Edwin Morgan & Surrealism

From around 1960, the poet Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) began to build up an art collection, which he donated to the Hunterian Art Gallery in 2004. Before he had the means to buy art, the sixteen volumes of his Scrapbooks were a way to collect images by artists he admired. They include images of paintings in many styles. Picasso was a favourite, alongside artists as diverse as Paul Klee, Diego Riviera, Da Vinci, Paul Delvaux, Henry Moore, Canaletto, Rembrandt and Stanley Spencer. The Scrapbooks were also a creative outlet. They include some of his drawings and designs but it is Morgan’s Surrealist-style collages that are particularly striking, often combining humour with artistic skill. (More images from the Scrapbooks can be seen here).

Collage from Scrapbook 12

Collage by Edwin Morgan from Scrapbook 12 (MS Morgan C/12)

In the course of research into Edwin Morgan, I read Hamish Whyte’s, Nothing Not Giving Messages, a collection of interviews and essays that provides an excellent insight into aspects of Morgan’s life and work. It begins with a description of the contents of Morgan’s Whittingehame Court flat on 4th July 1989, and I was particularly struck by fact that that the living room bookshelves included a copy of “Herbert Read’s Surrealism (elastic band round it to keep in wad of cuttings and cards)”. In a 1975 interview with Marshall Walker in the book, entitled Let’s Go, Morgan explains that Surrealism “excited” him, and he read and discussed David Gascoyne’s Surrealist book with his friend Sydney Graham. The Mitchell Library’s Special Collections Department holds Edwin Morgan’s personal library and as the Gascoyne and Read books seem to have been so important to Morgan, I was delighted to find that both were included in their holdings.

Morgan's copy of Herbert Read's Surrealism, from the Mitchell Library

Morgan’s copy of Herbert Read’s Surrealism, from the Mitchell Library (Shelfmark: EM REA)

First published in 1936, Read begins his book with a lengthy introduction that takes up nearly a third of the volume. This is followed by essays written by leading proponents of the movement; André Breton, Hugh Sykes Davies, Paul Eluard and Georges Hugnet. Ninety-six illustrations are included in the book, making it incredibly visually appealing. The Mitchell catalogue record notes that the Herbert Read book has “Postcards, newspaper cuttings and magazine cuttings inside front cover”.

Morgan's copy of Herbert Read's Surrealism, with inserts. From the Mitchell Library

Morgan’s copy of Herbert Read’s Surrealism, with inserts. From the Mitchell Library, Shelfmark EM REA

Looking inside the book, there are 29 inserts in total; a set of 14 postcards of Surrealist paintings plus 15 articles about the Surrealist movement and reviews of books and exhibitions, dating from 1950 to 1995. As there is no Surrealism subject file in the MS Morgan series of the poet’s papers held by Glasgow University’s Special Collections, it seems that he may have collected items of interest inside his copy of this book. With the items ranging in date over a 35 year period, it shows that Morgan’s interest in Surrealism was an enduring one.

Section from Times Literary Supplement, from Mitchell Library

Section from Times Literary Supplement, from Mitchell Library. Insert from Shelfmark EM REA

Morgan’s copy of A Short Survey of Surrealism by David Gascoyne is complete with slipcover designed by Max Ernst. First published in 1935, the book begins with Gascoyne’s essays about the development of the movement.  In addition are images of Surrealist paintings and translations of poems by André Breton, René Char, Salvador Dali, Paul Eluard, Georges Hugnet and Benjamin Péret. These poetic works were of particular interest to Morgan, and would have been the subject of his discussions with Sydney Graham of “a poetry that enjoyed calling up irrational elements.” (Let’s Go, Nothing Not Giving Messages, page 54).

Book by David Gascoyne, from the Mitchell Library

Book by David Gascoyne, from the Mitchell Library. Shelfmark EM GAS

Why would Surrealism have been so important to Morgan? Surrealism was not a ‘style’ as much as a philosophy that united artists and writers. Both the Read and Gascoyne books would have been packed with inspiration for a young creative mind, such as Morgan’s. In his introduction to the book, Herbert Read states that Surrealism promotes “the instinctive and impulsive components of our being” and that “the personality without contradictions is incapable of creating a work of art.” Morgan must have related to these phrases as a young man growing to understand the many sides of his personality. Surrealism was strongly anti-war and proclaimed the power of artists and poets as: “the only individuals who protest against injustices – or who make their protest vocal.” Morgan registered as a conscientious objector before serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and had a horror of nuclear warfare. He would have been attracted by the idea of a powerful creative mind. The use of ephemera and everyday materials by Surrealist artists reflects Morgan’s use of newspaper and magazine cuttings in the Scrapbooks. Read explained that “Selection is also creation. Nothing is so expressive of a man as the fetishes he gathers round him.” Again, this idea creation through selection was one that was key to the development of the Scrapbooks. The final line of Read’s essay is a particularly resonant one: “life itself ceases when we cease to wonder.” There’s no doubt that the Scrapbooks are the result of a creative, curious mind with a myriad of interests. They are the result of Morgan’s desire to play with words and images and explore new ways of creating. With thanks to the Mitchell Library Special Collections Department. This post is the third in a series about the relationship between the Edwin Morgan Scrapbooks and the poet’s books, now in the Mitchell Library. The two previous posts were Edwin Morgan & The Fortean Society and Edwin Morgan: Cutting Up and Scribbling in Books.

Categories: Special Collections


3 replies

  1. Reblogged this on cautivadulce.

  2. The Mitchell also has Edwin Morgan’s copy of the anthology “The New Apocalypse”. EM made a note in pencil on the rear endpaper: “Tom Scott & McCaig appear to be almost wholly Surrealist — a pity.”

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