Conroy Maddox

Last surviving Surrealist painter of the pre-war avant-garde

Conroy Maddox enjoyed the distinction of being the last surviving Surrealist painter from the original pre-war avant-garde. He also proved to be one of the movement's strongest and most unreformed aficionados.

Conroy Maddox, painter, collagist, writer and lecturer: born Ledbury, Herefordshire 27 December 1912; married 1948 Nan Burton (one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1955); died London 14 January 2005.

Conroy Maddox enjoyed the distinction of being the last surviving Surrealist painter from the original pre-war avant-garde. He also proved to be one of the movement's strongest and most unreformed aficionados.

Maddox's dogged 70-year commitment earned the tribute from his colleague Desmond Morris that he was "the most undiluted, unwavering Surrealist" in Britain. He bolstered the English wing of what was essentially a French movement inspired by Symbolist poetry and spawned within the Dadaism of the First World War and its roaring, decadent aftermath.

Conroy Maddox was born in Ledbury, Herefordshire in 1912, the son of a seed merchant. His father, George Albert, served as a Sergeant in the Durham Light Infantry in the First World War. One of Conroy's earliest memories was of visiting his wounded father in a Manchester hospital, from which experience developed a strong and lasting anti-war stance in keeping with his future involvement with the Surrealist revolution. During the Second World War, Conroy Maddox escaped military duties through his "reserved" occupation as a draughtsman of aircraft parts for a Birmingham design firm.

While attending a local grammar school, Maddox showed natural graphic aptitude and by early adulthood was set on the romantic but unsure career of an artist. His home life provided an inadvertent influence, his father's anti-clericalism fuelling in Conroy Maddox a lifelong suspicion of organised religion that would prove as congenial as the anti-war stance to the purposes of Surrealism. Maddox senior was also an intrepid collector of artefacts acquired from rural house sales and the strange, multifarious ornaments that adorned the Maddox household also proved seminal in the development of Conroy Maddox's improbable iconography of discordant objects assembled in strangely disquieting or dream-like environments.

Following a short interlude in Oxfordshire, when his parents ran an inn, Maddox moved to Birmingham in 1933. Aged 21 and still living at home, Maddox positively gorged on city culture, regularly visiting the large library and Birmingham City Art Gallery. It was the chance discovery, in the library, of books by the celebrated art critic R.H. Wilenski that led to Maddox's earliest awareness of modern art in general and Surrealism in particular.

His own artistic development took a more doctrinaire course, while a job between 1935 and 1940, designing trade fair exhibition stands, educated his eye and hand. What Maddox later termed "the contrived and false reality of the exhibition stand" proved as influential on the development of his mature style as were the inspirational paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte and Salvador Dali.

For all this, Birmingham was a provincial, Quaker city with limited opportunities for a contemporary artist. By falling in with a group of like-minded Birmingham artists - among whom were John Melville and his brother Robert, later a renowned art critic - Maddox overcame second city inferiority and tackled the art scene in London, which during the late 1930s found itself in the forefront of both Surrealist and Constructivist wings of the international avant-garde.

The key event was "The International Surrealist Exhibition" at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 at which Dali famously almost suffocated inside a diving suit. Too young then to have contributed to this lofty ensemble, Maddox nevertheless established his own Surrealist credentials when he questioned the inclusion in the event of impure elements from English romanticism.

Although admitted into the Surrealist circle in 1938 and finally invited to exhibit alongside major artists at the Guggenheim Jeune and the London Gallery, both in Cork Street, London, Maddox made several pre-war pilgrimages to Paris, the home of Surrealism, in order to establish an authentic rapport with the inner Surrealist sanctum.

Through the collagist George Hugnet, Maddox met Man Ray, whose influence was immediately apparent in Maddox's Onanistic Typewriter (1940), a typical if unoriginal piece of Surrealist subterfuge in which a ready-made typewriter is rendered useless by its keyboards being transformed into spikes. Maddox stayed in touch with Man Ray who later created a cartoon-like portrait of him in 1963. Also through Hugnet, Maddox was introduced to the work of Hans Bellmer, whose macabre distorted mannequins influenced Maddox's enigmatic Cloak of Secrecy (1940), a standing figure of truncated and dismembered fragments.

On the home front, English Surrealism flourished in an insular incubation after the fall of France in 1940. The leaders of the English movement - the Belgian E.L.T. Mesens and the English painter Roland Penrose - ensured the purity of Surrealism's central tenets. As under André Breton, the movement's high priest in France, there were expulsions, purges and ideological splits within the English movement and it was Maddox who often proved the keen whistleblower.

Maddox married Nan Burton in February 1948 and had a son Stefan and a daughter Lee. These major events were reflected in the autobiographical The Engaged Couple (1949), a Magritte-like composition of the kind that would increasingly characterise much of his painted work. The family moved to Willesden Green, in north London, in 1955 and Maddox spent much of the next 15 years working as a designer for advertising and media publicity agencies.

Throughout this time Maddox, whose marriage to Burton ended in 1955, changed address many times until he purchased a maisonette in Belsize Park in 1965. Setbacks and personal sadnesses like the death of his son in 1971 only strengthened his resolve, although his work temporarily veered away from strict Surrealist orthodoxy while flirting with informal abstraction during the late 1950s and "pop" art during the 1960s.

By the early 1970s, Maddox re- established his firm allegiance to Surrealism which, in the case of canvases depicting lions, tigers or other exotic creatures on the loose in arcades or deserted city squares, took on a distinctly "retro" look. Many of these showed his debt to Magritte and de Chirico while the more spontaneous collage and works on paper became the playground for plastic and psychological experiment.

The "frottage", "fumage"' and "decalcomania" techniques of Max Ernst, Oscar Dominguez and Wolfgang Paalen were extended into Maddox's own pseudo-textural "invention", a water-based blotting technique he called "écrémage". His reinvigorated activities as a Surrealist from the 1970s onwards owed much to the cultural pluralism of the post-modern years of the end of the 20th century, in which retro suddenly seemed as au fait as strictly contemporary.

Maddox's status was honoured and elevated with increasing regularity throughout the late years. The large survey "Dada and Surrealism Reviewed" at the Hayward Gallery, London in 1978 not only included Maddox but gave him a reborn role as purist and guardian. Challenging the thesis of the exhibition that Surrealism was passé, Maddox mounted an alternative group survey, "Surrealism Unlimited", at the Camden Arts Centre, London, which looked at the development of the movement since 1968. In 1979 he published a book on Salvador Dali. He was included in the 1986 touring show "Contrariwise". Maddox enjoyed a touring show of his own in 1995, "Surreal Enigmas", accompanied by a study by Silvano Levy which anticipated a major monograph, The Scandalous Eye, by the same writer in 2003.

As well as Desmond Morris, Maddox attracted loyal supporters like George Melly and the collector Jeffrey Sherwin. He also enjoyed the company of a devoted and much younger partner Deborah Mogg, a testament to his own indefatigable sense of mischief and fun.

Peter Davies



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