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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. He initially experimented with Cubism, but soon adopted Surrealism as he became further immersed in the intellectual circles of the French capital. During this period, he became acquainted with Max Ernst, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso—artists who would strongly influence his work. He married his first wife, the poet Valentine Boué, in 1925.
Penrose moved back to London in 1935 and in 1936 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 photographer Lee Miller, who become his second wife in 1947. In 1938 he acquired the London Gallery in Cork Street—adjacent to Peggy Guggenheim’s Guggenheim Jeune gallery—where he promoted Surrealist artists as well as friends such as Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson. By this time Penrose had begun collecting art by contemporary artists 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, together with Herbert Read, Penrose co-founded 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 service to the arts. In 1980 the Arts Council organized a retrospective of his work at the Hayward Gallery, London. 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.