Spanish artists inspire children's tales

By Dionne Christian

Miro's Magic Animals by Antony Penrose.
Miro's Magic Animals by Antony Penrose.

There are surely not many authors who can write children's books - packed with paintings and drawings, sketches and photographs - based on memories of their childhood friends who just happened to be artists Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.

There are probably even fewer who got away - almost - with biting Picasso or who visited London Zoo with Miro as a guest of the then-mammal keeper, Desmond Morris.

It means Antony Penrose is truly unique. The son of English artist, historian and poet Sir Roland Penrose and American model-turned-photo-journalist Lee Miller, Penrose is here this month as a guest of the Decorative and Fine Arts Societies of New Zealand, which aim to promote and preserve the arts.

He's speaking about his playmates Picasso and Miro and the two delightful books he's written, ostensibly designed to whet young appetites for art. The books are quirky, charming and all true, including the story of how, one day while playing with Picasso, he got "over-excited" and bit the influential Spanish artist.

Picasso's response? He bit Penrose straight back and Penrose's parents didn't bat an eyelid.

"Had the incident happened today, child protection services would have been called in, Picasso would have been dragged off by the police and it would have been reported by all the papers but this was the 1950s, when parents regarded it as an object lesson in consequences," says Penrose, who arrived in New Zealand after a Sydney stopover to meet his new grandson, Theo. "I can tell you, I never bit anyone else, ever again."

From the books, it looks as if Penrose had a magical, bucolic childhood spent on his parents' Farley Farm in Sussex. But pictures can be deceptive. While his childhood was certainly stimulating and packed full of intriguing experiences, Miller was deeply affected by her experiences as a photo-journalist in World War II. She battled depression and alcoholism, motivating Penrose to move as far away from home as he could in his 20s.

He came to New Zealand, lived in a flat in Ellerslie and worked in Penrose, while his girlfriend Suzanna, soon to become his first wife, managed the roughest hotel in town where, he claims, the previous manager had been murdered.

"We loved it in New Zealand, there was a lot going on," he recalls. "We were particularly keen on discovering Maori culture and the arts, the textiles and the carvings, while the myths and legends which explained all aspects of the modern world, were wonderful. We didn't miss our own culture at all!"

But they returned to Britain and Suzanna, obviously made of tough stuff, brokered a peace between Penrose and his mother. It meant when Miller died of cancer, aged 70 in 1977, the two were friends.

Penrose has spent the past three decades conserving and sharing the work of his parents and is director of the Lee Miller Archives and the Penrose Collection at Farley Farm. He's written a handful of books about them but The Boy Who Bit Picasso was his first foray into writing for children.

"It came out of frustration because there was a spate of books about Picasso saying quite nasty and unkind things about him - dishing the dirt - and, yes, there were people he treated badly but this didn't chime with the Picasso I knew, although I knew him through a child's eye.

He says people are complex and the book, partly inspired by a story of a dog who ate a Picasso painting, is an attempt to show a man who was kind to small children and animals. Miro's Magic Animals, to be released this year, is a sequel of sorts, although a totally different story.

"I never knew how much fun writing for children was. After The Boy Who Bit Picasso, I wanted to do it again."

The Boy Who Bit Picasso
by Antony Penrose
(Thames & Hudson $ 22.95)
Miro's Magic Animals
by Antony Penrose
(Thames & Hudson $ 26.99)

Antony Penrose speaks today at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington from 11.30am-12.15pm. Admission is free.

- Canvas

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