Anthony Sydney Earnshaw (1924-2001) was a self-taught painter and graphic artist/illustrator, who delighted in producing surreal and often anarchic works. He described his work as a, ‘spirit of rebellion which can express itself as humour, cocking the snook, upsetting the applecart to criticise Western culture with all its pretensions and its arrogance.’ (Flick Knives and Forks … 1981).
He was born in Ilkley, but his father, a watchmaker and jeweller, had died before he was born. After the father’s death the business floundered, so the family moved from Ilkley, first to Redcar and then to Leeds. In Leeds, Anthony attended Harehills School, but to help his mother financially he left school at 14 and became an apprentice fitter in a local engineering firm.
Until the late 1960s Anthony Earnshaw worked as a lathe turner, and later a crane driver, but pursued a parallel path in the arts that eventually became a career. Whilst at school he had developed an interest in literature, and later by his early 20s, through an interest in Rimbaud’s poetry and a love of jazz, had gained an interest in Surrealism. He later said:
It changed my life. Since then I have drawn drawings and a cartoon strip, painted pictures, written books of sorts, printed prints, made assemblages, and all in all made a general nuisance of myself (The Times, 25/08/2001)
Earnshaw read avidly in his own time at Leeds Central Library and after WW2 began to meet with fellow Surrealists in Leeds and elsewhere. One of these, Eric Thacker, who he had met at the Leeds Rhythm Club, became a good friend and together they would engage in surrealist activity, for example going on unplanned train journeys and boarding and leaving trains at random.
He spent time in London, where he met the surrealist artists, E.S.L. Mesens and Patrick Hughes. Patrick Hughes introduced Earnshaw to the art critic and singer, George Melly, who became an enthusiastic collector and promoter of Anthony’s work, as well as one of his obituary writers – he described the artist as a ‘gentle, loveable and loyal, but intransigent, man.’
It was Patrick Hughes too, who persuaded Anthony Earnshaw to stage a solo exhibition of work at the Leeds Institute in 1966. This brought Anthony’s work to wider notice and in 1967, the bookseller and surrealist, John Lyle, invited him to show his artworks in ‘The Enchanted Domain’ Surrealism exhibition at Exeter. The Leeds show also led to offers of work teaching art part-time at Harrogate School of Art, as well as at Bradford School of Art. In 1972 he finally left engineering when Leeds Polytechnic offered him a Fellowship in their art school. In 1985, by now firmly established as an artist, Earnshaw left the Polytechnic to pursue a freelance career.
From 1972 onward, Earnshaw had also written and illustrated, either alone or in co-authorship with Eric Thacker, a range of non-fiction and fiction books with surrealism themes and ideas (see bibliography below). He became well-known for his alphabet series of drawings, where individual letters are presented in picture forms (see images above and below) and were showcased in the book, Seven Secret Alphabets (1972). Anthony was also the co-author, with Eric Thacker, of the surrealistic novels Musrum (1968) and its sequel Wintersol (1971).
In 1971-72 Anthony and Eric Thacker also produced a comic strip: ‘Wokker’, for the Times Educational Supplement. ‘Wokker’ , a bird of sorts, had wheels for feet and was presented as a miscommunicating, naïve and mercurial hero: ‘pompous and pontificatory, his speech verbose and finger wagging’ as Earnshaw saw him.
Earnshaw was also famed for his black-humour aphorisms that he later collated and published in a book. These included: ‘Gold-plated barbed wire for deluxe wars’, and ‘It is apt that obituaries end with a full stop.’
In the latter stage of his life, Anthony Earnshaw made surrealist box assemblages. Behind a wooden frame and glass, he placed objects he had found or bought from the roadside, flea markets or toyshops. George Melly described these as:
Beautifully self-crafted, they contained, behind glass, little theatres of extreme, if sinister, elegance made up from toys, objets trouvés and any other means to hand.
These combined the seemingly innocent with the absurdly sinister. One of these, for example, displayed a miniature snowman tied to the stake. A large match was supplied to set the kindling alight, but the flames would, of course, cause his snow to melt and, in consequence, douse the pyre!
In 1991 the Leeds art collector, Dr. Jeffrey Sherwin, commissioned two surrealist boxes to mark his own recent heart attack. Earnshaw titled these The Glamorous Heart Attack; the other Make Mine a Quadruple. Dr Sherwin’s exceptional collection of over 200 British Surrealism art works and related items, including Earnshaw’s work, was displayed in 2009 at Leeds Art Gallery in the exhibition ‘British Surrealism in Context: The Collector’s Eye.’
Another assemblage presented a large collection of combs mounted on a board, all labelled as to where he found them in the streets of Leeds. Some were almost new, others reduced to a single tooth. George Melly remarked that the collection was ‘a wonderful illustration of the human condition.’
Earnshaw met the Bradford-born artist, Doug Binder, and the two artists struck up an immediate rapport. Binder later wrote:
I was introduced to a droll, impish character who sported a beret (more ‘Tony Hancock’ than Paris Left Bank) and who was partial to northern bitter … Tony was known as a surrealist, but I think his humour and northern culture straddled a gap between delicate sophistication and ‘outsider’ art. (Douglas Binder, ‘The Portraits of Douglas Binder’, 2010, p.98.
Doug Binder subsequently helped to acquire an early watercolour by Earnshaw, The Chinese Dragon (1962) for the Dean Clough Art Collection, Halifax (see below).
Earnshaw’s work was widely exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in Britain and overseas, including the USA, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Portugal and France. A retrospective exhibition was held in 1987 at the Leeds Art Gallery.
In 2001 Anthony Earnshaw died in Saltburn, where he had lived with his wife, Gail.
After the artist’s death, in 2002 at Dean Clough staged an exhibition of Earnshaw’s work. In 2011 the Flowers Gallery in London – who had always championed his work and given him his first solo show in 1972 – held a retrospective exhibition: ‘The Imp of Surrealism’, that moved the following year to the Cartwright Hall, Bradford. Also in 2012, one of Earnshaw’s early works was acquired and included in the Tate Collection.
The Anthony Earnshaw Bursary was founded by Patrick Hughes (see above) in 2016 in honour of his friend. The bursary now provides assistance towards costs for students studying Access to HE Diploma (Art & Design) at Leeds Arts University.
See also a profile of the artist at Wikipedia – Anthony Earnshaw
Musrum (1968) by Eric Thacker and Anthony Earnshaw. Published by Jonathan Cape Ltd, London.
Wintersol (1971) Eric Thacker and Anthony Earnshaw. Published by Jonathan Cape Ltd, London.
Seven Secret Alphabets by Anthony Earnshaw (1972) published by Jonathan Cape, London.
Carping & Kicking or My Shadow Floodlit (1987) by Anthony Earnshaw. Published by Hourglass Press, Paris.
Flick Knives and Forks: Aphorisms, Jokes, Insults and Stories with Morals (1981) Published by Transformation, Devon.
- The Imp of Surrealism, edited by Les Coleman and published by RGAP (The Research Group for Artist Publications) in 2011 to connect with the London retrospective exhibition of Earnshaw’s work, includes essays by Dawn Ades, Michel Rémy, Paul Hammond, Patrick Hughes, Gail Earnshaw and Michael Richardson among others.
- A View from Back O’ Town: Anthony Earnshaw: Work 1945–1987, exhibition catalogue, Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds 1987.