Roland Penrose was born on October 14, 1900, in St. Johns Wood, London. He was a leading Surrealist who, in addition to painting, was active as a writer, gallerist, curator and collector. After studying architecture at Queens' College, Cambridge, Penrose decided to become a painter and in 1922 he moved to Paris to study with André Lhote. While he initially experimented with Cubism, Penrose soon adopted Surrealism as he immersed himself in the intellectual circles of the French metropolis. During this period he became acquainted with Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Max Ernst—artists who would strongly influence his work. He married his first wife, the poet Valentine Boué, in 1925.

He moved back to London in 1935 and in 1936 he co-organized the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries, London. That same year he divorced his first wife, and a year later he met the photographer Lee Miller, who was to become his second wife (1947). In 1938 he acquired the London Gallery in Cork Street—contiguous to Peggy Guggenheim’s Guggenheim Jeune gallery—where he promoted the Surrealists as well as friends such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. By this time Penrose had begun collecting art by his contemporaries, and acquired two major collections—those of René Gaffé and Paul Eluard. Also in 1938 Penrose organized a tour of Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937) to raise funds for the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War.

His first big solo exhibitions took place at the Mayor Gallery in 1939 and at the London Gallery in 1947. That same year, Penrose co-founded with Herbert Read the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. He organized the first two ICA exhibitions: 40 Years of Modern Art in 1948 and 40,000 Years of Modern Art in 1949. He curated several exhibitions at the Tate Gallery, of which he was a trustee, and published books on contemporary artists, including Picasso (1958), Miró (1970), Man Ray (1975) and Antoni Tapiès (1978). In 1966 he was knighted for his services to Contemporary Art. In 1980 he was given a retrospective show at the Hayward Gallery, London, organised by the Arts Council. That same year he became Honorary President of the ICA and was granted an Honorary Doctorate in Literature by the University of Sussex. Penrose died in Farley Farm, East Sussex, on April 23, 1984.