The '˜minute masterpiece' of Cubism that stirred passion of a surrealist

James King tells how Roland Penrose '“ one of the collectors featured in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art's exhibition Surreal Encounters '“ made his first important acquisitions

Femme nue couchée au soleil sur la plage by Picasso

In March 1937, Roland Penrose wrote to Picasso from London to ask for an audience. He did not mention it, but he wanted to track down Femme nue couchée au soleil sur la plage, a painting of a female bather stretched out in the sun.

When he saw it illustrated in Cahiers d’Art, this magical picture had left him with a “longing to see and if possible own the original”. Accompanied by Paul Éluard, Penrose visited Picasso in 1937 at his new studio in the rue des Grands-Augustins in order to open negotiations to acquire this canvas.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Picasso could be extraordinarily difficult to deal with, but on this occasion he was gracious. Yes; he would part with the painting. But they would have to fetch it from Boisgeloup, Picasso’s country property in Normandy. Within a few minutes of the request being made, Marcel the chauffeur was summoned and Penrose, Éluard, Éluard’s wife Nusch, Dora Maar, the artist’s 15-year-old son Paulo and Picasso himself climbed into a large vintage Hispano and set out for Boisgeloup. There was much to see at this retreat: the stables where many sculptures had been constructed, stacks of paintings in the upstairs rooms and an entrance hall dominated by an enormous hippopotamus skull.

From the reproduction, Penrose expected the painting to be large; it turned out to be small (33 × 40.8cm). Nevertheless, his enchantment remained intact. “I had found my dream painting, my first acquisition of the great painter’s work, and thanking Picasso profusely we all returned to Paris in the Hispano at great speed.”

Picasso may have readily accepted Penrose’s offer because he had been insulted when the canvas had been rejected by his dealer, Paul Rosenberg: “Non, je refuse d’avoir des trous de cul dans ma galerie’”(I refuse to have any arse-holes in my gallery). At the time, Penrose did not realise that the oval shape at the centre of the canvas was the lady’s anus. For him, the painting was – and remained – a “minute lyrical masterpiece”. The way in which the prone body of the woman is rendered is decidedly surrealistic: the canvas’s various triangles and curved shapes are arranged to approximate a traditional nude, but the segmentation of the body parts is done in a way that particularly appealed to Penrose, who would later use a similar technique in his own paintings.

A year earlier, in February 1936, Penrose had purchased a Minotauromachy etching by Picasso from the Zwemmer Gallery. That year, he also bought Max Ernst’s La joie de vivre even before the artist had completed it. The title of this canvas, in which monstrous insects dominate the undergrowth, may be an ironic reference to Matisse’s painting of the same name. It was the first major painting Penrose acquired.

Following the closing of the Surrealist Exhibition, the cash-strapped writer André Breton asked Penrose to find buyers for some of his paintings; in response, Penrose asked Breton to sell him Picasso’s cubist papier colté of a triangular head (1913), somewhat resembling a metronome, set on T-shaped shoulders. Breton refused: “I am – insanely – determined to hang on to this little picture, which I pursued for years before I was able to contemplate it at my leisure.” Eight months later, Breton accepted Penrose’s offer (he also sold him Miró’s Catalan Landscape). These purchases, and especially that of Femme nue in March 1937, unshackled Penrose’s pocketbook.

In many ways the impetus for his new wave of buying can be attributed to Picasso. In May and June 1937 the Zwemmer Gallery was the setting for two exhibitions: the first of Miró, the second of Picasso and Giorgio De Chirico. All the works were the property of the collector René Gaffé, a Belgian perfume merchant and bibliophile who had asked his fellow countryman, ELT Mesens, to arrange their sale. Mesens was disposing of 40 items from this collection because Gaffé’s doctor had told him – incorrectly – that he had only a few months to live.

Mesens put the collection on sale, but few canvases sold. Then Mesens approached Penrose to ask if he would buy the entire lot. The price was a steep one for the time – £6,750 – but, after some hesitation, Penrose agreed. Gaffé later pointed out to the collection’s new owner: “You have shown more guts than the picture dealers who ought to have leapt at such an opportunity.” There were 14 Picassos, mainly cubist in style, including Girl with A Mandolin and Portrait Of Wilhelm Uhde. There were also some significant De Chiricos and Mirós. For Penrose, Cubism – in its disruption of traditional spatial planes to create a series of divergent, conflicting realities – may have had a surrealist side.

Another surrealist-inspired work that captivated Penrose at that time was Henry Moore’s Mother And Child, a large sculpture in Hopton stone. When Moore installed it in the front garden of Downshire Hill, the sculptor told Penrose: “If ever you get tired of this, change it. I will give you another one instead.”

The remark made Penrose admire Moore as much as he admired his work. Penrose’s neighbours, to his amusement, “came poking their noses through the railings, thoroughly bewildered. I shall study the effect on the natives with great interest,” he mused. In 1940, a few years later, the complaints of some neighbours were aired in the press.

Penrose obtained another major collection only one year after the acquisition of the Gaffé. In June 1938, while lunching in Paris with the Éluards, he was startled when the poet proposed that Penrose buy the greater part (100 items) of his collection – mainly gifts from other artists, or items obtained in exchange for essays and articles he had written about them. There were 40 Ernsts – including the majestic Célèbes – as well as four Magrittes; there were also works by Miró, Chagall, Giacometti and many other distinguished artists. The asking price was ridiculously low: £1,600. Éluard refused to negotiate a higher price and insisted that, whether Penrose purchased the lot or not, they must at all costs remain friends. Éluard badly needed the money, and Penrose was happy to accept.

In essence, Penrose had become a collector by accident – the two “bulk” purchases had come to him, it can be argued, by fate. Within a short space of time, he had assembled the best collection of surrealist and cubist paintings in England.

• Surreal Encounters: Collecting The Marvellous, featuring work from the Penrose Collection, is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 11 September