Anthony Earnshaw

Obituary (25/08/01).

Anarchist, Surrealist and creator of little boxes that were both elegant and unsettling


Anthony Earnshaw, wearing his flat cap and look of defiance. Above the boxed assemblage, The secret weapon (1980).

Anthony Earnshaw was a painter and graphic artist, a Surrealist and anarchist, a composer of aphorisms and insults. Although he never achieved fame in the mainstream, this was not something he desired. His priorities lay with his friends and comrades, and as an artist he sought to subvert, not to oblige.

What had originally attracted Earnshaw to Surrealism was, he said, the manner in which it "upset Western culture with all its pretensions and arrogance", and if his work often seems jokey, then like a good joke it works because it wrong-foots us, distorting reality, including us look at things upside down.

This is most evident in Earnshaw's box assemblages: in each of them, behind the glass, he would conjure up deranged worlds and absurd juxtapositions. By placing pedestrian objects in surprising settings he sought to challenge our routine assumptions. His assemblage The secret weapon (1980) features a boat fashioned from a piece of paper - a seemingly innocent origami creation, reminiscent of infant days of leisure, but painted black and flying the skull and crossbones.

Other works include black gloves on a red background, with "LOVE" and "HATE" etched on the knuckles; and a miniature snowman tied to a stake (the flames from which will ultimately destroy both snowman and fire). The combination of seemingly innocent artefact with sinister, if pathetic, intent was Earnshaw's forte.

His unnerving sense of humour manifested itself in the written word in Murum (with Eric Thacker) (1968) and Flick Knives and Forks: Aphorisms, jokes, insults, stories with morals, lies (1982), quirky volumes containing such maxims as "Up with stalactites! Down with Stalagmites", "Gold plated barbed wire for the de luxe wars", "Sudden prayers make God jump", and "It is apt that obituaries end with a full stop".

Anthony Sydney Earnshaw was born in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, to a father who was a watchmaker and jeweler. His parents moved to Redcar and then Leeds, where Anthony went to Harehills School. Owing to financial pressures, at the age of 14 he had to leave school, and he became an apprentice fitter. Until the late 1960's he made his bread and butter in heavy industry, becoming a lathe turner and crane driver.

It was after school that he developed an interest in the written word, and through Rimbaud's poetry and a passion for jazz, he came upon Surrealism at the age of 20. "It changed my life," he later recalled. "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."

He educated himself at Leeds Central Library, and after the war he began to assemble with fellow-Surrealists from the Leeds area and elsewhere in the North. He engaged himself in Surrealist situations: with his friend Eric Thacker he would embark on anarchic railway journeys, boarding and alighting from trains at random.

He spent some time in London, with a coterie headed by E.L.T. Mesens, and in the early 1960's he had his first encounter with the artist Patrick Hughes, who persuaded Earnshaw to hold a retrospective exhibition at the Leeds Institute in 1966 In characteristically combative and paradoxical mood, he here warned visitors that the works on display "are subversive documents that have fallen into the wrong hands - they are mirrors on the wall that do not reflect the vampire face of commercialism".

On the back of the exhibition, Earnshaw was offered a one-day-a-week job at the Harogate School of Art, and in 1967 he moved to Leeds Polytechnic to teach. By the time the polytechnic made him a fellow in 1972, he had given up factory work.

He briefly moved south and worked with Thacker to produce two illustrated fantasy novels Musrums (1968) and Wintersol (1971). Earnshaw subsequently invented a cartoon character called Wokker, who appeared in the The Times Supplement. Wokker, who had wheels for feet, was a mischief-making "mercurial hero" - an innocent abroad, "dismayed by the prospect of existence" - as Earnshaw put it.

Another of his creations was a series of alphabets in which characters were pictures. For instance "N" is a man urinating on to the base of a parking meter; "W" is two books next to each other with their pages flapping in the wind; "V" is a person buried in quicksand with his two arms stretched out to the sky.

Earnshaw made box assemblages his mark in his latter years. Behind the wooden frame and pane glass he placed mundane objects he had picked up in streets, flea markets and toy shops. Elegantly constructed, they quietly convey a feeling of horror. In The Last Supper 2 (1999) there is a cracked mirror in the place of a plate, to its right and left a bent fork and flick-knife - underneath the mirror is a bow-tie. Perhaps it is the last meal of a trap, or down-and-out, someone destroyed.

In any case ennui and ruination are themes Earnshaw returned to with The Lost Cricketer (1997) - a model figurine preparing to bowl is perched precariously (and ridiculously) on top of a bubble which is itself emerging from a clay pipe. His on-paper production Two Factories and a Teddy Bear (1997) has two adjacent toy factories, in Escher-like fashion resting on the floor and a wall, their chimneys creating crosses; below them a teddy bear lies in a Christ-like pose.

This idea that the capitalist system crucifies reflected his own loathing of capitalism and rule-makers - though he was not particularly active, styling himself as an "armchair anarchist". One of his few acts of militancy was in Boots the Chemist, when he filled a tube of toothpaste full of mustard, before replacing it on the shelf.

He was to his friends very warm, if a man of fierce independent-mindedness. He wore a flat cap and a look of defiance.

Anthony Earnshaw left Leeds Polytechnic in 1985 to become a full-time independent artist, and was supported in this endeavor by his wife Gail. She and two daughters survive him.

Anthony Earnshaw, artist and writer, was born on October 9, 1924. He died on August 17, 2001, aged 76.


Anthony Earnshaw - The Imp of Surrealism