Commentary by Minoo Dinshaw, author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman (2016). He is currently investigating the workings of the god Mercury in seventeenth century England.
In 1947, Marion Adnams – the leading Surrealist in Derby – borrowed a small African sculpture from the city’s museum for closer study. “One day I made a drawing of her, and, when it was finished, dropped it down on the floor by my chair. By chance, it landed on a drawing I had done the day before – a drawing of an ancient English oak tree, with gnarled, twisting branches. They framed the head of the African figure, and there she was – Medusa, with snakes for hair”. Those snakes are the Gorgon’s most luridly distinctive attribute. But Adnams gave her new composite work a more unexpected title, Medusa Grown Old. In classical myth, Medusa died young. A mortal, unlike her sister- Gorgons, she was beheaded by the youthful hero Perseus, heavily briefed by gods and fates. At her death, Medusa was heavily pregnant by the greatest sea god, Poseidon; sources differ as to her consent. The winged steed Pegasus sprang from his slain mother’s blood, and from Pegasus’ hoof-beat came in turn the Hippocrene spring – vital source of all artistic inspiration. Set apart from any such cyclical destiny, Adnams’ African Gorgon presides over barren rock and blasted bough, the stricken world of Modernism and its post-war legacy. Adnams kept the sculpture “long after the picture was finished”, but then returned ‘Medusa’ after an attack of nocturnal panic. “After that I confined myself to shells and butterflies…very beautiful and much safer.”
Marion Adnams (1898–1995) initially trained as a modern languages teacher. However, after woodcuts she made while travelling in Europe during the 1920s received significant praise when she exhibited them at Derby Art Gallery and with the Derby Women’s Club, she retrained at Derby School of Art, qualifying as an art teacher in 1938 and becoming Head of Art at Derby Training College in 1946[AJ1] [SL2] .
From the late 1930s onwards, Adnams forged a reputation as a painter of deeply distinctive and dream-like visions inspired by Surrealism and exhibited in local galleries and in London, including at the British Art Centre, alongside Eileen Agar and at the Modern Art Gallery, alongside Jack Bilbo and Max Ernst. Although she never formally joined any Surrealist societies, she was a significant contributor to the movement, particularly regarding the female/male dichotomies within the group which she explored extensively in her work.