Alex Woodcock goes in search of the legacy of a forgotten surrealist painter in Bexhill-On-Sea.
A year and a half before she died a giant fin whale was washed ashore along East Parade. Dead for some hours before it was pushed in on a storm surge late on a Friday night, its body lay almost perfectly nose to tail between two groynes. I was eleven years old on the chilly, sunny, Saturday morning in November 1984 when I found myself entranced by this immense carcass, gently rocking in the waves of the receding tide. Edith would have been in her early eighties. I wonder now what she might have thought of it, this secret piece of the sea suddenly revealed? This was my home town, Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex, where nothing extraordinary was supposed to happen. But maybe I was wrong.
I’m out on the beach, not far from where it came to rest over thirty years ago. Early December. The light is that of a faded postcard. Across the shingle and out on the wet sand the wind chill picks up and within a few minutes my face is numb. But the tide is low and the lines of rocks are exposed and the prospect of wandering among them too tempting to turn back. I am, after all, looking for one in particular.
Edith’s Rock, as I’ve named it, is a V-shaped lump of sandstone peppered with dabs of seaweed. Edith is Edith Rimmington, the surrealist artist who lived here at 9 Alderton Court, a flat directly overlooking the sea, from the early 1970s to her death in 1986. Born in Leicester in 1902, she studied at the Brighton School of Art from 1919 to 1922 where she met fellow artist Leslie Robert Baxter. They married in 1926, in the church at Steyning, Sussex, and moved to Manchester and then Surrey. In 1936 she visited the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, which set her work upon a new course. She was introduced to the Surrealists soon after, and by the 1940s was part of the group. At a moment when there is renewed interest in surrealism and British women surrealists in particular, we still know little about Rimmington’s life. Which is why, in an attempt to negotiate this gap and get to know her in some way, I’m out here, holding a laminated print-out of one of her photographs.
‘Why don’t you try and find the rock?’ It was my friend Louise’s idea. I was excited about seeing this photograph, published in a recent exhibition catalogue. A fairly nondescript rock, a photograph from a private archive of similar ones, taken somewhere on Bexhill Beach. Exactly the kind of rock I’d casually walk past and ignore. Something about this photograph fascinated me, however. I felt something in it, I don’t know what: an interesting mind at work perhaps. What was she doing, out here, taking pictures of rocks? It seemed like a pointless task, though, to try and find it. I am both a stonemason and a regular beachcomber so I know that, taken as it was perhaps up to fifty years ago, the rock is unlikely to exist, the soft sandstone either worn down by the sea or covered by shifting sands. But the more I thought about it the more pressing it seemed. Find the rock. Even though I’m not really looking for a rock. I’m looking for a trace of her life lodged somewhere out here, the photo a kind of treasure map, though how to read it I have no idea.
Long before she lived by the coast the sea haunted her work. Search for her name on the Internet and a handful of images appear, one of them a mysterious bird figure wearing a diving suit. This is ‘The Oneiroscopist’, painted in the 1940s. The title means ‘dream interpreter’ or, as the writer Brigitte Libmann terms it, the ‘specialist in looking through dreams’. It is an otherworldly and frightening image. The bird-human sits on a platform high above both clouds and waves, with diving paraphernalia – lead boots and an unwearable (because of the long beak) brass helmet – at its clawed feet. There is a stillness and a seriousness to the image. It makes me think of an icon, the helmet and boots transformed by association into holy relics. It suggests similar territory to the hermit on the mountaintop or the saint in the wilderness. Yet something of the everyday persists, Rimmington’s precise style and muted colours in harmony with the composed figure, hands neatly placed on its knees as if sitting for a portrait.
Diving suits feature in another work by her, painted in 1940. ‘Eight Interpreters of the Dream’ depicts eight upturned suits within the arcades of a classical courtyard. Eight severed sheep’s heads are liberally scattered nearby. If the diving suit and the Surrealists had a bit of a farcical history by this point – Salvador Dali wore one for the opening of the 1936 exhibition, in his showman’s hands a heavy-handed metaphor for the exploration of the ‘depths’ of the unconscious to which he nearly succumbed for good due to suffocation – Rimmington reclaims its weirdness. Without feet or hands or heads these limp torsos rest in their cloistered peace, guarded by the heads of the sheep. This is a space of overlap, where one world enters into another. It is an unsettling place.
