Phantoms of Surrealism

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Eighty years ago today, a woman named Sheila Legge posed for photographs in London’s Trafalgar Square with her head completely obscured by a floral arrangement. Her ensemble was inspired by a Salvador Dalí painting and the event was staged to mark the opening of the International Surrealist Exhibition held at the nearby New Burlington Galleries.

That much can be said with certainty. But the closer you look into this event – a vivid foretaste of performance art – the further the facts recede from view. Who was Sheila Legge? Where did she come from, and what became of her? What exactly was she wearing on 11 June, 1936? Who took the photograph(s)? Exactly which Dalí painting inspired the action, and who coordinated it? What was it called, even? As with Duchamp’s site-specific work Sixteen Miles of String at a later Surrealist exhibition, there are numerous variations offered for the most fundamental facts concerning this ephemeral apparition, subject to inference, surmise and Chinese whispers.

Certainly the young David Gascoyne, English poet and an early, passionate supporter of continental Surrealism, is key. In the 2012 biography Night Thoughts: The Surreal Life of the Poet David Gascoyne, Robert Fraser sets the scene:

A few days short of the opening on 11 June, Gascoyne recalled a fan letter he had received the previous winter from a young woman living in a bedsit in Earl’s Court. He paid her a visit and discovered Sheila Legge to be a robustly beautiful girl of 22 with fashionably long blonde hair and an attractive self-containment. He decided the best way of employing her was to convert her into a living exhibit, a walking ‘surrealist phantom’. Adopting an idea from one of Dalí’s canvases, he contacted the theatrical designer Motley with whom his family had had dealings in the past and who supplied costumes for the Old Vic, instructing them to run off a white wedding dress. ‘And then I got a Mayfair florist to make a mask of roses, and we took her out to Trafalgar Square and had a photograph’. The picture appeared on the cover of the next issue of the International Surrealist Bulletin, and shows the phantom among fountains and pigeons and against the blackened backdrop of the National Gallery, her face covered with flowers.

There appear to be two main variants to the pose. One shows Legge in full length, surrounded by pigeons with the National Gallery and one of Trafalgar Square’s lions clearly visible. Another is a three-quarter study showing the subject holding her arms out diagonally, with pigeons roosting on each. Fraser’s account subsequently moves inside to the gallery: “Sheila circulated among the crush, carrying a prosthetic leg in her right hand and a pork chop in her left. But the afternoon was sultry. When the chop started to stink, it was abandoned.” Contemporary photographs clearly show the same woman, now indoors, holding a prosthetic leg – both a typical Surrealist prop and a pun on her own name – but no chop. But there is another eyewitness report, from one whose word Strange Flowers is normally inclined to accept. Take it away, Quentin Crisp:

The only time I gave a gracious nod in the direction of culture was when surrealism came to London […] I went to the famous exhibition in the Burlington Galleries where I found myself an unwitting, though not entirely unwilling, exhibit. In and out of the different rooms glided a certain Mrs Legge wearing full evening dress and carrying in her hand an uncooked pork chop. With orange face and vermilion lips I weaved my way past her, clanking with amulets, but, as her face was entirely covered by a hood of roses, I could not see whether she registered fear that I might be a materialization of the surreal world or annoyance that another voluntary worker had got his rota mixed with hers. For a moment one of the dearest wishes of surrealism was fulfilled. The barriers between art and life fell down.

In The Scandalous Eye: The Surrealism of Conroy Maddox, author Silvano Levy conflates the indoor and outdoor modes of the event, asserting that “Sheila Legge, taking the role of the ‘Surrealist Phantom’, had wandered around Trafalgar Square, her face and hair entirely covered with roses, and holding an artificial leg in one hand and a pork chop in the other.” A newspaper report comments that she wore “surgical rubber gloves”; again this isn’t mentioned anywhere else, nor do the photos suggest she was wearing anything but sheer evening gloves. The floral headpiece evidently developed its own ecosystem as it flourished in memory, with Eileen Agar describing Legge as “the legendary surrealist phantom who walked around Trafalgar Square with her head covered in rose petals and ladybirds,” introducing a detail not supported by any other evidence.

