Magazine article The Spectator

The Master and the Loyal Retainer

Magazine article The Spectator

The Master and the Loyal Retainer

Article excerpt

VISITING PICASSO : THE NOTEBOOKS AND LETTERS OF RONALD PENROSE by Elizabeth Cowling Thames & Hudson, £25, pp. 408, ISBN 0500512930 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

It was not easy to be an attendant at the court of King Pablo, for Picasso, 'with his fringe of white hair round the back of his head, his never tiring black eyes, his red shirt, is always the centre of everyone's thoughts, especially as everyone else's movements depend on his and no one, not even he, knows what it will be'.

It was no easier to be King Pablo:

P. wanting everyone to enjoy themselves started making masks with the tablecloths and most of the guests put them on, but some began to smuggle them under the table as valuable souvenirs. P. , seeing this, looked around with an angry face and, collecting all the masks, crumpled them up and threw them into the sea.

When his every doodle brought the price of a good-sized house, it was hard to separate genuine friends from vultures waiting to feed off the artist's leavings.

Roland Penrose, sometime artist, fulltime writer and exhibition organiser, met Picasso in 1936 and remained an ardent friend, supporter and supplicant until Picasso's death in 1973. Picasso was the love of his life, the reason for his professional existence -- and perhaps, even, his personal one. According to a colleague, Penrose was 'in love with Picasso, passionately, and he put Picasso before everybody and everything', including Penrose's photographer wife Lee Miller. Elizabeth Cowling, who has mined the diaries, letters, photographs and notebooks that make up the Penrose Archive in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to create this 'biography of a friendship', calls their intertwined story a 'tale of courtly love', where Penrose 'was the active protagonist ... who initiated the contact, did the travelling, the writing and the calling', with Picasso 'all-powerful and Penrose prostrate at his feet'. Yet 'ultimately it was Penrose who triumphed through the sheer tenacity of his dedication. What might have been a sad tale of failure and humiliation is actually a tale of rare fulfilment and substantial rewards'. It is this tale she unfolds for us in the elegantly designed and beautifully illustrated Visiting Picasso.

In the 1920s Penrose studied art in Paris, under André Lhôte, an admirer of Picasso.

He then married Valentine Boué, a poet and friend of the Surrealists, and through her became friends with Max Ernst, André Breton and Paul Eluard. …

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