My history hero: Leonora Carrington (1917–2011)

Comedian and novelist Jenny Eclair explains why she admires a free-spirited artist and author

Artist Leonora Carrington

This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Leonora Carrington (1917–2011) was a British-born artist and author who spent most of her adult life in Mexico. She was also one of the last surviving members of the 1930s Surrealist movement. Twice-married, Carrington was hospitalised during the Second World War after having a breakdown and was given shock treatment (ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy). She later went on to co-found the Women’s Liberation movement in Mexico, and to have two children. She died in Mexico City, aged 94.

When did you first hear about Leonora Carrington?

A few years ago, when out of the blue someone sent me her novella, The Hearing Trumpet, first published in France in 1974. It’s a bit of a mad book, a sort of Alice in Wonderland for geriatrics, but the more I learnt about her as a person, the more she fascinated me. She got up to all sorts of antics and was the sort of person who made soup out of pubic hair. If she’d been a man, I suspect we’d all have heard of her by now.

What kind of person was she?

She was obviously a bit nutty, which is partly why I find her so appealing. I also like the fact that she was born in Lancashire, as I have Lancashire roots myself. While she was to some extent a spoilt rich girl, if you’re a northern spoilt girl, you’re very different to a southern spoilt girl. I’ve always been attracted to people who were expelled from school too. I behaved abominably at school, but unlike her, never managed to get expelled.

Moreover, she cavorted around with lots of unsuitable men, married a foreigner (not the thing to do back then) and had a nervous breakdown after Peggy Guggenheim, the art collector, stole her husband. It is said that her family sent her nanny on a submarine to wartime Lisbon to save Carrington after her breakdown.

What made Carrington a hero?

She was free spirited in an ‘I don’t give a damn’ kind of way, and did things that people of her generation and class weren’t expected to do, like study art. While I’m not a huge fan of Surrealist art, I much prefer her work to that of Dalí, in part because of its magical imagery and female sexuality. She was a ravishing beauty in her youth, albeit a naughty beauty – and last but not least, a founding member of the feminist movement in Mexico in the 1970s.

What was Carrington’s finest hour?

She had a few. I think that one of her finest hours was The Hearing Trumpet. She is best known for her Surrealist paintings – and tellingly the Tate Liverpool had an exhibition of her work earlier this year. Not many women get to have retrospectives of their work at the Tate, reflecting her importance as an artist. She also designed hats, made papier-mâché masks for theatre productions and wrote poetry. In short, she ploughed her own furrow.

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about her?

Some of her art is a bit too fey for me and has a slightly birthday-card, mystical quality to it. She was probably a bit of a pain in the neck in some ways. I can’t help wondering whether she would have ended up dancing on the table and swinging from the chandelier. Apparently, one of her party tricks involved creeping into people’s rooms at night, cutting off their hair and serving it to them in an omelette next morning – so I’m not sure I would have wanted to be her best friend.

Can you see any parallels between Carrington’s life and your own?

I get the impression that she was in a permanent state of anxiety and I very much sympathise with that. She does sound like she was a better cook than me: I’m rather in awe of someone who could make a meal of hare stuffed with oysters.

If you could meet your hero what would you ask her?

I’d ask her if it was true that her nanny really did arrive in Lisbon on a submarine from England to rescue her – I’d love to know if that really happened

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Jenny Eclair was talking to York Membery. Jenny Eclair is a comedian, novelist and actor. Her latest novel, Moving, was published by Sphere in July. jennyeclair.com