At half past three the light is already beginning to go. I’ve been standing for a few minutes in the wet sand streaked with whispers of black clay and am gradually sinking, my boots now covered with a kind of liquid ooze. I move a foot and the beach moves with me. My footstep-crater is quickly filled in.
A rock that isn’t there, that is in all likelihood absent, its only life now held in this forgotten photograph by a forgotten artist: an invisible rock. Like the hole in a holed stone, plentiful upon the beaches of this stretch of coast. Folklore suggests that the missing part is a connector to other worlds – look through the hole and you are supposed to be able to see the faery kingdom. I can see only the waves, a bit smaller and flatter than they are already, as I hold a white-grey marbled flint to my eye. The portal is closed. I put the stone back in my pocket and return to my photograph.
Like many coastlines in the southeast, the geology here is unstable: chalk threaded with bands of flint to the west, sandstone underpinned with clay to the east. In some places entire villages have been lost to the waves, while in others the retreating sea has revealed new land, joining up former islands that once peeped above saltmarshes. Cliffs slump with regularity, leaving screes of shining rubble for the tide to remove. Even worked stones, selected by masons for their durable qualities, don’t last forever. I’ve shaped them into useful sections of tracery or decorative grotesques which now themselves gently decay on medieval buildings. I’ve repaired broken stones with carefully selected lime mortars, bringing their lines and shapes back into focus. Yet in the life of the stone my interference is a brief one, a moment of form in a longer existence of formlessness.
Such impermanence in a material usually suggestive of longevity attracted the surrealist eye. André Breton, leader of the movement, writing his mystical book Arcane 17 in the shadow of the vast Percé Rock on the coast of Quebec in 1944, was drawn to the invisible processes written into its very form that revealed its instability. As he noted, the annual rounds of freeze-thaw action meant that in ‘thirteen thousand years’ it would no longer be there. ‘It’s beautiful,’ he wrote, ‘that its longevity is not limitless and at the same time that it covers such a succession of human lives.’
Eileen Agar, too, felt something live in the ponderous stones. She took numerous photographic ‘portraits’ of the rock formations at Ploumanac’h on the coast of Brittany in 1936, images that reveal found surreal forms, nature’s readymades, framed and named by Agar after their visual characteristics – for example her wonderfully titled ‘Bum and Thumb Rock’. I wonder if this isn’t what Edith was doing out on the sands at Bexhill Beach, wandering among the waves and the sandstone and mudstone rocks, looking for forms and images suggested by the weathered stones? The photograph that I have with me is suggestive of a torso, perhaps that of an acrobat mid-back-flip, only the stomach and thighs above the sand. In the hands of the Surrealists rocks could be transformed from inert background geology to anchors of the invisible, showing the movements of time and its legacy of sculptural forms.
The wind is like sandpaper on my hands. I quickly place the photograph back into my bag, retrieve my gloves and head for home. This is going to take longer than I’d imagined. Off the shingle and back on the tarmac of the promenade my pace picks up for a moment. I walk back along the full length of the seafront, past the dying sun glinting on the windows of Edith’s block of flats, and wonder where her work has been scattered to, where fragments of her life might remain.
I’ve come to the Tate archive to see a handful of letters. They were sent by Edith to two of her friends: I’m interested to hear her voice, read her words. In the short walk from Pimlico Station the wind off the Thames has chilled my face so much it feels like a mask. There are eleven letters in the collections here, four from the 1940s sent to fellow surrealist Conroy Maddox, seven from the 1970s sent to the painter John Banting. Chance survivals in other artists’ ephemera has created a pleasing symmetry of numbers: 4 letters, sent in the 40s, in her forties; 7 letters, sent in the 70s, in her seventies (well, okay, and late sixties). Identity confirmed I’m ushered into a quiet room off a quiet room and handed a buff-coloured foolscap file crammed with letters, cards, notes, receipts and other jottings. I sit down at one of the desks and gradually feel some life return to my face and hands.
