Born at the very start of the 20th century, Roland Penrose lived a long, busy, productive and useful life in the arts, and has a fair claim to be considered a minor but valuable national treasure – one who slowly helped his contemporaries see the point of Picasso, Surrealism and all the other wild things of modern art that once made retired colonels splutter with outrage. But he has also suffered from the injustice traditionally reserved for the spouses of Great Men: his reputation has been all but entirely eclipsed by that of his (second) wife, Lee Miller. Thanks to a recent slew of books, exhibitions and the like, Miller has become one of the most famous photographers of her day, and justly so. She brought to her work not just a laser-sharp eye but also physical courage, stoicism, ingenuity and wit. It doesn’t hurt that in her youth she also possessed the kind of uncanny beauty that made jaws drop.
Penrose was also a strikingly good-looking chap and a sharp dresser, but his accomplishments, though many and substantial, were much less spectacular. He took a first in architecture at Cambridge, but almost immediately upon graduation applied himself to painting, at which – as he came to recognise – he was never much more than a solid 2:1. His real flair was in identifying, championing and collecting the work of talents greater than his own.
He was the main organiser of the famous 1936 Surrealist Exhibition in London; he co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts; he amassed one of the finest private collections of modern paintings and sculpture; he wrote a very good biography of Picasso, still worth reading; and he curated the improbably successful