An insight into Eileen Agar

An insight into Eileen Agar


“I have spent my whole life in revolt against convention, trying to bring colour and light and a sense of the mysterious to daily existence. One must have a hunger for new colour, new shapes and new possibilities of discovery.” - Eileen Agar

When David Gascoyne and Roland Penrose approached Eileen Agar with a view to including her in the grandiose 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London and announced to her that she was ‘surrealist’, she purportedly replied, ‘Am I?’ Throughout her career she repeatedly shunned the label, which she considered too restrictive. Her training as an artist began in 1920 at Leon Underwood’s school at Brook Green. She also studied under Henry Tonks at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, where she met her first husband Robin Bartlett. The marriage did not last. In 1928 Agar and her new lover Joseph Bard, whom she would eventually marry, moved to Paris. There she met Constantin Brâncuși and surrealists André Breton and Paul Éluard.

By 1930 Agar was back in England and in 1933. She had her first solo exhibition at the Bloomsbury Gallery and became member of the London Group a year later. When, in 1934, she took a house for the summer with Bard at Swanage, Agar met and fell in love with Paul Nash. Through him she began to develop a fascination with the ‘found object’, which had been an enduring focus for both Dadaists and surrealists. For them such entities were capable of acquiring new identities by virtue of re-contextualization or simply by being isolated from their habitual frame of reference. Agar willingly assumed this way of seeing and suddenly inanimate rocks began to appear to her as faces and bodies. Shells too, as well as marine life and beach detritus took on new meanings. One day she was digging in the sand at Lulworth Cove and unearthed an old anchor chain, which had been metamorphosed by the sea into the form of a writhing snake. She photographed it and, with Nash, made the photomontage painting Seashore Monster at Swanage (c.1936). This is how we are to read Agar’s art; chance encounters with objects that utilitarian reality has discarded into redundancy and irrelevance.

(Dr. Silvano Levy on the artist, 2023)

It is well documented that Agar was the only female artist to exhibition at The International Surrealist Exhibition held in London in 1936, and that this inclusion helped propel her career to the point of international acclaim. It was during a trip to Brittany that she received the news her painting Quadriga (1935), shown at the exhibition, had been requested for display by The Museum of Modern Art in New York, an indicator of her international reputation blossoming. Her cohorts included Ezra Pound, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Dylan Thomas, Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. Moore studied with her at Slade along with Paul Nash, and both were instrumental in persuading her to exhibit her works as part of the London Group in 1933. Despite the adverse impact of the war’s psychological effects on her artistic output, she would experience a resurgence of inspiration in the 1950s, when she briefly resided in the Canary Islands where she painted and exhibited.

A Sea Change, painted in 1958, is a rare and prime example of the artist’s output during this period. The work is executed in an inverted method, with the coloured forms likely to have been painted across the entire composition, with what we see as the aquamarine background, painted after, dictating the form and movement. The influence of Henry Moore and Henri Matisse are clear, with the seemingly abstract human like, mystical, metamorphic form on the left, dancing with flowing fluidity and unrestricted joy. Functioning as nets, the paintings trawl material from the subconscious, suspended in Eileen Agar’s aquatic hues - deep blues and sea greens that span her artistic journey of over 70 years. A masterful colourist, she skilfully varied her palette, introducing abrupt bursts of orange or arsenical green, creating visions that exude a lyrical quality.

“'Life's meaning is lost without the spirit of play. In play all that is lovely and soaring in the human spirit strives to find expression.” - Eileen Agar


“Dancing shapes with shapes seeming to derive from cut-outs as from a collage. The important thing does not lie in the shapes but in the movement, in the rhythm they trace on the marine background. The shapes have no reference to existing ones, they seem to be inverted, separating and joining, difficult to say and this is precisely the point of the work - sea change points to a “pure” movement, a transformation process at work , unending interplay of life forms, similar to amoebae wriggling in the water. Agar’s obsessive reference to water is typical of her work and stresses the femininity of her inspiration.” (Michael Remy on the artist, 2023)

A Sea Change was included in the important retrospective of the artist’s work held at the Commonwealth Institute in 1971, alongside the current world auction record for the artist, Rite of Spring (1971) which achieved £81,900 at Christie’s in 2022. Her work is held in some of the most important global institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, National Galleries, Scotland, Tate Modern, London, Victoria & Albert Museum, London and Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.

 EILEEN AGAR (BRITISH, 1904-1991) A Sea Change

A Sea Change
signed 'AGAR' (lower left); further signed, titled and dated 'EILEEN AGAR/A SEA CHANGE/1958' (on a label attached to the stretcher)
oil on canvas
63.5 x 82 cm. (25 x 32 1/8 in.)
Estimate £20,000 - £30,000

Lord Sailsbury
Sale; Christie's, London, 3 June 1999, lot 138, where purchased by the present owner

London, Commonwealth Institute, Eileen Agar: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1971,, p.44
Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, Eileen Agar, An Eye for Collage, 25 Oct 2008-15 Mar 2009, cat no.47, p.84 (col.ill)