A Surrealism of Synthesis: Materialism, Romanticism, and the Cambridge University Experiment Group.

Aoiffe Walsh

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


The 1936 London International Surrealist Exhibition is often heralded as the moment that surrealism arrived in Britain. But if the primary theoreticians of the exhibition’s organising committee are paid particular attention to, one finds a story of British cultural history – with particular pause for Romanticism - in which surrealism is a natural progression rather than a continental import. This thesis attends to these assertions. An important faction of the British contributors to the exhibition were educated at Cambridge University. A surrealist project first emerged there in the undergraduate journal Experiment (1928-1931). Produced at the epicentre of empiricist discourse in which materialism was often axiom, Experiment exhibited a nuanced balance of historical tradition and avant-gardism; of materialism and metaphysics. It is upon this intellectual foundation that a distinct British surrealist aesthetic was built, with a distinct set of problems to address, alongside and sometimes at odds with other British surrealist strands who adhered to varying degrees with the Bretonian tradition.

Although not a British surrealist herself, this thesis considers Kathleen Raine’s relationship to its developing aesthetic. For a figure who is often neglected in studies of British surrealism, she perhaps most acutely expresses the challenges that the British surrealists faced: how can surrealism be an evolutionary product of British cultural history and retain its avant-garde character? And more pressing still, what place did artistic activity have in a mechanistic world? This thesis explores the methods by which the Experiment group surrealists navigated these tensions, guided by experience of poetry and the natural world, and grounded in materialism. Their varying approaches included studies of romantic mythology, political radicalism, modern and ancient ritual, dialectical materialism, archaeology and the relationship between landscape and imagination. These considerations generated a surrealism of synthesis; a movement that was both scientific and subjective, both distinctly modern and embedded in a British cultural milieu.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Townsend, Christopher, Supervisor
Award date1 May 2023
Publication statusUnpublished - 2023


  • Surrealism, Britain, Modernism, Romanticism, Materialism, Cambridge, Jennings, Sykes Davies, Kathleen Raine

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