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Eileen Agar (1899–1991) professed surprise in the spring of 1936 when she was officially identified as a Surrealist. ‘Am I?’ she replied when Roland Penrose and Herbert Read came to her studio and told her she was. These two movers-and-shakers of the English art world were rounding up like-minded artists to be included in the International Surrealist Exhibition scheduled for that summer in London. In some ways it was not a difficult task, as the English had a natural predisposition towards the surreal – just think of William Blake and Lewis Carroll. Agar had discovered Surrealism for herself in Paris when she lived and worked there in the late 1920s, but she was equally interested in Post-Cubist abstraction, and her own style oscillated between the two, deriving strength and formal ingenuity from both. Indeed she was experimenting widely in the early 1930s, delving into her psyche for the kind of subject and theme that would have intense personal relevance as well as a wider, more universal resonance. Amongst her supreme achievements of those years, The Autobiography of an Embryo (1933–1934), a large landscape format painting on board some seven feet wide, is a particularly startling and evocative statement.

Photograph of Eileen Agar sitting on a beach with a plastic swan

Photograph of Eileen Agar sitting on a beach with a plastic swan

1938, modern copy print by Joseph Bard (1882–1975)

I was first made aware of this extraordinary picture when Eileen Agar was faced with the problem of moving house. At the end of 1985 I had met Eileen, introduced through her literary agent who I’d met by chance at a party. Eileen had been trying unsuccessfully to write her memoirs, and all the publishers her agent had approached suggested she concentrate more on writing about her own life, rather than trying to construct a monument to her late husband, the Hungarian author Joseph Bard. Clearly she needed professional help, and I was hired to assist her. I did not become her ghost-writer, instead we collaborated. I would ask her to write specific scenes, or record her talking about key incidents or people, then take the new material home and rewrite it in her style, trying to piece it together as vibrantly and coherently as one of her celebrated collages. During this lengthy but enjoyable process we had become friends, and it was to a friend that Eileen confided her worry about what was in the attic.

It’s almost as if it were too personal and too revealing – too raw perhaps – for public consumption.

Her home then was in West House, Melbury Road, Kensington, one of those old Victorian houses in the Artists’ Quarter (Lord Leighton had lived round the corner, G. F. Watts and Luke Fildes in the actual road, and the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft opposite), and Eileen had the top flat with a studio and attics above. By early 1987, the house was virtually empty apart from her, the last sitting tenant, and the owners wanted her to move out so that they could redevelop the property. Eileen was offered a comfortable and well-appointed flat just down the road, but it was half the size of the home she’d lived in for nearly 30 years, so clearly a lot of stuff had to go. Eileen embarked on a selling spree, disposing of objects and furniture she’d cherished for years, giving things to museums and generally throwing out junk. I helped her go through the studio and destroy a few unsuccessful paintings. (Artists should do this more often.) Then she told me that in one of the attics there was a large early painting on hardboard that was far too big to go to her new flat. ‘Either’, she said, ‘it must be sawn in half, or you can have it, Andrew.’ I said we should look at it before reaching any decisions.

The painting I manhandled out of the attic was The Autobiography of an Embryo. It was clear to me at once that this was a major painting, and quite soon I became convinced it was a masterpiece. No sawing this in half or giving it to me (though of course I’d have loved to own it). I suggested that Eileen show it to her dealers, for I could see it as the centrepiece of her next exhibition. This it duly became. She was quite surprised that I was so enthusiastic about the painting – artists tend to be interested in what they’ve done today and might do tomorrow, less so about what was done 50 years earlier when the world was a different place. Looking back on it now, there are all sorts of questions I’d like to ask Eileen, but I missed my chance. Somehow the mere fact of the painting’s emergence from obscurity was enough. To put it simply, I was excited by its rediscovery and didn’t think to interrogate its maker about the fine details of its origins.

That this was an intensely personal, if not actually private painting, is indicated by the fact that it doesn’t seem to have been exhibited much prior to my rediscovery of it in Eileen’s attic. As far as I’m aware it was only shown once in the 1930s – crucially it wasn’t in the 1936 International Surrealist show – when it hung in the Ninth Exhibition of the National Society of Painters and Sculptors at the Royal Institute Galleries in London in 1938. It didn’t attract a great deal of attention then and didn’t feature in either of the subsequent retrospectives of her work, in 1964 and 1971. It made its imposing reappearance in 1987 in Agar’s solo show at the Soho gallery of her London dealers Birch & Conran, and the Tate bought it from there.

Elsewhere Agar wrote of what she called ‘womb-magic, the dominance of female creativity and imagination’.

Why wasn’t it included in the prestigious 1936 exhibition? Was it too big? Unlikely – there were several sizeable paintings as can be seen from installation shots of the galleries. Intriguingly, Agar was represented by eight works in that show, but the catalogue lists only three paintings as against five objects. Of course this was the period of some of her most inventive sculpture – the first versions of her decorated heads, Angel of Anarchy and Angel of Mercy, date from the late 1930s – and it may well be that at this time she thought of herself (or was considered by others) as more of an artist of the object than a painter. But I doubt it. She was always primarily a painter, though happy to move into three dimensions when the need arose. No, I think she decided not to show the painting to anyone for the moment. It’s almost as if it were too personal and too revealing – too raw perhaps – for public consumption. So it was consigned to the attic to await the right moment.

The Autobiography of an Embryo currently hangs in Tate Modern in the section devoted to International Surrealism where it continues to arouse passionate debate. But how autobiographical is it? In her notebooks of the period Agar wrote: ‘What song should woman sing if not a love-song? Every child she bears should be a paean in praise of him who fructifies her. There is no other story than that of Love, Creation and Birth.’ Did the unmaternal artist I knew once yearn for a child with her beloved Joseph? Did something go wrong? One can only speculate, but the subject of this remarkable painting is – to say the least – an unusual one. Who else but a Surrealist would think of attempting it? Her painting is a grand conspectus of the origins of organic reality and culture, a four-part celebration of life. The imagery is in perpetual transition between the figurative and abstract, and the viewer is offered a series of glimpses into the mysterious origins of our existence. Elsewhere Agar wrote of what she called ‘womb-magic, the dominance of female creativity and imagination’. The Autobiography of an Embryo is a triumphant affirmation of that redoubtable power.

Andrew Lambirth