Entrapment and escape in the works of Leonora Carrington

When we consider ‘escape’ as a concept, the definition that it is to “break free from confinement or control” is usually associated with the desire to leave a situation; to move into a world more suited to our needs or our personality.  Art and literature are full of examples of “escape” and all begin with the person being or feeling trapped by the original situation. The literal and the metaphorical forms of escape can be a replacement for a life unwanted or a means to change a situation.  

In the art and writings of Leonora Carrington, we see a woman demonstrating a literal removal from a privileged life (1); a metaphorical transfer into another world, and a replacement for a life restricted by class and by gender.  Throughout her life, Leonora Carrington constantly changed her situation without fear, without hesitation, as demonstrated in her artistic endeavours.



“The tears ran from Lucretia’s great horse eyes and carved two channels in her cheeks of snow.”

Leonora’s childhood at Crookhey Hall is discussed in Susan L Albeth’s book, Surrealism, Alchemy and Art and the connection she makes to Leonora’s art is an interesting one.  The middle child with three brothers, Leonora’s imagination was inspired by her environment as well as the people within it.  “Do you think anyone escapes their childhood? I don’t think we do.” (2) 


Leonora’s relationship with her father was a complicated one and, quite possibly the reason she was constantly wishing to escape. A traditional Victorian father, he expected that his word was law.  Leonora, the rebellious child, was simply not understood. Biographer, Joanna Moorhead writes, that Leonora was “always ready to rail against his plans and to confound his expectations” (3) 

Leonora’s code name for the family was ‘Candlestick’ and there is a reference to her father in the painting, The Meal of Lord Candlestick, where he appears at the bloated, green head in the bottom corner, a presence without substance or voice as he watches the ritualistic banquet that goes on in his home:

The Meal of Lord Candlestick
Leonora Carrington


Harold also appears in the short story, The Oval Lady (4)  which begins with the narrator entering a stately home, “It was overwhelming. For a start, there was such a distinguished silence that I hardly dared to breathe.” Standing by a fireplace, a tall, oval child/woman, Lucretia, speaks of her dislike of her father; calling him “a bastard” and talking about how she would like to starve herself to death, just to spite him. 

Oval Woman
The Giantess or The Oval Woman
Leonora Carrington


In the story, we learn that Lucretia’s favourite toy, a rocking horse named Tartar, is no longer to be played with.  When Lucretia is found with her trusty steed, who is able to leave the nursery and have adventures that Lucretia can only dream of, this is reported to her father:

The girl who had taken the appearance of a horse did not move, but her nostrils quivered.

“What I am going to do is purely for your own good, my dear.”  His voice was very gentle. “You’re too old to play with Tartar.  Tartar is for children. I am going to burn him myself, until there’s nothing left of him.”

Lucretia is devastated, with tears running down her face.  The story ends with the narrator pushing her fingers into her ears, “for the most frightful neighing sounded from above, as if an animal were suffering extreme torture.”  

While Leonora’s father did not destroy her childhood rocking horse, its appearance in Inn of the Dawn Horse, reveals the love she had for this inanimate object that allowed her to escape into her imagination.  For Leonora, the rebellious nature she was showing that meant she was asked to leave a number of education establishments, and this repeated behaviour did result in a sort of escape.  

Leonora was sent to a boarding school in Florence run by a Miss Penrose. Although her stay was short, the 15-year-old finally received an education she wanted; one in art. Days were spent in the museums and galleries of Florence where she began to be inspired by the works she was seeing. Next for Leonora was finishing school in Paris, where Leonora made her late night escape by running off to stay with a professor of Fine Arts, M.Simon. However, the taste of freedom was short lived and Leonora returned to England in order to be presented at court.


“Go on down now, and remember, don’t stand next to my mother.  She’s bound to realise that it isn’t me.”


In her 1937 story, The Debutante, the narrator tells the story of the night of her Royal Court Debut and how she despised the idea so much that she encouraged her only friend, a talking hyena, to take her place.  Through the gruesome eating of the maid in order to steal her face, and the wearing of the uniform of the debutante, white dress, gloves, tiara, the hyena takes the narrator’s place while she curls up in a chair to read Gulliver’s Travels.  Placing Leonora in the place of the narrator, we find that it is not her who finally escapes, but her replacement, who, once discovered to not be Leonora, tears off the false face, devours it and leaps through a window.

While the escape of the pseudo Leonora was successful, for the real girl, she still had to endure the real event; still trapped by the rituals of her background: “During this time I was in a state of great distress for whole nights.” (5) For Leonora, Inn of the Dawn Horse, painted at the same time as this short story, there was still a sense of entrapment in her lifestyle, a theme she explores in the painting.

