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The archives of Eileen Agar, a British surrealist

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I'm looking at one of the letters from Paul Nash to Eileen. 'Eileen, what can I say? How can I explain my overflowing joy your present has given me? But, darling, how absurdly like you is this box? Did you design it? You surely might have done.' I imagine this must have been the box that she kept all his letters in. I'm sure the box must be at the Tate somewhere. The first collection relating to Eileen Agar arrived at Tate archive in 1987. Her archives are really…it's almost like entering her mind. You can see where the inspirations for a lot of the works that we have at the Tate and elsewhere, where they come from. When I walked into her flat, first of all I was enchanted by Eileen herself. She was very lively and birdlike. It's very generous of people to let you into their lives and, first of all, let a stranger into their house, and then let you into their most personal things. The minute you walked in there, you were walking into the world of Eileen Agar, I mean it was just extraordinary to see it really. There are all the sorts of things that had got swept up, as it were, in the studio. The bits and pieces that she would be building towards works that never actually get there or the jottings towards works. So that gives us, and the ways in which we can bring that to the public, an incredibly enriching aspect to how you might understand the final artwork, as it were, that you see in the gallery space. I think one of the reasons that Eileen’s work appeals to me so enormously is that it's very personal, very quirky and extraordinarily original. I don’t think there's anybody else who has work quite like hers. The thing about making a spark between two unrelated objects is really a key factor in Agar’s practice. It's creating something completely new but it's also got the hook of being entirely recognisable. That’s one of the keys, I think. You see the thing and you think, yeah, I realise what that is but look what's happened. It's the look what's happened that makes, for the audience, at least…that makes them go away and think differently about the world for a minute, for an hour, forever. She kind of had a magpie eye. She would look at materials that she came across on the beach or in the countryside and would collect them and then create other objects from them. There are certain places which she would go to find objects. It seems to be beachcombing as a theme in her work, and so in a work like marine object you’ve got a sense of ancient civilisation through the amphora and this encrustation of natural objects, shells and skulls and so forth, to bring together a new reality, which is what surrealism was interested in. The first archive we received relating to Eileen Agar were these amazing love letters from Paul Nash to Eileen. This was an unknown, undiscovered love affair between the two artists. On the table in the window were three piles of letters and papers. She didn’t want me to look at them when she was there, she wanted me to take everything and look at it and then come back. I think one of the reasons was because it was so terribly personal so, in fact, I think I collected everything up and took it away. What's exciting about the archive is where you get that interlocking. We do have Paul Nash’s archive as well in the Tate archive, and so you get the point where those two cross over. There, you start to build a much broader cultural history of a moment. It's very interesting because they obviously influenced one another at this time. This is in the mid to late 30s onwards. It was obviously a very productive relationship artistically. I think the archive is like Agar beachcombing. There are things that you are not going to know you're looking for but that you come across and they stimulate other thinking. I think it was a great relief to Eileen to know that they were going to be properly cared for. I think she felt that she would be happy in a sort of home of art, really. I think she felt that was her home.