The Balsall Heath Bohemians - 1st August 2023

Stewart Lee takes us into a world of life-sized chess pieces, alcohol-guzzling nuns and crucified naked bespectacled men. The story of British Surrealism began, not in Bohemian north London, but in a Birmingham suburb.

Today, the tradition continues with Birmingham artist Cold War Steve, whose work is featured on the website. His detailed collages evoke the surrealist world of the original Birmingham Surrealists.

The seminal moment for British Surrealism was the 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition when Salvador Dali donned a diving suit and walked through Piccadilly. But art historian and critic Ruth Millington reveals that the actual crazy beating heart of British Surrealism had already begun. A Birmingham group of artists refused to take part in that Exhibition, viewing the other British artists chosen as ‘overnight surrealists’.

The Birmingham group, including Conroy Maddox and John Melville, were the first and truest expression of the movement in the UK, meeting in the Kardohmah café in New Street and the Trocadero pub in Temple Street.

Later joined by Emmy Bridgwater and zoologist Desmond Morris – who left a giant elephant skull in Broad Street – they frequented Maddox’s house in Balsall Heath. Inside were life-size chess pieces and wallpaper hand-printed by an adapted washing mangle. They held parties where communists, Caribbean immigrants and naked women in high heels smashed pottery underfoot.

Activities included Maddox being crucified, naked and bespectacled while a nun drank from a two pint bottle of local brew Mitchell and Butler. Maddox wanted to replicate this in shop windows in Birmingham but the Council refused.

Stewart Lee explores the creative explosion in the Surrealist court of Birmingham and the art it produced.

Artwork above by Cold War Steve.

A True Thought production for BBC Radio 4

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