It’s easy to be distracted by the quantity of material in the folder. Banting kept up a lively correspondence with numerous artists and it all looks interesting, but following the reference numbers neatly pencilled on the top right-hand side of each piece of paper I soon jump straight to the back of the bundle and a section of blue notepapers.
She is a right-hander, her writing sloping and energetic. Blue biro. In May 1971 she had recently moved to her flat in Bexhill, but the upheaval has been stressful and she was planning on going to France for three weeks in June and July to ‘just do nothing’. She has been ill, with a liver and stomach complaint but feels much better. She loves the town, ‘simple and uncomplicated’. She is looking forward to meeting the artist Ed Burra, a meeting that Banting has promised to arrange. She returns from her holiday ‘exhausted by the heat’ and invites Banting to come and visit, offering to pay for a taxi (he lives in Hastings, six miles along the coast). She is ‘sorry I am not making drawings these days’ (6th May 1971) and then thankful for ‘all the encouraging things you said about the 3 drawings also glad to know others liked them’ (26th July 1971). There is discussion of a watercolour, a ‘twisted torso’ that Banting will include in a forthcoming exhibition. ‘It will look marvellous in the window – an excellent bait!’ She prefers exclamation marks to commas and the shapes of words over individual letters.
For someone so little known and largely absent from the art-historical record these details are heady stuff. I’m excited: for any other artist this would likely count as insignificant ephemera, hardly worth a mention, but for Edith it has treasure trove status. I’ve dived straight in, reading the letters in date and accession number order, and writing everything down as I go. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and miss anything. It means I am reading more slowly than I would otherwise. My scratchy pencil lead is the loudest noise in the room. I want a copy of these though, they are too good, her voice clear, and, for the most part, her writing is legible.
One of the letters has been folded three times to make six equal parts, one of which has been torn off. ‘Best time to phone me is before 11am or after 6pm either tomorrow Wednesday or Thursday […] are off to town on […] Love E […]’ it reads. There is a circular tea stain from a cup or a mug on the opposite side and an unknown hand (Banting’s perhaps) has made a note of a time in black ink. All, bar the final one, are signed off with ‘Love Edith’ or even ‘Affectionately, the old girl, Edith’, even though she was only one month and ten days older than him.
Excitingly, even in these short notes there is some reflection on her work. ‘When I made the “abattoir courtyard” drawing’, she writes, referring to her ‘Eight Interpreters of the Dream’:
I vaguely thought of the upturned divers suits in the classic landscape as philosophers the sheeps heads backing the idea! I actually originally saw some divers suits drying on the pier at Brighton! I once made a painting of a diver in a diving suit with a birds head – he was an interpreter of dreams – the vast water brain seems to hold all the secrets but the divers don’t come up with much! Now I can look out at this water brain it is rather wonderful but over-awe-ing.
The sea, directly outside her window, meant that even when she couldn’t go outside due to her back problems (‘such a hindrance and also such a painful affair’) she could still see it. This location was important to her. ‘I hate the thought of leaving Bexhill even for a day’ she wrote to Banting in August, worried about the possibility of having to go to London to see a gallery director. Right now, the thought of leaving the archive to return to Bexhill seems similarly distracting.
The last one of this group of seven letters is heart-breaking. It is written not to John but to his widow, and for a moment I am lost. I’ve been swept along on her chatty ruminations about art, friends, her ailments and enticements to Banting to come and visit. But this one is polite and formal, signed off with a ‘Yours Sincerely Edith Rimmington’ – the only letter here to bear her full name. It is evident that Edith isn’t known well, if at all, to the recipient. She finds out about his death from ‘a friend who takes the Telegraph’. She is ‘devastated to hear of John’s death and know how much you will miss him’, adding, as a postscript, ‘I do so hope John did not suffer’. There is a tangible sense of shock in her words. Until the notice of Edith’s own death in 1986, fourteen years later, this is the last trace of her, the last mention of her name in handwriting or in print, in any archive that I am currently aware of.
