Archive treasures belonging to the forgotten British surrealist Edith Rimmington

In the last two years, the National Galleries of Scotland have been lucky enough to have been gifted not one, but two, small collections containing personal ephemera, photographs and sketches by the Surrealist poet and painter, Edith Rimmington (1902-1986). Held in great esteem by the founder of Surrealism, André Breton, Rimmington’s paintings and drawings possess a magnetism that still captures and intrigues the viewer to the present day. This is exemplified by The Decoy’s inclusion in The Witch’s Cradle exhibition, at the Central Pavillion of the Venice Biennale in 2022.

Edith Rimmington The Decoy 1948 © The Estate of Edith Rimmington

Born in Leicester, England in 1902, Rimmington was a little-known artist who began exhibiting with the British Surrealist group in 1937. By practising automatic writing and drawing, Rimmington produced work that was not just surreal, but which explored the psychological effects of living in war-torn Britain from the unique perspective of a female artist. Over a career that spanned almost four decades, Rimmington produced poetic prose, enigmatic paintings, and photo-collages, always working on a small scale, before moving on to photography in her later years.

Though her artistic output appears to have been relatively small throughout her lifetime, Rimmington’s great technical skill allowed her to create images that are as haunting as they are beautiful. Interested in metamorphosis and regeneration, Rimmington used her work to explore themes of death, decay, vivisection and regrowth. 

Pencil drawing on paper by Edith Rimmington, unknown date. Presented by Frances Greenwood, 2020.

Almost 20 years after the Galleries acquired Rimmington’s mesmerising oil painting The Decoy (1948), these objects will help us to gain further insight into her private and artistic life, which remains in relative obscurity. Among these recently acquired treasures are postcards from life-long friends, paint brushes made from squirrel fur, and wooden palettes with the artist’s paint still attached. Hidden between the pages of small sketchbooks, there are a selection of informal, loose sketches, and notes on colour compositions. There is even one of Rimmington’s rare, biomorphic drawings; an artistic style often engaged with by Surrealist artists, where abstract shapes and forms begin to resemble anything from plants and animals to microscopic life. 

Edith Rimmington, The Oneiroscopist, 1947. Oil on canvas. Collection: The Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collection of Dada and Surrealist Art in the Israel Museum. © Estate of the artist

Two drawings, which were in Rimmington’s possession when she died in 1986, appear to be preliminary sketches for her haunting painting, titled The Oneiroscopist (1947). Executed in oil on canvas, (and now in the Arturo and Vera Schwartz Collection in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem), The Oneiroscopist is one of Rimmington’s best known works and has been considered by art historians to be emblematic of the aims and ideals of the British Surrealist Group.  

The inspiration for this image came to Rimmington in the summer of 1946. During a month filled with cloudy skies and thunderstorms, Rimmington flew from London to New York on one of the first post-war transatlantic flights. According to the art critic Louisa Buck, (and as legend would have it) it was during the return flight that Rimmington had a vision of a strange, nightmarish figure with the head of a bird and the body of a human. The Oneiroscopist, as its title would suggest, portrays an explorer of dreams. 

Preliminary drawing in biro pen by Edith Rimmington for the painting The Oneiroscopist (1947), around 1947. Presented by Frances Greenwood, 2020.

Donning a heavy, antique diving suit, this shadowy hybrid is preparing to descend into the world of the unconscious - a realm often equated with the unknown and uncharted qualities of the ocean. The sketches depict not only the clouds that Rimmington might have witnessed during her flight to London, but also a preparatory drawing for the creature’s flayed, sinuous hand. These would have been arranged together and copied onto the canvas, in a formulaic style that has become characteristic of her artistic practice. 

We are delighted to be adding these gifts to the Archive at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and to be broadening our significant collection of work by British Surrealist artists. We thank Mrs Frances Greenwood and Mr John Welson for their generous donations. This blog is based on the ongoing research on Rimmington by Tor Scott, a collaborative doctoral student and Collection and Research Assistant at the National Galleries of Scotland. 

By Tor Scott, Collection and Research Assistant.

5 January 2023