Conroy Maddox (1912-2005) The Engaged Couple 45 x 36 cm. (17 3/4 x 14 1/4 in.)

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Lot 4*
Conroy Maddox
The Engaged Couple 45 x 36 cm. (17 3/4 x 14 1/4 in.)

Sold for £ 7,200 (US$ 9,450) inc. premium
Conroy Maddox (1912-2005)
The Engaged Couple
signed 'CONROY MADDOX' (upper right)
oil on board
45 x 36 cm. (17 3/4 x 14 1/4 in.)
Painted circa 1949


  • Provenance:
    with Louise Hallett, London (as Bride and Groom)
    with The Mayor Gallery, London
    Christie’s, South Kensington, London, where purchased by Paul Conran
    Acquired from the above by Vanessa Devro, London
    Private Collection, U.S.A.

    Coventry, Herbert Gallery, The Coventry Art Circle 28th Exhibition of Contemporary Paintings, 10-31 December 1949
    Birmingham, Royal Birmingham Society of Arts Galleries, 3rd annual Birmingham Artists’ Committee Invitation Exhibition, 28 January-3 February 1950, no. 77 as ‘The Engaged Couple’
    London, Hanover Gallery, in a Naive Art exhibition, between 1947 and 1951
    Colchester, The Minories, 6 April-5 May 1985; Tour, second venue, London, Blond Fine Art, 22 May 22 June 1985; Tour, third venue, Hull, Ferens Art Gallery, 6 July-4 August 1985, A Salute to British Surrealism 1930-1950, 1985, no. 47

    Silvano Levy, The Scandalous Eye: The Surrealism of Conroy Maddox, Liverpool, 2003, pp.81-82 & 96 (ill., pp. 81 & 283, b&w).

    In this self-portrait, Maddox pictures himself cradling Wilhelmina Nancy (Nan), his eventual wife, in his arms. The image is highly ambiguous and may represent a celebration of the couple’s marriage in 1948, showing the groom carrying his new wife across the threshold, or, on the other hand, it may equally be interpreted as Conroy’s carrying away Nan from the man she had recently married. In other words, this is a scene of abduction, albeit of a willing captive. After all, neither Conroy nor Nan appears to be dressed for a wedding. What cannot be denied is that at this time Conroy and Nan’s relationship was fraught with complications. When the two met and fell in love in 1943 at the social club, the Birmingham International Centre, Nan had only recently married Wilfred Burton (Bruce). So, when she and Conroy embarked on an affair, scandalous gossip and rumour were inevitable. A lot of effort was put into hushing things up and in 1944 Nan was able to return to her husband, much to Conroy’s chagrin. Bruce, it must be said, was genuinely concerned for his wife and wanted to shield and care for her during this difficult time. Within months, however, Nan had another change of mind and decided to renew her relationship with Conroy, who, by that time, had settled into a three-roomed flat above an empty chemist’s shop in the centre of Birmingham. From that point the whirlwind romance was soon to find a new stability, particularly as children began to be born. But it was only well after Nan’s husband had applied for a divorce on the grounds of adultery that the couple finally married on Valentine’s Day 1948.

    The Engaged Couple is undated and the conservative dating of circa 1949, is based simply on its first public showing. However, given that the title is inconsistent with the fact that Conroy and Nan had been married for over eighteen months by the time the The Coventry Art Circle 28th Exhibition of Contemporary Paintings opened, an earlier dating would almost certainly be more accurate. The earliest possible dating is 1943, the year the couple met, and any ‘engagement’ would have ended on 14 February 1948, the date of their marriage, making early 1948 the latest possible date of execution. Exactly when, between these two dates, the couple would have considered themselves to have become ‘engaged’ is rather problematical: certainly an official engagement would have been impossible until 8 August 1947, when Wilfred Burton filed for divorce. On the other hand secrecy about the union would have been futile since, during 1944, Nan would have been visibly pregnant with her and Conroy’s first son, Stefan, who was born in that year and immediately given up for adoption. Another son, also named Stefan, was born on 14 November 1945. Then, in 1947, Wilhelmina Lee arrived. Any of these landmark events could have prompted a celebratory ‘secret’ betrothal.

    That there would have been an attempt at concealment is, nevertheless, almost inevitable, not least because the scandal accompanying the couple’s union would have incensed Nan’s authoritarian father. Highly respected and known to everyone simply as ‘Mr’ Ingram, this daunting spiritualist healer would, without doubt, have been the first to condemn the relationship. In wider circles too, any outward sign of the liaison would doubtless have been criticized or, at least, resulted in raised eyebrows. Naturally protective of Nan, Conroy may well have felt unable to mark his romantic sentiments with a blatantly obvious diamond ring. Instead, it would seem, he chose to express his love in the most poignant and instinctive way for a painter, an amorous image showing Nan perpetually in his arms. The Engaged Couple can be viewed as a coded message celebrating a secret love.

    When the work was first exhibited in London during the late 1940s or early 1950s, at the Hanover Gallery, in a mixed exhibition of Naïve art, E.L.T. Mesens, director of the London Gallery and leader of the British surrealists, objected strongly. He maintained that Maddox was not a naïve painter, but rather an official member of ‘The Surrealist Group in England’. Maddox had made his first significant impact on London art circles in 1939 when he and John Melville (see lot 5), both of whom had, until then, been excluded from group activities in the capital, were invited to participate in the exhibition Living Art in England held from 18 January to 11 February 1939 at the London Gallery. It was on this occasion that Maddox’s name was first qualified with the adjective ‘surrealist’ and that his membership of the surrealist group, dating back to 1938, was officially ratified. Mesens’ protestations to the Hanover Gallery were so emphatic that Maddox’s painting was withdrawn.

    We are very grateful to Silvano Levy for writing this catalogue entry.
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