From high society to surrealism: in praise of Leonora Carrington – 100 years on

With her paintings and tales based on dreams, animals and the occult, Carrington was an uncanny original. Marina Warner salutes the artist on her centenerary

In the mid-1980s, Leonora Carrington was living for a while in New York, in a small single room in a basement in the Gramercy Park area; she worked at a table between her bed and the kitchenette, clearing away the crucibles of tempera, brushes and palette to cook for herself and, sometimes, for guests who had tracked her down as I had. She had chosen to live below street level because that is where she felt safe, and she was very content with her modest setting. Among the many animals in her paintings and writings are badgers and raccoons and other builders of lairs and burrows; like them, she preferred to keep her feet firmly on solid ground, as if needing an anchorage while her mind spun off on its wild flights.

The surrealist artist of words and images was then in her 70s, small and thin, with very dark round eyes that still radiated the feral beauty of her youth, and a smoky voice filled with energy and humour. Here was a celebrated, indeed notorious figure; she could have been a monstre sacré. Yet she was exceptionally free from vanity and envy, from craving wealth or flattery or any other signs of worldly status (it’s significant, I think, that in one of those surrealist questionnaires that André Breton loved devising, Narcissus came last among her favourite myths).

Every week or so she would go to her gallery and deliver one of her dream paintings in return for the small stipend they gave her, and then she would drop in on one of the Korean delis that had sprung up around that time and buy her dinner from the salad bar. We spent many days together wandering around the city: we once crossed Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum, where she wanted to look at the Egyptian collections; she was strongly attracted to wrapped and swaddled and swathed bodies, because they too made her feel held fast by reality. She was always tapping her powers of fantasy, by numerous techniques – including, especially, daydreaming on that threshold between sleep and waking where “hypnagogic visions” appear.

Carrington never bothered about her archive or her intellectual property, and her writings are more like a jazz musician’s basement tapes than a major creative writer’s archives. The Debutante and Other Stories, the first book from Silver Press, a new feminist publisher, is a major step in gathering her tales together for the first time – including the earliest ones from the 1930s and the material published in New York during the war, while many surrealists were in exile there, as well as later entertainments and fantasies she created, sometimes for performance, after she settled in Mexico.

Carrington’s painting Chiki Ton Pays.
Carrington’s painting Chiki Ton Pays. Photograph: Bebeto Matthews/AP

At first she wrote in French – the language she shared with Max Ernst and with many of their friends when she was living in Paris and then in St-Martin-d’Ardèche in Provence before the war broke out in 1939. A few tales – among them the magnificent, terse detonations of “The House of Fear” and “The Debutante” – were published in tiny editions, but many more were scattered when the fall of France drove Carrington and Ernst, as well as many French nationals among the surrealists – Breton, Benjamin Péret, Marcel Duchamp – to flee. Some typescripts of stories she had forgotten about only surfaced among the papers of Jimmy Ernst, Max’s son, after his death in New York in 1984.

Asked about the relation between her writing and painting, Carrington offered an oblique clue: “I haven’t been able to reconcile image world and word world in my own mind. I know the Bible says sound came first – I’m not sure. Perhaps [they happened] simultaneously, but how did it all get solid?” In her tales, the image world and the word world do take on solid form. The story “As They Rode along the Edge” finds Carrington at her most witchy and comic: the heroine, Virginia Fur, lives in a forest and travels at the head of a procession of a hundred cats, “riding a wheel”. She has a huge mane and “long and enormous hands with dirty nails”, and “one couldn’t really be altogether sure that she was a human being. Her smell alone threw doubt on it – a mixture of spices and game, the stables, fur and grasses.”

Carrington realigns, or turns upside down, the usual hierarchy of beings: humans emerge as only a single, lesser aspect of a polymorphously organic universe, and people in Carrington’s paintings gain in stature and, by implication, in wisdom the closer they come to the creaturely. While Circe cast Odysseus’s men under an evil spell when she turned them into beasts, Carrington, on the whole, considers animal transformation a blessing, a deliverance, a site of transcendence. In everybody, she said, there is “an inner bestiary”. She was “born loving animals”, and was taken out by her mother (a rare treat) to the local zoo in Blackpool to celebrate her first communion. In her own case, when she was young and a shape-shifter, her chosen avatar was the horse.

Born on 6 April 1917, Leonora had a childhood where the paddock on the one hand and the nursery on the other featured vividly as zones of thrill and transgression. The rituals and privileges of her background provided her with a heaped storehouse to raid. Her paintings, first shown by Breton in Paris in 1937, have titles that disclose how she was plundering what was marvellous from the banalities of a propertied family’s daily round: The Meal of Lord Candlestick and What Shall We Do Tomorrow, Aunt Amelia? reveal the interweaving of autobiography, invention, playfulness and mystery, the comic and the gruesome, also present in the stories she was beginning to write at the time, winning the admiration of Ernst and his circle.

