It's one thing to uncover the life of an artist whose work has been long-neglected due to issues of commerce and gender; another to undergo this venture while new to the world of art history; and another still to discover, almost by accident, that this artist is a close relative, alive on the other side of the globe. Guardian journalist Joanna Moorhead is the writer around whom this circumstance unfolded, and her work should go some way toward removing a blind spot from the public's awareness. Her talk in the taupe-coloured lecture theatre of the still shining-new Weston Library certainly ensnared the interest of those gathered this Wednesday lunchtime.
Without interviewer but with necessary projected illustration, Carrington tells of the life of a freelance journalist contributing regularly to the Family sections of papers while her extended family had a black sheep of its own. A general embarrassed silence surrounded this figure, preventing even minor curiosity from her younger cousin Joanna, and leaving her with only vague thematic associations of 'Mexico' and 'art'. A chance encounter with a gallery owner revealed that Moorhead's father's first cousin was not only Mexico's greatest living artist, but also potentially reachable, though a recluse. Now motivated, chasing a rare travel assignment in South America, Moorhead took a chance and found herself, half an hour after an initial phone-call, in Carrington's apartment. The surrealist painter and sculptor hadn't spoken to her Yorkshire family for half a century.
From this unlikely point, and through ten subsequent visits during which they conversed extensively, Moorhead discovered the various sides of Carrington's life-story. This afternoon, the portrait of a nouveau-riche Yorkshire family applying massive social pressure to its only daughter draws sympathy for young Leonora; the débutante who refuses to 'marry well' and falls instead for Max Ernst, has a fairytale touch to it; her then Zelig-like presence at the centres of the Surrealist movement are illustrated by Lee Miller's photographs, and the dropped names evoke gasps and whispers of recognition. All of which would be noteworthy enough were Carrington's phantasmagorical canvases not wonderfully arresting, laden with intricate figures and symbols – I'm afraid at this stage of familiarity I'll have to resort to references to familiar artists, but there is the dissonant, fecund crowdedness of Bosch, the subterranean forms of Dalí, even echoes of Escher and Tenniel's illustrations for the Alice books. Even after having been separated by war, the lovers found one another again: Carrington's decision not to reunite was, Moorhead argued, born of the artist's refusal to be seen in Ernst's shadow. May it be hoped that history will welcome Carrington's work as it emerges from relative obscurity.
Enthralling as the tale is, and gripping as Moorhead's writing is, there is a hesitancy to today's lecture. I suspect her confidence may have faltered slightly while speaking of 20th-century art and WWII: her knowledge is extensive, but has been meticulously gathered only in the past decade. An undefined structure and the constraints of a brief talk only whet our appetite for the book, however – and she explains how Surrealism influenced her cousin's way of life, and has made her more open to life's more coincidental and circular paths. Therefore a lecture shaped by audience suggestions, and animated by delvings into the artist's imagery (her sympathy with horses) and uncanny revelations (Moorhead recently assumed the mantle of curator to show Carrington's work in Chichester) is entirely appropriate.