Obituary: Emmy Bridgwater

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The Independent Culture
EMMY BRIDGWATER was the last surviving woman member of the original generation of British Surrealist painters. She occupied a distinctive place in the history of Surrealism in Britain as an "Automatist", using a technique deployed by Surrealists for liberating the imagination and for stimulating the subconscious.

She produced a small but highly original output of paintings, drawings, collages and poetry. Her paintings show an ability to enter a personal dream world and transform the visions she experienced there into bold, unselfconscious, emotionally charged landscapes which more often than not strike into the very depths of one's mind. Using a limited palette and painting thickly, she was able to bring together seemingly unrelated objects which she used to fill desolate landscapes, giving the paintings a narrative quality of her own making.

Bridgwater was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, in 1906, the youngest of three daughters of a chartered accountant. After attending art classes at the Birmingham School of Art, where she was taught by Fleetwood Walker, she eventually went to London and enrolled at the Grosvenor School of Art under the leadership of Ian MacNab.

In 1936, she visited the International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London, organised in part by Roland Penrose, self- styled leader of the Surrealists in England. Although Surrealism had not really entered the consciousness of British culture until this exhibition was staged, she was inspired. By this time, she was living in Birmingham and her contact subsequently with the London Group was through friends, among whom was another woman Surrealist, Edith Rimmington.

Bridgwater was introduced to the London Group in early 1940 by the painter Conroy Maddox and the critic Robert Melville, members of the group who were also living in Birmingham. From that moment on she was committed to the "liberation of the imagination", as theorised by Andre Breton in his Manifesto of Surrealism, published in Paris in 1924.

In 1942 she contributed to the rare, epoch-making Surrealist magazine Arson, directed by Toni del Renzio, who saw in her work "entrails drawn painfully from us and twisted into pictures whose significance we do not want to realise". In the same year, she held a one-woman exhibition at Jack Bilbo's Modern Art Gallery in London. During that period, Bridgwater lived intermittently in a small flat in Lancaster Gate, west London, but often returned to Birmingham, where she had joined what came to be known as "The Birmingham Group".

Led by Conroy Maddox, the group was a gathering of artist friends who used to meet in a cafe in Margaret Street. It included the painters John Melville, William Gear and Oscar Mellor, the poet Henry Reed, Stuart Gilbert and, a little later, the young Desmond Morris, painter and anthropologist; all of them shared the same intense determination to renew aesthetics and redefine our relations to so-called reality.

In 1946, Bridgwater contributed to Free Unions Libres, a gathering of texts by French and British Surrealists edited by Simon Watson Taylor, and to a questionnaire sent to all Surrealists by Le Savoir Vivre, a Brussels magazine.

In 1947, Andre Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement in France, selected one of her paintings, together with four others from British Surrealists, to be exhibited at the International Surrealist Exhibition at Galerie Maeght in Paris. On that occasion Bridgwater travelled to France, signed the declaration of the Surrealist Group in England, which reaffirmed its allegiance to the principles of Surrealism, and returned to Britain to take care of her mother and handicapped sister. Along with her commitments to Surrealism, she also had an obligation to her family.

She eventually settled in London around 1948 and remained there until 1986, when she moved back to Birmingham. In 1970 she began working in collage. In 1971 she exhibited at "Britain's Contribution to Surrealism of the 30s and 40s" at the Hamet Gallery, London, in 1982 at "Peinture Surrealiste en Angleterre 1930-1960" at the Galerie 1900/2000 in Paris and in 1985 at "Salute to British Surrealism 1930-1950" in Colchester, Essex, together with exhibitions at Blond Fine Art, in London, and at the Ferens Gallery, Hull.

From 1986, the 60th anniversary year of the International Surrealist Exhibition, hardly a year elapsed without her participating in retrospective or group Surrealist exhibitions: The Mayor Gallery, London (1986), Canterbury (1986), Leeds City Art Gallery (1986), Retretti, Finland, Milan and Frankfurt (1989). Among many others was a touring exhibition during 1992 called "10 Decades: careers of 10 women artists born 1897-1906" and "Real Surreal", in Wolverhampton (1995).

In 1990 Blond Fine Art held her second solo show, and the year after her paintings appeared in John Bonham and Murray Feely's exhibition "The Birmingham Seven". Finally, her work appeared in 1996 in an exhibition with Conroy Maddox entitled "The Last Surrealists" at Blond Fine Art.

Her paintings, drawings and poems are places of organic fusion and painful gestation. No concession whatever is made to "artistic good taste", whether classical or not. There is only instinct, and a primitive feeling for the metamorphoses at the origin of life; strange sequences of birds, eggs, eyes, little girls, open tombs, larvae and lianas in nondescript landscapes. Her poems have never yet been published as a collection, but her work testifies to a powerful visionary imagination.

Emmy Frith Bridgwater, artist: born Birmingham 10 November 1906; died 13 March 1999.