She liked puncturing pomp and pretension of all sorts. A squib such as “The Three Hunters” satirises the pursuits of her class, most particularly her father and brothers, who were keen sportsmen; a story like “The Neutral Man” the stifling social round. But irony also streaks through her uses of Celtic enchantments, passed on by her Irish mother and nanny, which meshed with the surrealist web of erotic games, occult divination and perverse dream scenarios. Yet, throughout the fanciful, delinquent and transgressive scenes she imagines, Carrington sustains a dry inconsequent tone and well-bred, often naive English manners with a dash of faerie whimsy. Her magical egalitarianism means a cooking pot can do very well for an alchemist’s alembic, and the knitting of a jumper stand in for the weaving of the soul from “cosmic wool”.

A bronze sculpture by Carrington is unveiled in Mexico City in 2008.
A bronze sculpture by Carrington is unveiled in Mexico City in 2008. Photograph: Alamy

Because she left England – for good, as it turned out – and has been published in French far more consistently than in English, Carrington has been identified with the surrealist movement abroad. So it’s easy to overlook her closeness to a thoroughly Anglo-Saxon tradition on the one hand and to Irish legends and lore on the other. The stance she adopts often reminds the reader of one of Hilaire Belloc’s wicked children, although she takes the delinquents’ side, not the admonishing grownups’. The stories of this early period also reflect the pleasure – even the intense pleasure – Carrington found in her changed surroundings. Her stories vibrate with warmth and colour, abundant and delicious herbs and foods, spectacular and unbridled self-expression; they show her revelling in wildness, in scents and textures – cinnamon and musk, in the release of passion and imagination, and the discovery of physical sensation. She also fantasticates about food, and her Catholicism surfaces in her lingering on the cannibalism at the heart of the eucharist. The necessary killing and trimming and dressing of animals for the table fascinate her: the passage from the kitchen to the table, from the pot to the dish, recurs as an obsessive motif. She denounces, with all a young woman’s vehemence, the waste and greed she perceives in her paternal home: The Meal of Lord Candlestick shows grotesque female orgiasts, in maiden-aunt society hats, impaling a baby and gorging on a fowl-cum-dragon flambé.

Food is powerful magic – it poisons, as in her comic masterpiece, the novel The Hearing Trumpet, written in the early 60s and published in the 70s, but it also represents a female sphere, and its dangers can be redeemed by wise husbandry and care. Carrington always perceived a connection between traditional women’s work and art, and disliked grandiose male assertions of heroic status. “Painting is like making strawberry jam, really carefully and well,” she once told me. She valued what she called “dailiness”: the common cabbage is her rosa mystica. It appears in the 1975 portrait of her friend, the historian and religious thinker Anne Fremantle, as well as proudly on its own.

The era of new age spirituality makes it hard to find the right language to describe the journeys of the mind Carrington undertook, and her odd mingling of tone: she was serious about the inner dream worlds she explored but punctured them with black comedy. The commercialised hokum of US west coast mysticism since the 1960s – the crystals and amulets and synthetic quoting from the world’s adepts – and the widespread decadence of mythological borrowing (mostly from Jung and Joseph Campbell) make it difficult to find a vocabulary for Carrington’s questing that does not sound like a circular from the Personal Growth Movement. Jane Miller commented on this difficulty in a review of Carrington’s first novel, The Stone Door. “In spite of all its waywardness and intimations of profundity,” she wrote, “the novel is finally a good deal more like a prettily embroidered sampler than some gravely worked cabbalistic banner, for its eclectic, not to say magpie, snatching at bright detail and unexplained incident is controlled by a tastefulness and sense of design which are old-fashioned and charming rather than portentous.”

A sculpture by Carrington on a street in Campeche, Mexico.
A sculpture by Carrington on a street in Campeche, Mexico. Photograph: Alamy Photograph: Alamy

Edward James, the surrealist patron who collected her work during the many lean years, wrote of Leonora’s images that they were “not merely painted, they are brewed”. It is an apt choice of word, and describes her writings too: these small and concentrated potions in which the oddest elements from metaphysics and fantasy, daily routine and material life are simmered together and mischievously served up. Her witchcraft, which had so enchanted the surrealists, entered another phase in the surroundings of lo real maravilloso americano, in the phrase of the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier: the marvellous (Latin) American reality.

Alongside her friends, the painters Frida Kahlo and Remedios Varo, Carrington came to seem the voice of that Latin imagination, in many media: in Mexico City, she wrote plays and designed masks and costumes; and she was commissioned to celebrate the people of Chiapas, descendants of the Aztecs, in a vast mural for the Regional Museum of Anthropology and History of Chiapas. She continued to defy convention, too, opening her house to meetings during the student action of the 1960s and participating in the beginnings of the women’s movement.

In many changes of shape, Carrington fulfilled, over nearly a century of work, the task of art as defined by Paul Klee: to make visible the invisible. She conveyed her consciousness, its complex of memory, fantasy, desire and fear, reaching for the apt metaphors to hand from a rich deposit of learning. “The matter of our bodies,” she said, “like everything we call matter, should be thought of as thinking substance.” As Doris Lessing, one of Carrington’s favourite authors, wrote: “The longest journey is in.”

• The Debutante and Other Stories is published by Silver Press ( To order a copy for £8.49 (RRP £9.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Marina Warner

The GuardianTramp

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