Edith Rimmington - Biography and Legacy
British Painter, Photographer, Poet
Bexhill, Sussex in England
Biography of Edith Rimmington
Edith Rimmington was born in 1902 in Leicester, a city in the East Midlands of England. Unfortunately there is very little information available on her childhood.
Early Training and Work
In 1919, at age 17, Rimmington moved to Brighton and began studying at the Brighton School of Art. She graduated in 1922 and soon met the artist Leslie Robert Baxter. The pair married in 1926 and later moved to Manchester together. Little is recorded or known about the artist's early work, or her married life.
The 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition held at the New Burlington Galleries in London acted as a dramatic catalyst and turning point for Rimmington's career. The show introduced the full scope of the French Surrealist movement to the British art scene. Salvador Dalí famously attended the exhibition in full diving gear ready to delve into "the human subconscious", and almost suffocated himself in the process. The British painter and performance artist, Sheila Legge arrived with a pork chop accessorising her long satin gown; a rotten kipper hung from a painting by Joan Miro, and the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas moved around the opening event offering guests teacups of boiled string. The press and public were mesmerised, and as was Edith Rimmington. The following year she moved to London to further connect with artists and poets active in the movement.
Once settled in London, Rimmington mingled with the country's most prominent Surrealists. She quickly became friends with the artist Gordon Onslow Ford and the writer E.L.T. Mesens, who were both immediately enamoured by her character and work and as such, invited Rimmington to join the London Surrealist Group. The eager young artist began to attend weekly meetings at either the Barcelona Restaurant in Soho, or the Horseshoe pub on Tottenham Court Road, and she soon became one of the group's most active and dedicated members.
As one of only a few female members in the British Surrealist Group, Rimmington formed close bonds with the other women involved, and in particular with Emmy Bridgewater and Eileen Agar. Rimmington also impressed and befriended many of her male peers, including Edward Burra, John Banting, and Conroy Maddox, forming lasting, inspirational, and lifelong friendships. In 1937 Rimmington contributed to the landmark exhibition Surrealist Objects and Poems at the London Gallery, cementing her place in the emerging British Surrealist canon.
Throughout the 1940s, against the backdrop of WWII, Rimmington continued her membership with the British Surrealist Group, meeting weekly and painting prolifically. The group initially started when the poet David Gascoyne met fellow British writer, Roland Penrose, in the company of French poet Paul Eluard walking the streets of Paris. Consequently, Gascoyne wrote the British Surrealist Manifesto in 1935. Regular participants to the weekly salon for the duration of the war included Rimmington's husband Baxter, Emmy Bridgewater, John Banting, Antonio Pedro, and occasionally Lucian Freud. Other poets and writers often made an appearance including Simon Watson Taylor and Serge Ninn, and the charismatic, anarchist cartoonist Philip Samson also sometimes attended. During these gatherings, in much the same fashion as their colleagues in France, the artists in attendance collaborated on various projects, including automatic drawing, making Exquisite Corpse drawings, and composing multilingual collective poems, all the while hosting heated political debates.
With her striking, at times unsettling imagery and haunting, melancholic poetry Rimmington became one of the most important contributors to the movement throughout the following decade. She created automatic drawings with accompanying texts for many Surrealist publications both UK based and abroad. Rimmington disseminated her visual and literary ideas to an international audience through contributions to The London Bulletin (1940), Arson (1942), Fulcrum (1944), Message from Nowhere (1944) and Free Unions (1946).
Many of the artist's best-known paintings from this time feature imagery relating to the process of metamorphosis, including The Decoy (1948) and Relative Strength (1950). The war undoubtedly had a dramatic impact on Rimmington's visual and literary vision, with death, wounds, and amputation featuring as recurring themes. While Surrealist imagery from male artists often featured objectified or fetishized women's bodies as symbols of unsettling dreams and desires, Rimmington subverted this passive representation of women by creating images that look back out at the viewer in direct confrontation, for example as in the Sisters of Anarchy (1940), and Museum (1951).
Although she is recognised today predominantly as a painter, Rimmington's poetry gained her great admiration amongst her peers, and in particular her published prose poems called The Growth at the Break (1946), and The Sea Gull (1946). While the original British Surrealist Group disbanded in 1947, Rimmington and a few others remained dedicated to the Surrealist vision, demonstrating an ongoing fidelity to the group's basic aims and principles, and worked with such in mind for the remainder of their lives.