Inn of the Dawn Horse Leonora Carrington 1937-38 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


The self-portrait shows Leonora in clothing that is more in keeping with her personality.  A keen horsewoman, the tight fitted jodhpurs are a suitable outfit. However, the tightly laced boots have a reminiscence of, according to Susan L Aberth: “Victorian fetish and a menacing female sexuality.” (6)  Her hair and jacket, in contrast, are loose and free flowing. The positioning of the chair and the way she is ‘perched’ on the edge, hints at someone ready to leap up to make her escape.  Outside the sumptuously dressed window, a white horse has its chance of escape, the muscular legs echoed by Leonora’s thighs clad in her white jodhpurs, but useless in allowing her to follow suit.

The room is empty apart from the chair that the wild-haired Leonora is perched on, looking uncomfortable. The wooden rocking horse of her childhood, Tartar, floats above Leonora’s head – even a toy that seems rooted to its environment on its runners has the opportunity to escape.  Little wonder that Leonora sits so rigidly, staring out at us.

The hyena, with the human-like face, is clearly her friend from the story. In her thesis “Errant in Time and Space”: A Reading of Leonora Carrington’s Major Literary Works, Julia Cabanos picks up on the way the hyena has been used in literary context to describe powerful women: the mad first Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre, and  as a description of Mary Woolstonecraft (7).  Linking Leonora to the female hyena in the painting brings about the association of power that, perhaps, the young Leonora was not aware she possessed.  



I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.


In 1936, in recognition of her talent, her parents finally agreed to Leonora moving to London to undertake art tuition at The Chelsea School of Art.  However, the decision that she would live with an architect friend of theirs, Serge Chermayeff, meant that although Leonora had escaped the house of ‘Lord Candlestick’, his hold on her remained.  

The opportunity to escape, once and for all, her family’s stranglehold came about when Chermayeff suggested that Leonora transfer to the newly set up school by a French artist, Ozenfant. The school was unconventional, Ozenfant’s philosophy was to allow his students to find their own way in the general laws of art, and then to search inside “to discover at the same time the human constraints and his own personality.”(8)

This would be Leonora’s only formal training in art but it was the catalyst for what was to come next.  The 1936 First International Surrealist Exhibition, organised by Roland Penrose, Herbert Read and David Gascoyne, brought to the city a range of works that would have an enormous impact on British Art.  Already well-established in Europe, this movement, in both intellectual and artistic form, was to be the gateway in which the inevitable would occur. Leonora would find her kindred spirits amongst its members  

It was to be a year later, when Leonora was invited to a supper by her friends, Ursula and Enzo Goldfinger at their beautiful modernist flat in Highgate that also on the guest list was Max Ernst, in town for his own exhibition.  Leonora was aware of Ernst through his collage, Two Children are Threatened by a Nightingale.  Later, Leonora would say: “I thought, ah, this is familiar; I know what this is about.  A kind of world which would move between worlds…the world of our dreaming and imagination.” (9)

Two Children Are Threatened by a Nightingale (Deux Enfants sont menacés par un rossignol)
Max Ernst 1924

From the moment of their first meeting, the couple were besotted with one another.  While Ernst may well have viewed the 19-year-old, raven haired beauty as another ‘femme enfant’ as the surrealists would often view the women in their midst, there can be no doubt that he was meeting with a mind that was on a par with his own.


News of her romance with a man old enough to be her father was received with horror at Crookhey Hall, and Harold was about to take drastic action to separate the two.  With Ernst having his own exhibition, Harold Carrington reported to the police that Ernst’s work was pornagraphic, in the hope that the troublesome German would be deported and his daughter would, once again, return home to her family.  Fortunately, Ernst heard about the arrest warrant and he and Leonora made their escape from the clutches of ‘Lord Candlestick’.


From this initial meeting with Ernst, Leonora was on a trajectory that would take her, eventually to her spiritual home, via running away to the artist community in Cornwall where she made connections, to Paris, Spain and, finally to Mexico.

The painting from her time with Ernst that most links Leonora to the theme of escape is, ironically, The Portrait of Max Ernst:


Portrait of Max Ernst.png
Portrait of Max Ernst
Leonora Carrington

The couple eventually ended up in Paris and, at the outbreak of war, were living in a house in Saint-Martin d’Ardèche, paid for by Leonora’s mother. This was an artistic retreat for the couple, however, when Ernst was arrested as an enemy alien, it was the scene of Leonora’s breakdown.