In any case, a full-length image of Sheila Legge appeared on the cover of the September 1936 edition of the International Surrealist Bulletin, and it has since become one of the most famous photographic images associated with the movement.

Stepping back, let’s examine the influence of Salvador Dalí. That Legge’s costume was inspired by one of the Spanish artist’s images is beyond dispute. The female figure whose head is replaced by flowers is a recurring motif in Dalí’s work (plus a lone male figure: The man with the head of blue hortensias, 1936). It is there, for instance, in the self-explanatory Woman with a Head of Roses (1935) and Woman with Flower Head (1937), the 1939 cover the artist designed for Vogue magazine, and is among his contentious late works on paper that revisited earlier themes, including lithographs from 1979 and 1980.

The direct inspiration for Legge’s performance seems to dwell in one or more of three paintings that Dalí produced in 1936, the year of the exhibition (although none of them was exhibited there). They are Dreams puts her hand on a man’s shoulder, Three young surrealist women holding in their arms the skins of an orchestra and Necrophiliac Springtime. It is the figure in the latter that appears the most likely candidate, Legge reproducing the pose almost exactly in the full-length photograph. These same three canvases were, incidentally, listed as inspiration for a 1938 Schiaparelli evening dress.

Legge’s performance, most often titled “The Phantom of Surrealism”, is also recorded under the Dalí-esque title “Phantom of Sex Appeal” (cf. his 1934 painting The Spectre of Sex Appeal). Dalí’s own performance piece later in the exhibition’s run illustrates the difficulty of establishing the facts of artistic phenomena that elude ready categorisation. On 1 July, Dalí gave a lecture from inside a diving suit on the subject of “phantoms”, and as he struggled to breathe inside the apparatus, almost became a Surrealist phantom himself. He was freed from the suit, but the identity of his saviour is a matter of dispute. Edward James is one of the candidates (his patronage of Surrealism is reflected in the current exhibition Surreal Encounters in Edinburgh). Lord Berners‘s biographer suggests the polymath aristocrat was the hero of the hour, while Gascoyne’s biographer adds a third name, having his subject running off looking for a spanner (“no easy task in Bond Street,” as Dalí biographer Ian Gibson archly notes).

Sheila Legge, seated second from right, with Eileen Agar (seated centre), Dalí, Paul Eluard (standing third and fourth from left respectively) and others

But who was Sheila Legge, this faceless face of Surrealism? George Melly dismisses her as a “Surrealist groupie”. A contemporary newspaper report describes her as a “well-known artist in Surrealist circles in London and Paris.” This is not corroborated elsewhere, and presumably results from a reporter hearing that Legge was a Surrealist and imagining this could only make her an artist.

Silvano Levy’s 2014 book Sheila Legge: Phantom of Surrealism, published by Dark Windows Press, sheds valuable light on Legge’s life before, during and after her fleeting renown. We discover that she was born Sheila Chetwynd Inglis in 1911 in St Ives, Cornwall, to a Scottish father and Australian mother, and raised in Melbourne. She later spent time in France and Britain and, by now pregnant, married a certain Rupert Legge in London on New Year’s Day, 1934. Their son Douglas was born five months later, but given up for adoption shortly afterward, around which time Sheila left her husband.

The first mention of Legge in a Surrealist context is the previously mentioned letter that she wrote to Gascoyne, in late 1935, inspired by the poet’s book Short Survey of Surrealism. By the time she met Gascoyne in spring 1936 she had sat for a portrait drawing in Paris by Man Ray. Gascoyne was clearly taken with Legge, impressed that she was “able to read Raymond Roussel in the original”. Gascoyne’s biographer skips ahead to the performance, but what is rarely recorded is that Legge was actually part of the working party tasked with preparing the exhibition.

