Roland Penrose was an English Surrealist painter, poet and major promoter and collector of modern art. He studied architecture at Cambridge and then painting after moving to France where he lived from 1922 to 1935.
'On the advice of (Roger) Fry, but much against his father's wishes, in October 1922 Penrose set off for Paris and enrolled in the studio of André Lhote, who practised an accessible, academic form of Cubism and was renowned as an imaginative and effective teacher. Lhote was a great admirer of Picasso's work and among the most perceptive French critics to write about it during the 1920s and '30s, and one must presume that Penrose's first-hand knowledge of Picasso's painting increased dramatically under his teacher's guidance' (E. Cowling, Visiting Picasso: The Notebooks and Letters of Roland Penrose, London, 2006, p. 22).
In the following year, Penrose moved to Cassis-sur-Mer where he bought a house, Villa les Mimosas, that he shared with the Greek painter Yanko Varda and met his first wife Valentine Boué. (Later in 1937 he would meet and marry the American model and photographer, Lee Miller)
It was here in 1924 that Penrose executed this present work which has clear debts to Braque and Picasso's Cubism. Although Penrose may have met Braque by this time, he would only meet Picasso for the first time in 1936.
The inscription at the bottom of this work ‘God Help all Leviathans’ relates it to an earlier work Pequod from 1923. Pequod refers in both subject and title, to a nineteenth century whaling ship that is included in the American author, Herman Melville’s 1851 novel, Moby Dick. In literature the term ‘Leviathan’ holds various historical meanings, originally the name of a mythical sea monster it later became synonymous with whales. Whilst the ship in this work is not named it is likely that Penrose drew inspiration from this novel as he had done in Pequod. Given that Penrose was a poet, literary significances abound in his work. Both Penrose and Varda were fascinated by this novel (references to it can also be traced in several of the latter’s mosaics around this time) and it held a particular personal significance for Penrose in that it charted the adventures of Quaker captains and a Quaker community. Penrose has been brought up in a strictly Quaker traditions. His father James Doyle Penrose was a moderately successful Irish Victorian portrait painter and a Quaker and his mother Josephine was the daughter of Lord Peckover, the head of the renowned Quaker banking firm that bore his name.
Whilst this work is imbued with literal and historical references it also embodies more direct influences on Penrose at the time. The inclusion of a French flag implies an identification with the artist’s direct surroundings and it could be suggested the use of sand was inspired by Varda who had begun to include found mediums such as this in his mosaics and other works around this time. This work has a great significance in terms of the evolution of Penrose’s style. It is a pre-surrealist work from the ‘tender’ moment when he was innocently living in Cassis before meeting Valentine and becoming closely involved with the Surrealists. It is also one of the earliest surviving examples that Penrose executed and it stands as an extremely rare and important formative work.