By the 1950s Rimmington had moved out of London to live in the Bexhill area of Sussex. At this particular moment, the coastal area in the South East of England was a hotbed of creative activity, a sanctuary for artists escaping ravaged, war-torn cities. In the exhibition catalogue for Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion, held at Two Temple Place, London in 2017, curator Dr Hope Wolf writes, "For some Modernists ...the move to Sussex was cast as both a retreat and a rebellion: a rejection of ways of life associated with the metropolis left behind."
Sussex became a refuge for artists, architects, and filmmakers of varying styles, ideologies and nationalities throughout the mid to late-20th century, offering an idyllic, Arcadian hideaway. Some found freedom from Hitler's Germany there, including László Moholy-Nagy and Lee Miller, while others were attracted to its potent status as a threshold between England and the rest of Europe, such as Edward Burra, Ezra Pound, and Bloomsbury Group members Vanessa and Clive Bell.
Rimmington was well aware of the coast's possibilities to further explore notions of the in-between, of the meaning of boundaries and opposites, a space where land becomes sea, or one country slowly rolls into another. Such ideas echoed her ongoing interests in metamorphosis and change, as well as allowing her to reflect on the current modernist trend for the post-war artist as émigré or outsider. Throughout the later years of her life she predominantly produced color photographs of the changeable coast of her immediate environment, including Sussex Coast, taken in 1960s. In a letter to her dear friend and fellow Surrealist, John Banting, she described the sea as "a vast water brain (that) seems to hold all the secrets." Rimmington continued to explore Surrealist ideas while living in Bexhill-on-Sea, until her death in 1986.
The Legacy of Edith Rimmington
Rimmington's prolific practice in drawing, painting, writing, poetry, and photography gave significant substance to the British Surrealist movement, helping to secure its reputation both locally and overseas. Much like her contemporaries Rene Magritte and Max Ernst - whilst always maintaining the more typical Surrealist interest in the unconscious - Rimmington's otherworldly, highly detailed paintings at times glean from the interests of the Magic Realists. Indeed, the writer Simon Martin has latterly referred to Rimmington's revival of classical language to tell a modern tale as a "mystic method", which she explored along with many other British painters including Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Madame Yevonde and Wyndham Lewis.
Rimmington was one of only a handful of women termed Surrealists, and although the body was a recurring theme in her practice, unlike many of her male colleagues her imagery was less overtly sexual, more concerned with the symbolism of life, death, and regeneration. Along with the artists Eileen Agar and Emmy Bridgewater, Rimmington's work has often been side-lined or overlooked in favour of that by her male counterparts, or by that made by female artists who were in romantic relationships with very famous men, for example, Dora Maar, Leonora Carrington, and Dorothea Tanning. This said, however, most recently curators and writers have aimed to redress the balance. Dr Patricia Allmer organised the important exhibition, Angels of Anarchy at Manchester Art Gallery in 2009, which included artwork by Rimmington. In a conversation with Allmer, writer Jeanette Winterson acknowledged the pioneering work of Surrealist women that the exhibition highlighted, saying, "Surrealist women ... have made it possible for the women artists that we know now of our generation to get the kind of recognition ... the true status that they ought to have."
Winterson cites both Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas as examples of high profile female artists who have followed the Surrealist women's risk-taking path. Emin's intimate, biographical subject matter delves into her deepest thoughts and desires, while Lucas's uncanny and unlikely combinations of materials explore the territory between fantasy and reality, following Rimmington and her peers' fascination with the unconscious mind.
The impact of Surrealist ideas promoted by Rimmington has been significant and long lasting. Her dream-like imagery provides interesting comparison with Portugese artist Paula Rego's carefully detailed, highly symbolic paintings, which also explore taboo subjects and unconscious desires. Rimmington's uncanny combinations of everyday, bodily matter are echoed in Helen Chadwick's sculptures and installations, and in the eccentric subject matter of other Young British Artists, particularly DDamien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman. More recently, Tony Swain's fantastical, collaged landscapes owe a debt to Rimmington's complex, Surrealist visuality; Swain merges figurative and landscape elements into haunting, enigmatic reveries.