Roland Algernon Penrose was brought up in a strict Quaker household near Watford. He attended Leighton Park School and studied architecture at Queen’s College, Cambridge. After graduating, he swiftly switched from architecture to painting and moved to France where he lived from 1922 to 1935. Whilst living there, he became acquainted with Picasso, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and the Surrealist poets André Breton and Paul Éluard, all of whom influenced his work. He had his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1928. Eight years later Penrose returned to England where he was one of the organisers of the London International Surrealist Exhibition which led to the establishment of the English Surrealist movement. He settled in Hampstead in the midst of the community of avant-garde artists, writers and intellectuals where he commissioned a sculpture for his house, Mother and Child by Henry Moore, which consequently became the focus of a press campaign against surrealist art.
Being a close friend of Picasso, Penrose organised a tour of the artist’s Guernica in 1938 and by the following year his relationship with the model and photographer Lee Miller had begun. In 1947, the year in which he married Lee Miller, he co-founded the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London with the art critic and writer Herbert Read. He organised important exhibitions at the ICA such as 40 Years of Modern Art, 40,000 Years of Modern Art and several of Picasso’s works. He also produced a number of books on Picasso as well as other artists such as Max Ernst and Joan Miró. He bought Farley Farm in Sussex in 1949 where he displayed his collection of modern art, in particular works by Picasso and the Surrealists. In 1960 he organised the highly acclaimed Picasso exhibiton for the Tate Gallery, followed by exhibitions of the work of Max Ernst in 1961 and Miró in 1964. Penrose was awarded a CBE in 1960, was knighted for his services to visual art in 1966 and awarded an honorary DLitt from the University of Sussex in 1980. His works are some of the most enduring of the surrealist movement. He is particularly remembered for his postcard collages, examples of which are found in major national collections across Britain.