Preview: British Surrealism Unlocked

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For Dr Jeff Sherwin, owner of the largest collection of British Surrealist art in the country, the movement is about making the familiar seem unfamiliar.

“With Surrealism, generally, you take a situation or something that can happen to all of us but then it is turned on its head so we are faced with a situation that would never happen to us but is nevertheless fascinating,” he says.

“The effect on the viewer is that you are forced to take a second look.”

As much as this is a summation of Surrealism in general, it also says something about Sherwin’s collection in particular.

The British Surrealist movement and the works associated with it are not widely known. To walk around the latest exhibition of Sherwin’s collection is to be immersed in imagery that has the familiar feel of the ubiquitous works of Dali and Magritte. However, for many of us this will be the first time we have seen these works and heard of their creators.

“Until I actually saw an exhibition put on by Leeds City Art Gallery in 1986 I didn’t realise that British Surrealism existed,” says the retired GP.

However, what he saw ignited a passion that would inspire him to fill the walls of his home in Leeds with over 250 pieces of British Surrealist art.

As well as building a vast personal collection, Sherwin was also closely involved with Leeds City Art Gallery as chair of Leeds leisure services. Among the ideas to his credit is the creation of a pub in the basement of the art gallery to help cover its expenses.

At the moment a fair proportion of Dr Sherwin’s private collection is gracing the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, Cumbria.

The resulting exhibition is a wonderful and thought-provoking walk not only through the history of Surrealism in Britain, but also the historical contexts that made the art what it was. The little-known nature of many of the artists involved means each wall is filled with fresh work to be analysed and enjoyed.

There is the cerebrally engaging in the form of Julian Trevelyan’s Hypnosis, the comically sadomasochistic in Conroy Maddox’s Denouement (which features a photo of the artist stabbing a nun wearing silk stockings) and the gracefully disturbing in FE McWilliam’s Spanish Head. Every work on display – whether it excites, repels or amuses – is testament to the imaginative leap on behalf of the artist that is key to Surrealism.

Sherwin’s time as a collector has not only seen him amass a deep knowledge of his chosen passion, but also meet and befriend some of the most well-known figures in the British art world such as George Melly and Henry Moore.

“My approach to collecting was tentative because I didn’t really know much about it and I probably still don’t,” says Dr Sherwin.

Despite this modest statement, Sherwin has also had a book – British Surrealism Opened Up – published on the subject and must have a claim to be one of the foremost experts on the subject. It’s intended to discuss Surrealism in a way that is more personal and entertaining than academic.

“TV, I think, is one of the things that has opened up art to a wider public and I try to do the same, rather like a TV presenter talking to the audience,” he says.

Anyone expecting a definitive answer on what Surrealism means or says will also be disappointed.

For Sherwin the enjoyment of Surrealism is more about the process of trying to work out the meaning behind the works that makes them enduringly fascinating.

“A riddle has a solution but it may also not have a solution and that’s kind of the point, I suppose,” he says.

British Surrealism Unlocked: Works from the Sherwin Collection, until 21 June, Abbott Hall Art Gallery, Kendal.

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