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The Evolution of Eileen Agar’s Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse

1 July 2021

Christina Heflin, Royal Holloway, University of London

bouillabaisse, n.

     –– A dish of Provençal origin, composed of fish stewed in water or spiced white wine [1] 

Amongst her paintings, photographs, collages and sculptures, one work that has become iconic within the œuvre of British Surrealist artist Eileen Agar (1899 – 1991) is a fanciful-looking hat that she is often depicted wearing, The Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse. My academic research at the Tate Archives on Eileen Agar’s papers kept bringing me to this hat. Photographs and clippings indicating its different statuses kept me intrigued, and as I was starting to form my own research topic on the artist, I grew more and more aware that there was something magical about it. Symbolic of the light-hearted nature with which she generally approached her work, this object is, however, more than just a silly piece of millinery decorated with bits and bobs. Initially conceived around 1936, it is thanks to the documentation at the Tate, her autobiography A Look at My Life  as well as a few news reels made over the span of her career put side-by-side that there is evidence of the evolutionary nature of the Bouillabaisse hat.

If you have not already heard about Agar (perhaps via her current blockbuster retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, on through 29 August 2021), allow me to give you a quick overview of a fabulous and fascinating artist who rubbed elbows with Picasso in the south of France and Ezra Pound on the Italian Riviera. She went to the Slade School of Art, and her career lasted from the 1920s until around her death in 1991. She was one of the few women to exhibit at the first Surrealist exhibition in Britain, the International Surrealist Exhibition, which was held at the New Burlington Galleries in London over the course of the summer of 1936. This exhibition was also the scene of the famous moment when Salvador Dalí appeared in an undersea diving suit and had incredible difficulties removing his helmet; hilarity ensued.

Agar described her own mirth-inducing headgear as an ‘extravagant concoction’ comprised of ‘a cork basket picked up in St Tropez and painted blue, […] covered with fishnet, a lobster’s tail, starfish and other marine objects. It was a sort of Arcimboldo headgear for the fashion-conscious, and received a lot of startled publicity.’[2] However, this description does not match all of the pictures of the hat that were taken over the years spanning 1936 and 1992 – the year that it entered the Victoria & Albert Museum’s permanent collection.

Indeed, at times there was fishnet on the hat, or a lobster adorning the top, but not always. In fact, once I started finding more images of this hat, I realised that she had either created an entire marine-themed series of hats or that she regularly revisited one hat and made changes as she saw fit. Given that none of my archival or historical research indicates the former, the latter hypothesis is likely to be correct. The base was always the same shape, but countless elements were changed over time, producing an accelerated evolutionary timeline of The Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse.

Chronologically speaking, from the first image, included in her autobiography and dated c. 1936, there is no visible fishnet (the image is slightly overexposed and a touch out of focus, rendering details hard to make out). Nor any starfish, and, as for the lobster tail, well…it could be there in amongst a towering mass at the top of the hat, but the only distinguishable objects in this first picture are two cerith-like shells that point outwards at stark angles next to that mass.

Figure 1: Eileen Agar

The changes of the hat over time provides an interesting bird’s-eye view of Agar’s life and career. For example, after having remained in London during most of World War II and working in a canteen on Savile Row during the war, a picture taken shortly after the war’s end shows her wearing the hat featuring a chin strap made of fishnet, giving the whole hat a rather military aspect [see below]. Up until around this point, 1948, the hat also features great height, with tall feathers, a starfish positioned vertically, shells and even a basket perched atop with a wooden largely-two-dimensional fish and lobster-like crustacean riding inside. Around this time the hat was also featured on a British Pathé news reel where it is worn by the artist herself as she literally turns heads on the high street.[5]

Figure 2

Skipping ahead and arriving at the very beginning of the 1990s, in a World of Interiors article and interview with Agar titled ‘A-Head of Her Time’ published only months before her death (September and November 1991, respectively), she is seen wearing the hat again [see below]. This time, all the vertical elements have been removed, and the hat is seen to have taken on more horizontal elements. It is also the first time that it is visible in colour, with all the previous images having been in black and white. This certainly adds to its flare, as we can finally see how flamboyant it must have appeared to those passers-by in that news reel. Technicolor objects surround the crown of the limpet-shaped base, which is in fact blue and yellow, including a bright orange plastic object strongly resembling a sea urchin, a large white whelk shell, green silk foliage and shocking pink coral. We see that the netting is gone again, and Agar is looking right at us with a knowing grin as if to say, ‘I’m at it again!’

Figure 3

Lastly, from the V&A’s images, it is possible to see the final version, as it entered their collection shortly after her niece inherited the work. [6] It is similar to the one seen in the magazine, but with a few added elements, like a painted stone and a piece of blue coral. However, what is particularly interesting about the work is that the V&A conservation lab worked with researchers at the Natural History Museum to identify the species of sea creatures adorning this final iteration of the Bouillabaisse hat while working on its restoration.

Figure 4: V&A Museum

The hat is even more striking in person. I had the rare opportunity to see the work. The curators informed me that they typically do not allow in-person viewings due to its extremely fragile condition. My own background in art conservation allowed me to understand how lucky I was because it cannot travel or be displayed. For reasons unknown, perhaps due to its own innate magical quality, there are many more detailed elements to it than a camera could ever capture, and I am grateful to the Clothworkers’ Centre for their generous permission to witness its complex beauty in the flesh. It has brought me much closer to understanding this complex sculpture.

The Ceremonial Hat for Eating Bouillabaisse is the perfect embodiment of Eileen Agar’s life as an artist. Adaptable and evolving over time while also never taking things too seriously, both Agar and her wearable sculpture were Surrealism come to life.


Sources:

[1] “bouillabaisse, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2021. Web. 12 June 2021.

[2] Agar, Eileen, A Look at My Life, London: Methuen, 1988, p. 168.

Images:

Figure 1: Eileen Agar, https://www.wikiart.org/en/eileen-agar/ceremonial-hat-for-eating-bouillabaisse

Figure 2: https://elephant.art/eileen-agars-magnificently-fishy-bonnet-makes-a-splash-25052021/

Figure 3: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2018/04/05/e-eileen-agar-a-z-challenge/eileen-agar-wearing-ceremonial-hat-for-eating-bouillabaisse/ 

Figure 4: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O84945/hat-for-eating-bouillabaisse-hat-agar-eileen/

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