In a letter to Leonor Fini, she talks of how she wishes to escape from the torture of her mind:

“The moon rises in the sky. It becomes cold but I don’t feel the cold. My body has changed into some sort of animal. I would not be able to say what. Perhaps some resemblance to me because I have always felt that I have some horses growing on my head. (10) 

In the Portrait, we see two horses; the familiars of Leonora’s own sense of self.  In the introduction to Down Below, Marina Warner points out that, “the horse is a recurrent figure of release and power in her imagery”  (11) and here, one is trapped within the icy landscape, body tensing as the hooves are held firmly to the ground, whilst a smaller horse is encased in the lamp the shamanistic figure of Ernst is holding.  The question this poses is one of entrapment. Has Leonora been held captive by both her environment and the man within it?



“…I long to fall from the earth and be licked by a beautiful pure horse – to abandon myself completely…to perhaps even to die but without turmoil.(12)


What happened next in Leonora’s life was documented in her book, Down Below, published in 1988.  After Ernst’s arrest, Leonora remained at the house, but both her physical and mental well-being was in decline:  

I wept for several hours, down in the village; then I went up again to my house where, for twenty-four hours, I indulged in voluntary vomitings induced by drinking orange blossom water and interrupted by a short nap. I hoped that my sorrow would be diminished by these spasms, which tore at my stomach like earthquakes. I know now that this was but one of the aspects of those vomitings: I had realised the injustice of society, I wanted first of all to cleanse myself, then go beyond its brutal ineptitude. (13) 

Leonora’s incessant abuse of her own body seemed to release her from the confines of her relationship with Ernst, even though she was physically missing him. In her attempt to leave France for Spain, there was a problem with the car:

I heard Catherine say: “The brakes have jammed.” “Jammed!” I, too, was jammed within, by forces foreign to my conscious will, which were also paralyzing the mechanism of the car. This was the first stage of my identification with the external world. I was the car. The car had jammed on account of me, because I, too, was jammed between Saint-Martin and Spain. I was horrified by my own power. At that time, I was still limited to my own solar system, and was not aware of other people’s systems, the importance of which I realise now.” (14)

This notion of being “jammed” between two points was a recurrent theme and perhaps answers the question posed earlier.  While attempting to escape the pain and torment she was experiencing with the loss of Max and her own mental cages, Leonora was finally coming into her own.

Once in Madrid, Leonora documents her frustrations at her family, friends, and the situation, and ends the chapter in her usual sardonic, humorous manner with the point that while being told she was to be taken to “a beach at San Sebastian, where I would be absolutely free. I came out of the nursing home and got into a car bound for Santander. . . . On the way, I was given Luminal three times and an injection in the spine: systemic anaesthesia. And I was handed over like a cadaver to Dr. Morales, in Santander.” (15)



1941 was the year where her old life would well and truly come to an end.  In 1943, as well as writing her account of what had occured, Leonora also committed to canvas a depiction of several characters who appear in her narrative.  Leonora is the dark haired ‘angel’ at the far right, being led by the white horse into the garden, that represents the asylum in Santander. The combination of female/animal hybrids possibly represent other inmates, or perhaps different aspects of Leonora’s personality whilst under the influence of the psychometric drug, Cardiazol.  The drug caused Leonora to have hallucinations and she described them so:

“Later, with full lucidity, I would go Down Below., as the third person of the Trinity.  I felt that, through the agency of the Sun , I was an androgyne, the Moon, the Holy Ghost, a gypsy, an acrobat.  Leonora Carrington, and a woman”.

Down Below,  Leonora Carrington,  1941

Despite being captive in the asylum and under her family’s control, it could be said that the treatment released Leonora from the trappings of her middle class lifestyle and expectations.   

Her ‘escape’ from the Asylum and her family came about when, en route to Lisbon to another asylum, Leonora tricked her nurse/jailor and fled to the Mexican Embassy where she sought the help of  the diplomat, Renato Leduc, who she had first met years earlier, introduced to her by Picasso. In order to secure her visa to America, Leonora married Leduc. While we can argue that she was going from one form of imprisonment to another, Leonora was always in control.  Each moment was a stepping stone to another world; one in which she could develop her own sense of self.

Her relationship with Ernst, however, was not quite at an end.  The two met again in Lisbon, but now he was with heiress and art collector, Peggy Guggenheim.  The artists still had their art to entwine them and together they painted Recontre.