The four microfiched letters sent to Maddox are a wormhole to a different Edith. In the mid-1940s she was in the process of getting divorced, perhaps the reason why she needed a regular salary and had taken her first job, as a secretary/receptionist to the nature-cure doctor and founder of Champneys health resort, Stanley Lief. She was also having an affair with him:
…just imagine it I do accounts, tackle the correspondence, answer the phone, answer the door, show patients in the treatment room, book appointments, pick up one-finger typeing [sic] and in fact am the stooge general … as I’m not very busy today quite unusual I assure you, I have written my first letter in office hours.
This letter is typed (with few mistakes, despite her claims to amateur typing skills) and there is a drawing suggestive of a knee or other bony joint appended, with the anodyne title ‘This is office life’. She is frank about her relationship:
I don’t quite know where I’m heading for with Lief but I feel sort of safe because he is tied up with lots of commitments, first wife divorced him (she has a boy by Lief age 22 who is training to be an osteopath and who is very interested in surrealism so that I lend him magazines) and he (Lief) has two children by his present wife, a boy of sixteen and a little girl of five, but at 50 he is kicking against the dullness of his life. Thats [sic] where I come in – it is great fun showing someone new things and thoughts without the thought that they will want to tie themselves to you.
The affair seems to have been an enduring one. In a letter sent to Maddox two years later she writes that she is off to Cheddar: ‘Stanley is taking me by road so it ought to be fun’.
During these years she is living in London, at 1a Bathurst Place, just on the north side of Kensington Gardens. There are regular meetings of painters and poets at the Horse Shoe pub on Tottenham Court Road, where ‘one can usually find one of us at least every Thursday evening from 6pm’. She seems relatively unconcerned about her safety and mentions the war only in terms of how hard she finds it ‘to create a discovery image among the death and destruction which seems to interest everyone so much, I certainly am not concerned with good or evil but only with myself and how to get an interest in life again’. Partnerships were on her mind. ‘I am experiencing the feelings of being an outsider’, she wrote to Maddox in July 1945, ‘each time I visit the solicitor re divorce’. And then, signing off in a letter sent in December, after some discussion of Maddox’s forthcoming wedding, ‘I shall be interested to hear what made you divorce non-marriage’.
I buy a cup of tea and sit for a while in the café, seeking a buffer between her world and my journey back to the south coast. There is a Rachel Whiteread exhibition on in the main hall. Her collection of empty spaces, casts of the dead air beneath chairs, inside wardrobes, along staircases – is somehow calming and contemplative, but also makes the people, us, the visitors, stand out. The many absences here, in plaster or concrete or resin, somehow make the presences stronger, louder, almost overwhelming. I can’t help but think of Edith. In their own way her letters are like an electric shock, a blue spark in the vacuum, too.
I head back outside. The wind is as cold as it was four hours ago. Reflections of Christmas lights twinkle in the river as I join one of the many tributaries of human shapes that flow back to the Tube.
A few days later and we’re out on the beach. It’s near low tide, rocks still emerging from the water. Anticipating this we’ve worn our wellies – mine are black, Louise’s green – but many are still beyond our reach, out in the breaking waves.
I don’t often dream or remember my dreams but this morning I dreamed of Edith. I was lying in bed, the room exactly the same. There was some light, suggesting morning, a sort of grey and translucent light. A face, as if made from ceramic and with only the simplest features, not unlike the smileys of the late 80s, appeared in the air in the corner of the room. It drew me towards it and I lifted out of the bed into the air, floating, it floating before me. We span slowly around each other, anticlockwise, face-to-face. Then I heard the sound of fast, irregular breathing, realised it was me and woke up. The name in my head: Edith.
Perhaps it was her. What’s more surreal than an off-white acid house grin hanging in the liminal air? I don’t know. Whatever my interpretation I’m in her territory, that much is clear. And quite literally so today, waiting for the tide to turn and expose the line of black rocks that at the moment is causing the waves to break early. West Parade. Perhaps she took her photo here, much closer to her flat than I’d imagined. Perhaps, with her bad back and other complaints, she didn’t like to walk too far.
