November 3, 2020

Penroses on the Park

The award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to Sir Roger Penrose has rightly made headlines: at Leighton Park, we have extra special reasons to be thrilled, having a long connection to the Penrose family. Sir Roger’s father Sir Lionel, a renowned psychiatrist, geneticist and mathematician, attended LP from 1912-1916, along with brothers, Roland, Bernard and Alexander. Furthermore, one of our most iconic buildings, Peckover, is named after the family of Sir Roger’s grandmother, the Hon Elizabeth Peckover. The family crest is seen in the stained glass window. Her husband,James Doyle Penrose was a noted portrait painter.

Sir Roger, in an interview, reflects on his father’s influence on him. He recalls Lionel making wooden puzzles, toys and objects, particularly ones which linked together, causing others to link. A discussion about creating a sphere from hexagons or pentagons, led to Roger’s discovery, known as Penrose Tiles, that can cover an infinite plane without repeating a pattern. The pair also worked on The Penrose Stairs or “the impossible staircase”, a two-dimensional depiction of a staircase in which the stairs make four 90-degree turns as they ascend or descend yet form a continuous loop. The “continuous staircase” was first presented in an article that the Penroses wrote in 1959.

Not just two geniuses in this family though! Roland was a celebrated Surrealist painter, photographer, poet and biographer of Picasso, Miró, Man Ray and Tàpies. He co-founded of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and was a major promoter and collector of modern art. He married photographer Lee Miller and their stunning home Farley Farm in Sussex became a meeting place for major figures from the world of art; tiles in the kitchen have artwork added by Picasso. A Conscientious Objector in World War One, he is credited for a key part in developing camouflage for World War Two.

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