Cabanos describes the work thus: “The side that Carrington painted presents a horse-like woman, who holds in her hands a bunch of lifeless vegetables, and the landscape behind her seems barren and sombre. Contrastingly, Ernst’s side presents the cold bright blues and yellows that Carrington omits. The movement in the bodies and the volcanoes that fill Ernst’s side of the painting make his half of the canvas livelier, whereas Carrington’s shadowy peaks and still figures appear rather dispirited.” (16)

Clearly, the two were no longer compatible, each had moved on and in another short story, Waiting, there is a moment where blonde haired Elizabeth, who rescues Margaret, asks her an important question:

“Do you believe,” she went on, “that the past dies?”

“Yes,” said Margaret, “if the present cuts its throat.”

“Those little white hands could cut nobody’s throat.” (17)

Metaphorically, Leonora, as Margaret, was cutting the throat of the past.  She had waited for Ernst, and found him lacking. It was time for her to move on and to find herself in a place where she could be herself.



“I was tormented by the idea that I had to paint, and when I was away from Max and first with Renato, I painted immediately.

I never saw my father again.” (18)

Leonora Carrington arrived in Mexico in 1942.  She divorced Leduc a year later and married again in 1946. Two sons were born in Mexico and her life revolved around them and her friends.    She was not to return to her family in England. From her comment, it would appear that the artistic freedom offered to her in Mexico and the break from her family in England were inextricably entwined.   

What became important to Leonora was no longer forms of escape, but forms of domesticity; of her husband, Chiki Weisz, her, two sons and her artistic friends.  Time spent with family; cooking elaborate meals, playing surrealist games, involvement in the occult and in the mystical elements of her adopted homeland, meant that she was able to create art that finally spoke from her heart.

House Opposite
The House Opposite, Leonora Carrington, 1945
And then they saw the Daughter of the Minotaur, Leonora Carrington, 1953



(1) Leonora Carrington was born in Lancashire, England in 1917 to Leonora Carrington was born on April 6, 1917 in Lancashire, England to Harold Wilde Carrington, textile magnet, and Maudie Moorhead, from Ireland.  The family eventually lived in Crookhey Hall, a stately home that played a large part in the early paintings of Leonora Carrington.

(2) Aberth, Susan L. Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art. Lund Humphries, 2010 (p12)

(3) Moorhead, Joanna. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington. Virago, 2017. (p54)

(4) Carrington, Leonora, et al. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. Dorothy, a Publishing Project, 2017 (p8)

(5) Carrington, Leonora, et al 2017 (p3)

(6) Aberth, (p30)

(7) Cabanos, Julia Salmeron, “Errant in Time and Space”: A Reading of Leonora Carrington’s Major Literary Works, being a thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Hull, 1997 (p10)

(8) Moorhead (2017) p37

(9) Moorhead (2017) p43

(10) Chadwick (2017) p82

(11) Carrington, Leonora. Down Below (NYRB Classics) . New York Review Books. Kindle Edition, 2017

(12) Letter from LC to Leonor Fini, Nov 1939, cited in Chadwick 2017 (p93/94)

(13) Carrington, Leonora. Down Below (NYRB Classics) (p. 4).

(14) Carrington, Leonora. Down Below (NYRB Classics) (p. 7).

(15) Carrington, Leonora. Down Below (NYRB Classics) (pp. 17-18)

(16) Cabanos, 

(17) Carrington et al, 2017 (p117)

(18) Carrington, 1987 (p67)



Works Cited

Aberth, Susan L. Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art. Lund Humphries, 2010.

Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots of Literature. Continuum, 2004.

Cabanos, Julia Salmeron, “Errant in Time and Space”: A Reading of Leonora Carrington’s Major Literary Works, being a thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Hull, 1997

Carrington, Leonora, et al. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington. Dorothy, a Publishing Project, 2017.

Carrington, Leonora. Down Below (NYRB Classics) . New York Review Books. Kindle Edition, 2017

Chadwick, Whitney, and Isabelle De Courtivron. Significant Others: Creativity & Intimate Partnership. Thames, 1996.

Chadwick, Whitney. The Militant Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism. Thames & Hudson, 2017.

Helland, Janice. “Surrealism and Esoteric Feminism in the Paintings of Leonora Carrington.” RACAR: Revue D’art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review, vol. 16, no. 1, 1989, pp. 53–104. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42630417.

Hooks, Margaret. Surreal Lovers: Eight Women Integral to the Life of Max Ernst. La Fábrica, 2017.

Moorhead, Joanna. The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington. Virago, 2017.

Raay, Stefan van., et al. Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna. Lund Humphries, 2010.