Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Conroy Maddox, the last British surrealist

Conroy Maddox, the last-surviving British surrealist painter from the original pre-war movement, died on January 14th 2005. He had just turned 92 years old. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on Friday 21st and George Melly, a long-time friend, delivered the eulogy.

From about 1995, he had paid regular visits to the Talking Stick (later Secret Chiefs) talks forum in London, always accompanied by his improbably young companion of 25 years, Des Mogg. In the early days, Des was doing a PhD in Roman Mosaics and it was her interest in mythology and the Roman Gods which first brought Conroy onto the London pagan scene. In the last years of both their lives, Conroy and the late Gerald Suster were to become especially good friends. Over the succeeding years, Des gave one Talking Stick talk and Conroy gave two but it is from the yearly Saturnalias that Conroy is most remembered because it was said (vile calumny!) that Conroy told the same two jokes each time. In fact, he told many jokes but it amused people to pretend to remember only the 'flea' joke and the 'onion' joke...

Conroy's passion for Surrealism had begun in 1935. Silvano Levy, in 'Surreal Enigmas' (essays and writings about and by Conroy) tells how, after the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, the young 24 year old untrained Birmingham painter headed to France:

"In the hot summer of 1937 he gathered sufficient money (the return fare was then £2 10s) and set off for Paris to meet the French Surrealists. On the day he had planned to meet Georges Hugnet, the owner of his hotel advised his client that rain was likely and that he should take an umbrella. As he reached the Rue de Seine, where Hugnet lived, Maddox saw a man coming towards him, wearing a toga and carrying an umbrella. As the two met, they immediately started fencing. After a little party in the street, the stranger introduced himself as Raymond Duncan, the brother of Isadora Duncan...."

Because of techniques like automatism and interest in dreams, surrealists and occultists usually found much common ground and, in France, there had been close contact between the painters and the French hermeticists and alchemists. But, even though Conroy's works included pieces called 'Hermetic Symbols' (1942) and 'The Alchemist' (1988), he could never bring himself to love the more formalised versions of the esoteric arts:

"The seed of religion has never failed to produce its own varieties of rotting fruit: the mystic symbols 3, 5 and 7 of Rosicrucian philosophy, the cheesecloth apparitions of Spiritualism and more recently the Mandalas made by the admiring old ladies of the priest-doctor Jung."

Conroy was deeply anti-militaristic and hated organized religion, both traits having been inherited from his father who had been wounded in the First World War. His anti-religious attitude (and his delightful cheekiness) might be seen in his continual mocking use of the image of nuns. There is a series of photographs, taken in 1946, called 'Entertaining A Nun', which include the scenes 'Conroy Maddox strangling a nun' and 'Conroy Maddox stabbing a nun' and 'Conroy Maddox about to strike a supine nun'. In one of his writings, he says: "The history of Christianity is the history of a creeping sickness: for submission and obedience before the fear imagery of priestcraft, humanity is offered the dubious honour of being clasped to its filthy bosom." And then the nuns again... "I am waiting outside a restaurant in Greek Street. Two Sisters of Mercy pass quarrelling. I watch them to the end of the street and saw one of them push the other into the gutter."

But, while religion could only ever be a source of vitriol or mockery from him, magic had its allure, especially his later years, and showed itself in works called 'The Necromancer' (1961), 'The Sorceress' (1991) and 'The Black Arts' (1993).

The last time I saw Conroy was on 24th June last year in a nursing home in Belsize Park. That day, he was deep in Alzheimer abstraction and the man I talked to for 40 minutes was just the shell of the beautiful, twinkling person I had known. During the whole monologue, the only flicker of interest was when I told him of the thousands of pagans who had gathered at Stonehenge a few days earlier for the Solstice. Des told me that he had many lucid days after that, after he moved to the Royal Free Hospital. She visited him almost every day and it is fitting that Conroy's last words were for her. He said to her: "Come back. Wait for you". He died soon after.

And the final words are, again, George Melly's: "It is easy to visualize him, Harpo Marx-like, in pursuit of a nun, through the leafy streets of Belsize Village, and he in turn pursued by Ms Mogg, his androgynous companion, the 'cabin-boy' of Lambolle Road, whose treasures are horror videos and whose parents are half Conroy's age." Caroline

Note: Des will be organizing a celebration of Conroy's life at Secret Chiefs, sometime in the late Spring


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