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Eileen Agar, ‘Self Portrait’

by Anne Hewat

As a little girl Eileen Agar (1899 – 1991) travelled from Argentina, her birth-place, to Britain accompanied by a cow and an orchestra, because her rich and fashionable mother believed that fresh milk and good music were essential to her good health. It was an appropriately surreal start.

Agar returned permanently to London with her family at the age of 11 where she was sent to boarding school followed by finishing school in Paris. For as long as she could remember she wanted to be an artist and from the age of nine or ten she was continually drawing. In 1921 Agar attended the Byam School of Art before entering the Slade School of Art later that same year. After three years there she married Robin Bartlett but the marriage broke up when, early in 1926, she met Joseph Bard, the Hungarian writer and literary editor who, as she describes, “was to stay beside me for nearly fifty years”. They eventually married in 1940.

In 1935 Agar was introduced to Paul Nash and the two started to influence each other's work, becoming particularly close. Early in 1936, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read (probably on Nash's recommendation) visited her studios and chose three oil paintings and five objects to be shown at the International Surrealist exhibition alongside works by Henry Moore and Edward Burra among others. Eileen was surprised, as she felt she had been equally influenced by both cubism and abstraction. She was the only woman exhibitor.

In 1938 Agar and Bard accompanied Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, Paul Eluard (Eileen also fell in love with him), his wife Nusch and Paul Nash to Cornwall and then to Mougins where Picasso and Man Ray were staying. Picasso and Agar became good friends and his influences are evident in the 1938 Portrait. In her autobiography she said “one must have a hunger for new colour, new shapes and new possibilities of discovery”. Of herself she wrote “Surrealism opened up new possibilities in subject matter for me. It is a constructive movement bent on freeing the human mind from overdoses of common sense and opening up hilarious avenues of free thought”. This painting was bought at the centenary exhibition of her work in 2000.