unlike the imagined one her parents had hoped she would marry. At forty-six, Max was old enough to be her father (that was no doubt part of the attraction).
The importance to an artist of being connected to the surrounding world is also underlined in the Ozenfant manifesto. “To be an artist of one’s time it is not sufficient to declare oneself modern. An artist is capable of creating works necessary to his epoch only if he lives fully the life of his time. Too many artists isolate themselves from life, and ignore precisely that which imparts originality to their age. Living fossilized, how should their works be modern, to interest, to be useful to, to be in accord with the active men of the time?”
The document gives an outline of a typical day at the academy, which was open daily (except Saturdays) from ten a.m. until four p.m. A life model posed for students each morning between ten and one, and in the afternoons students could either continue on their study from the morning or pursue a personal piece of their own. M. Ozenfant gave a course, and correction, every morning. Fees were five guineas a month, thirteen guineas a quarter, or thirty guineas a year; pupils were welcome to join for a month, a quarter or a year, and could begin on any day.
There were, Leonora remembered later, no more than about ten students at any one time. These included, in her day, the painter, photographer and collage artist Stella Snead, whom she would later meet again in New York. But it was another fellow pupil whose presence was to have the longest-lasting impact on Leonora’s life: Ursula Blackwell, whose antecedent had been one-half of the founding duo behind the food brand Crosse and Blackwell. Ursula herself was now known by her married name, which was Goldfinger. Her husband was Ernő Goldfinger, who would in time, after a falling-out with the writer Ian Fleming, lend his name to James Bond’s adversary, the gold smuggler Auric Goldfinger.
Ursula and Ernő, who had been born in Hungary and would later design buildings including London’s Balfron Tower and Trellick Tower, lived with their two young children in a building often described as the first piece of modernist architecture in England: a tall, whitewashed block at the top of Highgate Hill in north London called Highpoint. It had been designed by the Georgian émigré Berthold Lubetkin, who was himself a resident of the block. The Goldfingers lived at Number 3 Highpoint, a three-bedroomed first-floor dwelling with concertina windows along the sitting-room wall, opening onto a narrow balcony. This room would be the setting for a small gathering that had a profound effect on Leonora’s life: in early June 1937, Ursula invited her to come to supper at the Goldfingers’ flat and meet Max Ernst. Ernst was in London for his first ever solo show in Britain, which would take place that month at the Mayor Gallery in Mayfair. Leonora’s friend Joan Powell gave her a lift to Highpoint that evening but didn’t go in, and there were just four people around the table: the Goldfingers, Max, and herself. Did she, she was asked, know in advance that Max would be coming to supper that evening? “Oh yes, yes, yes,” Leonora replied. “And I was very, very excited. I was thrilled. I mean, this was the big, I don’t know what. Ursula thought that I was a good-looking young woman, and that this would appeal to Max.” The attraction between Leonora and Max, who at the time was married to his second wife, Marie-Berthe, was instant and mutual. The couple got together “immediately, immediately. I remember we spent a day in the country, and this for me was a whole world opening. He showed me how he did what he called a ‘frottage’ [a rubbing] with a pencil and paper, grass and whatnot, leaves and such.”
Leonora could hardly have found a man more unlike the imagined one her parents had hoped she would marry. At forty-six, Max was old enough to be her father (that was no doubt part of the attraction). German-born, by now he had left his homeland out of contempt for the rise of Hitler and was living in Paris with Marie-Berthe; his former wife, Louise, and their young son were still in Germany. He was at the heart of a group of surrealist artists and writers that included Duchamp, Dalí, André Breton, Paul Éluard and Yves Tanguy. A man more than twice her age; a father; a divorced man, married to another woman; a foreigner; and an artist, with nothing like the wealth of the Carringtons. Harold and Maurie, when news reached them, were horrified, but Leonora was smitten. Max was about more than his art, more than his fatherly affections, more than his politics, so different from those at home. He was also about the future, about the fact that a door was opening for Leonora in a way she had always hoped for and believed in, but hadn’t quite known when to expect. Here, suddenly, it was: she was on a threshold, and all she had to do was embrace the thrilling uncertainty of what awaited her.
Excerpt by Joanna Moorhead from Surreal Spaces: The Life and Art of Leonora Carrington © 2023 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.