The British artists who saw the world in a different way

Holiday, 1947 by John Tunnard. From the Sherwin Collection, Leeds
Holiday, 1947 by John Tunnard. From the Sherwin Collection, Leeds
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Renowned Yorkshire art collector Jeffrey Sherwin has written a book about British surrealism. Yvette Huddleston reports.

“I went into Leeds city art gallery in 1986 and saw the exhibition of British Surrealist Art celebrating the 50th anniversary of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. Up until that time I didn’t know that British surrealism existed,” says Leeds art collector Dr Jeffrey Sherwin, author of a new book British Surrealism Opened Up.

The exhibition in Leeds had a profound effect on Sherwin, a retired GP and former Leeds City councillor. As he walked out of the exhibition he thought that the art he had seen – by British artists he had never heard of before, including Conroy Maddox, F E McWilliam and Grace Pailthorpe – was the sort of work he would like to have in his home. So Sherwin and his wife Ruth decided to start collecting.

Taking the advice of curators at Leeds Art Gallery, they went to the Mayor Gallery in London which specialised in surrealism and the avant-garde. Their first purchase was an etching by Merlyn Evans called The Chess Players. Since then the couple have built up a collection of around 200 pieces. One of the things that appeals to him about surrealism is that it looks at the world in a refreshing way.

“It takes objects and events that one can recognise and then turns them on their head and puts them in bizarre situations that make you take a second look,” he explains.

“It is so different from minimalist art or abstract art, it puts recognisable objects in a strange or unusual context, often related to dreams or accidents – and often with some connection to Freudian analysis.”

The book contains many examples of surrealist work with over 300 illustrations. It also presents a brief history of surrealism, looks at surrealist techniques, profiles individual artists – including Jacob Kramer, Stanley William Hayter, Julian Trevelyan, Eileen Agar and Humphrey Jennings – and offers a practical guide to collecting. Sherwin’s own approach to collecting is, he says, “very focused. I collect with a view that the pictures can tell a story in as far as they can be compared with or contrasted with one another or with modern British art of the same period. I was strongly influenced by the curatorial staff at Leeds Art Gallery.”

There is a longer section in the book about Henry Moore which, amongst other things, covers the artist’s relationship with Leeds Art Gallery and Sherwin’s proposal for a Moore Sculpture Gallery extension to the building. There is also a nice anecdote about the sculptor’s meeting with Sherwin’s then boss, councillor Jack Binks who Sherwin describes in the book as “a joiner and undertaker with a splendid Yorkshire sense of humour”. Binks’s opening remark to Moore was “Eh ‘Enry – how does a little fellow like you knock those holes in those big women?”

The book is informative and entertaining which was always Sherwin’s aim. “It’s a layman’s guide to British surrealism – I’d like people to enjoy it as much as I do,” he says. “I also think it is one of the few books on art that makes you smile.”