‘Sculptures’, wrote the artist Philip Rawson in 1997:
have been perceived since the earliest times and all over the world as providing bodies or dwellings for spirit-beings or forces … Even lesser sculptures, of a kind we usually consider merely decorative, were meant to induce and contain live spiritual energies in the fabric of the sacred site they were made to adorn.
This acknowledgement of the invisible is, I think, what I’m drawn to in her photograph. (Confronted by the fullness in the Whiteread exhibition yesterday, all that absence that she’d collected and made real, I can’t help but feel more sensitised to it). Stone has long been a mediator between the embodied and the without-a-body. Gravestones are probably the most immediate example, the names of the departed fused with the long cycles of geological time that produced the stone in the first place. Medieval churches and cathedrals work similarly, produced as they were by a culture that took the invisible seriously. The monsters and grotesques that line the edges of some of these not only marked the space out as different – a warning that here was a place in between worlds, where such hybrid and impossible creatures might dwell – but also served to protect that space. Here the idea of sculpture as apotropaic is relevant, that certain forms dazzling to the eye or carved into imaginary beasts had the power to entrap wandering spirits and thereby avert their destructive potential, in this way saving the building from harm. Stone carved into surreal forms and shapes, stone alive with some furious power – perhaps that’s what Edith saw out here, in the wave-beaten sandstone.
The wind is freezing. The rocks are coated with a fine fur of green weed, broken through by the occasional plucky strand of bladderwrack. None, however, come close to resembling the one in the photograph. No, there is no upturned acrobat but I can see other shapes, and I’m starting to imagine a bizarre sub-sand world of impossible creatures, all frozen in time for a moment – a genuinely surrealist seaside.
I’m reminded of her painting ‘The Decoy’ (1948). Somewhere between an anatomical drawing and a botanical illustration it depicts a hand surrounded by precisely drawn butterflies, some in colour, others in black and white. Look closer, however, and it is evident that the hand is unravelling, the outer layers of skin chased back by caterpillars to reveal a white chrysalis lodged within the interior of the palm. Other chrysalises hang from the fingertips. Transformation is everywhere, it seems to say, though we are dulled by the miraculous and ignore the fantastic. Edith was out to restore the connection between the magical and the mundane, to draw back the veil that separated them.
I think she would have liked the whale. Well, not liked, perhaps, but understood. I wonder if she’d been able to see it for herself, to join the crowds that gathered during that afternoon to watch contractors slice it up with chainsaws, rumours circulating of the skeleton eventually being displayed at the local museum. I might have passed her on the promenade even. The jaws of the deep had opened and belched forth a creature of such unimaginable proportions that our immediate response was one of resizing, of parcelling its bulk up into manageable, transportable sections. How odd that must have seemed to her, someone who had spent her entire life chasing the unseen, exploring what lurked at depth.
I’m beginning to get a feel for her work. Much of it seems to be concerned with one world opening into another, the doorway being everywhere, the door perpetually open. Just hidden. She found it, though, again and again, in paint and ink and print. These images are like rogue maps of the invisible: if we read them correctly, we might find the doorways ourselves.
The tide is still going out and new rocks are emerging from the sea. One is shaped like the head of a crocodile, another is like the heel of a giant foot. Standing in the winter waves we look and we wait, we look and we wait.
Sometimes it seems as if she’s still here.
Interpreter of the Dream is a companion piece to Alex’s poem Saltwater Zodiac (for Edith Rimmington), also published on The Clearing.
Alex Woodcock is a writer and stonemason from the south coast of England. After completing a doctorate on medieval sculpture he worked at Exeter Cathedral, where he helped repair the internationally significant west front. He has published work on Romanesque and Gothic stone sculpture, surrealist artists and the landscapes and geology of the south and south-west coasts of England. He is an award-winning poet and essayist, and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Buy King of Dust here, or from your local bookshop. Follow Alex on twitter.
Photographs by the author.