Humphrey Jennings was born on August 19, 1907, in Walberswick, Suffolk, in Great Britain. While studying English literature at Cambridge’s Pembroke College, Jennings already showed a multifaceted interest in art. In fact, he drew the stage design for Honnegar’s King David and for Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat. Together with William Empson and Jacob Bronowski, he founded the magazine Experimen, which assembled all of the future proponents of English Surrealism. In 1931 he moved to Paris where he drew for Cresta Silks and read Rimbaud and Baudelaire. In 1933 he returned to England and in the following year began working with GPO Film Unit, which in those years produced important documentaries.

In 1936, together with Herbert Read, Roland Penrose, and André Breton, Jennings helped organize the “First Surrealist Exhibition” in London. Even his work in cinema was influenced by the new artistic currents; his methods do not simply distort one’s sensory perception but offer new mental associations that enable one to see and imagine unpredictably. Among his most renown works from the war period were the documentaries Words for Battle (1941), Listen to Britain (1942), and Fires Were Started (1943).

His photographic and pictorial production are of extreme importance, namely due to his use of collage. In juxtaposing contrary elements not normally found in the same place, Jennings achieves the surprising effects of irony, disorientation, and novelty: the physical proximity makes the differences in media even more marked, while the differences in environment―where the objects usually belong―reinforce the disparity. Master of collage, Jennings even experimented with the technique in a peculiar written form, publishing in Contemporary Poetry and Prose various “Reports” in which references are based in meta-history, or even freestyle linguistics in which verb tenses follow no coherent logic. In 1950, Jennings died in Poros, Greece by falling from cliffs whilst filming the location for a new documentary.


Humphrey Jennings