Sheila Legge is listed under “Surrealist Objects” in the catalogue exhibition (PDF here), some later accounts simply state that she exhibited such an object, not that she was actually an object herself. Levy corrects the version he presented earlier in his Maddox study, bravely untangling the numerous conflicting reports and highlighting a press release issued before the event, detailing what would be happening. The surgical gloves and pork chop, it seems, were details that didn’t make it to the final cut. But does this mean Crisp wove a detail into his recollection that simply wasn’t there? Were you to recall events in your own dim past, even those whose details remain largely lost to memory, you would surely still remember whether any of the chief protagonists were circulating with uncooked meat to hand, wouldn’t you? It’s just not the kind of thing you forget.

At the close of the exhibition, Legge became one of the founding members of the Surrealist Group in England, further highlighting her role as a principal in the movement’s British expansion, and not just a poster girl (or “groupie”). Towards the end of 1936, a text by Sheila Legge appeared in Contemporary Poetry and Prose, “I Have Done My Best for You”. It is a fascinating piece of Surrealist prose, with ships sailing through the desert, phosphorescent needles, melting wax figures and “thirty pieces of camembert”. Only a page long, its quality is sufficient to make Legge’s failure to publish anything else a cause for regret. George Melly suggests that Legge conducted an affair with the painter René Magritte around this time, while the last mention of her in connection with Surrealism comes in November 1937. A newspaper report notes a “Susan Legge” as a guest at the opening of the London exhibition Surrealist Objects & Poems. An accompanying picture shows “Susan”, or rather her legs, one of which is adorned with Surrealist drawings. The surname and the reprise of the “leg” motif make it all but impossible that this isn’t Sheila Legge under a misreported name.

[Aside: Levy reveals another fascinating life lurking in the margins of Legge’s own. Her cousin, Critchley Parker Jr., died while hiking in Tasmania in 1942. A sad, but not in itself remarkable end, except that a journal found with his remains revealed that he had been conducting a survey of a remote south-western corner of the island state with a view to establishing a Jewish homeland there. Horrified like so many by reports of the Holocaust slowly emerging from war-torn Europe, the Jewish Parker was determined to build a new society at the other end of the world, with “a Soviet-style economy, […] a form of Olympic Games, poetry readings, musical performances, exhibitions of paintings, sculpture, weaving and pottery.” As Levy notes, “The pipe dream went as far as to include residencies designed by Le Corbusier.”]

As for Sheila, during the war she met the writer John Lodwick, a prolific novelist who would attract a measure of post-war fame but return once more to obscurity after his death in 1959. Lodwick, who had joined the French Foreign Legion, “rescued” Legge from the French town of Orange where she had been stranded during the war. They moved to Cornwall and had a child together in 1945, but Levy is unable to confirm whether the two were ever actually married or, indeed, if she had divorced her first husband. Legge wrote to Gascoyne that same year, ten years after her first letter, noting that she had “lost touch with everybody”. Sheila Legge, struck by pleurisy and pneumonia, died in 1949 at the age of just 37.

One mystery remains: who took the photographs? Of all the books I consulted that mention the event and the ensuing images, only one ventures the identity of the photographer. In London: After a Fashion, Alistair O’Neill comments on the “haunting and unsettling photograph of Legge wearing the outfit in Trafalgar Square, attributed to the Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun“. While Cahun is sometimes mentioned as a participant in the exhibition (here, for instance) she is not listed in the catalogue under either her assumed name or her birth name, Lucy Schwob. But we do know that the artist, best known for her radical self-portraiture, was in London at the time. Sure enough, the Jersey Heritage Trust, which administers Cahun’s estate, lists the two main images of Sheila Legge in its register, attributing them to the artist. Claude Cahun, it seems, has been almost entirely ignored as a co-creator of one of the signature images of Modernism – yet another phantom of Surrealism.

Sheila Legge Silvano Levy

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6 comments

  1. I absolutely loved this entry! Fabulously unpacked! Thanks. This will be shared with my painting students.
    Amanda Joy Calobrisi

  2. Pingback: Working the room | Strange Flowers

  3. Pingback: 17-plus books for 2017 | Strange Flowers

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