The gaunt gothic features of Anthony Earnshaw, the wary intelligence of the eyes, the sparse wild hair ruffled by the bitter north winds of Leeds, the flat voice proclaiming the extraordinary as if it were the most natural thing in the world - for almost thirty years I have been aware of him and even, although he is most friendly if a little shy, slightly in awe. This is because he has never wavered in his allegiance to that spirit which Breton called Surrealism and it, in consequence, has never left his side. One knows, in his company, that reality in the banal sense becomes transparent, that events in the shadows, invisible to most of us, are as clear
as if floodlit. Yet he is not one of the solemn Surrealists. He belongs, together with Magritte, Marien and the great precursor Alfred Jarry to the creators of Black Humour, to those 'see the joke'. Being a Yorkshireman, born indeed in Ilkley which is even pushing it a bit, he is very much down to earth, only that earth happens to nourish the unique seeds of his imagination.
We are of the same generation and approached our shared enthusiasms from entirely different starting points. I was of a middle-class Liverpudlian background, educated t public school; Tony of working-class origin with a childhood frequently hovering on the edge of financial disaster, and eventually earning his living as a crane driver. Yet, and we were by no means alone, we both stumbled or were led, (for there is always, as Breton maintained, 'the certainty of hazard') towards two marvelous revelations - hot jazz and the Surrealist movement.
No one has ever adequately explained why, during the wartime years, so many young people were spontaneously attracted by early Black jazz, a form at that time completely overshadowed by the big swing bands. Was it a romantic reaction to the drab and threatening present? Why did our sudden awareness of it, all over the country and without any reference to social or economic background, transform our lives? Whatever the answer, it did. In doing so it created a free-masonry, a minority certainly, but widely spread and totally committed.
Equally mysterious is why a minority within that minority should stumble or be led towards Surrealism. Considered 'amusing' before the war, by the middle forties, it was completely out of fashion, even amongst those who supported modernism. The words it whispered, 'the Marvelous' reached very few ears. Earnshaw and his lifelong friend and fellow jazz enthusiast, Eric Thacker, owned four of them. Myself another two.
I believe it was the painter Patrick Hughes, at that time living in Leeds, who brought Earnshaw to my attention. In the early sixties, while visiting the city, I called on him. He was out of work but his first wife, having rung him up to see if he agreed to it, showed me his work and I immediately bought a watercolour. It was one of a series of what seemed to be based on rusting machinery. It was very fine in the aesthetic sense and charged with poetic feeling. It was a direction he had pursued for a number of years which was soon to lead him to an important cross-roads. Surrealist near-abstraction was already losing out to an important cross-roads. Surrealist near-abstraction was loosing out to a more aggressive approach.
Indeed it was not long before Earnshaw gave up painting as such and entered into literary and graphic collaboration with that most mobile of clerics. Eric Thacker* I had met Tony by then and became the recipient of his marvelous letters, and I was very moved to receive the manuscript of Musrum, a book which will one day be recognised as a masterpiece, and to have had some past in helping towards its publication. The later books, some with Thacker, some his own work, are equally inventive , while the secret alphabets, whether between covers or published as large prints, reveal a grasp of 'correspondence' so comic, and occasionally sinister, that they provoke laughter and alarm in equal quantities. Nor must one forget that wheeled bird whose name is wokker. He rolls across Tony's letters commenting with barbed cynicism on the world about him. It saddens me that the strip which is his home appeared in print only for a comparatively brief moment. The trouble perhaps, as Patrick Hughes once suggested to me, is that you cannot, unless you are of a masochistic, even suicidal tendency, imagine cuddling WOKKER.
Of late, however, it is the assemblages which have occupied him. Paradoxical and elegant, they represent, with a certain detached hauteur, the vision of a beer-loving unaffected working-class northerner with the full attributes of those aristocrats of the spirit who should, but alas don't run the world. The assemblages are witty, but their wit bites. They never laugh at themselves only at us, and our assumptions. As I write I can glance from time to time at one of them. Boxed in a fine wood frame glued to a white board, is an egg-shaped oval of black velvet. On it is a catapult whose string is replaced by pearls. The title of this work, neatly written on a small card below the oval, is The Boyhood of Don Juan (Catalogue 45). It is some time before one realises this is formed from the antler of a stag, symbol of the cuckold.
Breton once wrote a series of aphorisms describing the current members of the Surrealist group. For Tony Earnshaw, who was then still a child, I suggest The Yorkshire pudding whose gravy reflects with total fidelity the milky way'.
*Eric has moved, by stages, from methodism to the Church of Rome.