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date: 08 December 2023

Agar, Eileen Forresterfree


Agar, Eileen Forresterfree

  • Andrew Lambirth

Eileen Forrester Agar (1899–1991)

self-portrait, 1927

© Estate of Eileen Agar; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Agar, Eileen Forrester (1899–1991), artist, was born on 1 December 1899 at Quinta la Lila, Flores, a suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the second of three daughters of James Senior Agar (1860–1925), businessman, and his wife, Mary (Mamie), née Bagley (1875–1943), whose family came from Maine, New England. The Agars were one of the many Scottish families who emigrated to Argentina to make their fortunes, a feat James Agar achieved by becoming head of the family firm of Agar Cross. Agar was brought up in considerable style and comfort first in Argentina and then in England, to which the family repaired after her father's retirement in 1911. Showing an early aptitude for art, she was encouraged at school by Lucy Kemp-Welch. Her formal training began in 1918 when she attended weekly classes at the Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting. After a period at the sculptor Leon Underwood's Brook Green School at Hammersmith, London (1920–21), where she met Henry Moore, Gertrude Hermes, and Rodney Thomas, she studied part-time at the Slade School of Fine Art (1921–4) under Henry Tonks.

Striking out on her own, Agar set up home and studio in Chelsea, but destroyed most of her early work. A woman of considerable beauty, she was never short of admirers. On 4 November 1925 she married her fellow Slade student Robert Arthur (Robin) Bartlett (1900–1976) and lived for periods in France. The relationship was not a success. Agar dated what she called her emotional nativity to 1926 when she met the man who was to be her companion for fifty years and who eventually became her second husband, on 29 February 1940. This was Joseph Bard (1892–1975), a Hungarian writer then married to the American journalist Dorothy Thompson. Agar and Bard took a flat together in London, where Agar painted Self-Portrait (1927), which she considered her first successful work. Over the next three years the pair travelled much abroad, living for a time in Portofino, Italy, where Ezra Pound befriended them, and Paris, where Agar studied under the Czech cubist Frantisek Foltyn. In 1930 Agar and Bard settled in a pair of flats in the same London block, which was to remain their base until 1958. Their friend Rodney Thomas, the architect, designed innovatively curving furniture for both studio and flats. In 1931 Bard, in collaboration with Leon Underwood, launched a quarterly arts magazine called The Island, which lasted for only four numbers but published contributions from Henry Moore, Naomi Mitchison, and C. R. W. Nevinson. Agar wrote a seminal piece in the fourth number (December 1931) entitled 'Religion and the artistic imagination', in which she expounded her theory of 'womb-magic', stressing the creative importance of the unconscious and the feminine imagination.

Agar's own work was developing rapidly and in 1933 she mounted her first solo exhibition, at the Bloomsbury Gallery in London. A retrospective of seven years' work, it included her early realist portraits, her Foltyn-influenced abstracts, and her latest imaginative paintings which attempted to combine the two in a new way. She began experimenting seriously with collage and sculpture, particularly after meeting the artist Paul Nash at Swanage in 1935. Nash was to play a crucial role in Agar's life until his death in 1946, both as lover and as artistic mentor. In 1936, somewhat to her surprise, Agar was selected to exhibit in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London, showing three oils and five objects. Her brand of lyrical and imaginative painting was in fact quite independent of surrealism, but Agar thoroughly enjoyed being part of a movement with which she had so much in common, and which was also taking Europe by storm. She remained loyal to surrealism even when it went out of fashion in the post-war years, but she lived long enough to see its popularity return fifty years later in the mid-1980s.

Agar's principal artistic output was as draughtsman, painter, collagist, and maker of objects. She was an infrequent printmaker but enjoyed a very active period of taking photographs in the 1930s, which resulted in a number of telling images. Her first serious photos were taken of the rocks at Ploumanach in Brittany when on holiday there in 1936; subsequent snapshots record a magical holiday in 1937 at Mougins in the south of France with Picasso, Éluard (with whom she had a brief affair), and Man Ray. Meanwhile Agar exhibited with the surrealists in England and New York.

The Second World War disrupted Agar's life and art. Although she continued to exhibit and painted a number of watercolour landscapes in the Lake District, she felt her work was to some extent on hold. Only when she travelled to Tenerife to stay with friends in the early 1950s was her imagination fully released once more. So began a middle period of consistent productivity, of highly coloured, imaginative, and lyrical paintings mixing myth and nature, that became even brighter when she turned to acrylic paints in 1965. In 1971 she was given a retrospective exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute in London. Although she continued to paint until 1986, when she completed a series of paintings of the Ploumanach Rocks she had photographed half a century before, and after that concentrated on collages, much of her time in the late 1970s and early 1980s was taken up with a book to commemorate her second husband, who died in 1975. This eventually metamorphosed into her autobiography, entitled A Look at my Life, published in 1988. Two highly successful commercial exhibitions, a host of surrealist group shows, and a television documentary, Five Women Painters (Channel 4, 1989), rendered her last years triumphant. She died at her home, Flat E, 47 Melbury Road, London, of heart failure, on 17 November 1991, and was buried with her second husband, Joseph Bard, in Gunnersbury cemetery, London, on 26 November. She had no children. Examples of her work are in the Tate.


  • E. Agar and A. Lambirth, A look at my life (1988)
  • A. Lambirth, Eileen Agar: a retrospective (1987) [exhibition catalogue, Birch and Conran, London, 8 July–7 Aug 1987]
  • T. Grimes, J. Collins, and O. Baddeley, Five women painters (1989)
  • A. Simpson, D. Gascoyne, and A. Lambirth, Eileen Agar (1999) [exhibition catalogue, NG Scot., 1 Dec 1999–27 Feb 2000 and Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds, 9 March–30 April 2000]
  • The Independent (19 Nov 1991)
  • The Times (20 Nov 1991)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)


  • Tate collection, corresp., notebooks, diaries, and draft autobiography


  • BFINA, Omnibus, BBC1, 20 Nov 1983
  • BFINA, ‘Five women painters’, Channel 4, 7 Oct 1989
  • BFINA, documentary footage



  • E. F. Agar, self-portrait, oils, 1927, NPG [see illus.]
  • group portrait, photograph, 1936, Hult. Arch.
  • photographs, 1936–1948, repro. in Agar and Lambirth, A look at my life
  • J. Bard, photograph, 1937, repro. in Agar and Lambirth, A look at my life
  • C. Beaton, photograph, 1937, repro. in Agar and Lambirth, A look at my life
  • Snowdon, photograph, 1986, repro. in Agar and Lambirth, A look at my life
  • O. Eliason, photograph, 1988, repro. in Agar and Lambirth, A look at my life, cover
  • J. Weaver, photograph, repro. in The Independent
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