The iconic Lee Miller

Karen Walker ‘at home’ with the artist and muse

HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - Text Karen Walker Pho­tog­ra­phy Tony Tree

It was with skin-tin­gling ex­cite­ment that I boarded a train from London to Lewes in East Sus­sex to visit Far­leys House & Gallery. For decades it had been the home of Lee Miller and Sir Roland Pen­rose. I’ve long been a Lee Miller fan. Who in the fash­ion world isn’t? She has, after all, been on ev­ery fash­ion de­signer’s Pin­ter­est board at one time or an­other. It’s not just her style that draws me in, though. It’s her art, her writ­ing and her strong fem­i­nist story. Miller’s the full pack­age. One of my top-10 pin-ups. An in­tel­li­gent, cu­ri­ous and drop-dead gor­geous girl from Pough­keep­sie, New York, Miller se­duced, col­lab­o­rated with and in­spired Man Ray, cre­ated some of the mid-20th cen­tury’s most iconic im­ages, captured WWII in words and pho­tographs with a gru­elling raw­ness and strength, mar­ried the great Bri­tish surrealist Sir Roland Pen­rose and, in her final act, be­came a truly great cook and gar­dener. All we have to go by for an ad­dress is: Far­leys Farm House, Chid­dingly. Our taxi driver asks if it’s “the place where all the funny paint­ings are done”. “That’ll be the one,” we say. Far­leys House is a very beau­ti­ful build­ing, with its old­est bones dat­ing back to a time when New Zealand was just trees and birds. It has been added to and re­built over the years and its cur­rent in­car­na­tion is mostly from 1730. Its style, from the out­side at least, is al­most se­verely for­mal. It sits solidly in a sprawl­ing gar­den of per­fect lawns, oaks, ashes and what re­mains of Lee’s vast veg­etable and herb gar­dens. There’s also art. Sir Roland was, still is, one of Bri­tain’s most beloved painters and a cham­pion of the arts, hav­ing, among many things, co-founded the In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Arts in 1947. His collection fills the house and gar­den. For me, the most strik­ing sculp­tural piece is Michael Werner’s Fallen Gi­ant – a long limbed, bro­ken heap of a man, be­ing slowly en­veloped by the per­fect English lawn. Miller and Sir Roland’s ashes are also here: on the gi­ant, in the veg­etable patch, un­der an an­cient and knot­ted sweet chest­nut tree. The early win­ter light cuts soft, low and golden through it all. Three gen­er­a­tions of MillerPen­rose off­spring have played hide-and-seek in this gar­den, so it’s a very per­sonal and in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence to be taken around by Miller and Sir Roland’s son, Antony Pen­rose. Antony is so clearly Miller’s son. His high, flat cheek-bones are a dead give­away, while his transAt­lantic ac­cent speaks to for­ma­tive years with two ac­cents bat­tling it out for dom­i­nance. He is also a per­fect mimic of a New Zealand ac­cent thanks to his nearly 12 months liv­ing in Auck­land in the 1970s. Antony is smart and funny, knows his way around his­tory and pol­i­tics, is pas­sion­ate, pa­tient and gra­cious and doesn’t seem to mind this über-fan ri­fling through his life, fam­ily and gar­den. Which brings me to the house. I hadn’t been pre­pared for just how orig­i­nal and lived in it was going to feel. De­spite it now be­ing a mu­seum, a shop, archive and work­ing of­fice, it still seems, over­whelm­ingly, like a home. I sit in the kitchen with Antony, eat­ing homemade bak­ing and en­joy­ing the heat from the Aga on which Miller cooked thousands of her in­cred­i­ble meals, the ba­con-fat-spat­tered Pablo Pi­casso ce­ramic gaz­ing at us from above the stove. The cup­boards and draw­ers are still filled with Miller’s uten­sils, pots and spices. A few of her cook books re­main on a high shelf. I long to ri­fle through Magic with Left­overs and Au Petit Cor­don Bleu. I’m in­vited to poke about in the larder, which is filled with 1960s kitchen ap­pli­ances and shelves of tinned

goods, in­clud­ing two tins of to­heroa soup that look 50 years old and had re­cently been emp­tied for fear they would ex­plode. Walk­ing about the house there’s no doubt I’m look­ing at the au­then­tic hand of Roland and Miller. This is not an in­te­rior de­signer’s for­mula. This is real and gor­geous and in­for­mal, with just the right amount of wrong. Lived in and loved in. The walls are usually laden with art by the 20th-cen­tury greats, but it’s win­ter and the house is closed to the public. The low sun poses a dan­ger and much of the art has ei­ther been re­moved for clean­ing and sub­sti­tuted with place­holder snaps, or is cov­ered with gauzy white cloth. It all adds to the dreami­ness of the ex­pe­ri­ence. The din­ing room, where the great and good of the arts world en­joyed Miller and Roland’s hos­pi­tal­ity, is par­tic­u­larly pow­er­ful. The pro­tec­tive de­ity of the house, Sir Roland’s mu­ral dom­i­nates the walk-in fire­place. The piece de­picts a theme of the so­lar sys­tem and the pre­his­toric ‘Long Man of Wilm­ing­ton’ that can be seen from the farm­house. It gives thanks for the abun­dance that a for­tu­itous align­ment of sun, moon and plan­ets brings to farm­ing. No­tice­able to my South Pa­cific eye is a kava bowl hang­ing above the fire­place. Antony tells me I’m the first ever to recog­nise its true pur­pose. His mother used to fill it with fruit and long, slen­der can­dles as a cen­tre­piece for the table. The hall­ways and stair­cases are a panoply of trea­sures. Paint­ings by Sir Roland, his fa­ther and grand­fa­ther, plus works by Pi­casso, Joan Miró and Max Ernst. There are trea­sures from around the world – the bizarre, won­der­ful, ex­otic and beau­ti­ful. A Chopi xy­lo­phone from South Africa, a mum­mi­fied rat, an of­fer­ing to Mex­i­can corn gods, a pot­tery chicken from Hon­duras, a Hopi In­dian doll from Ari­zona, a dead May bug, a Van­u­at­uan fig­ure, as well as quick sketches knocked off by Pi­casso after din­ner, fill cab­i­nets and shelves. On a win­dowsill is a sculpted head wear­ing a pair of Miller’s sun­glasses, which I’m wel­comed to try on. Above the beautifully torn and worn sofa, made fa­mous in Miller’s ‘The Host­ess Takes it Easy’, sits the fa­mous Hitler’s bath­tub im­age paired with Miller’s good friend David E Scher­man’s vis­ual re­sponse. Lean­ing ca­su­ally along­side on the floor is ‘Break­fast’, one of Sir Roland’s many por­traits of Miller. There’s a collection of Miller’s tools-of-the-trade: the Rollei­flex that saw her through 18 months in war-torn Europe and be­yond, the Her­mes Baby type­writer on which she wrote all her cor­re­spon­dence and col­umns, two knuckle-dusters – one sil­ver-plated, the other bronze-plated – en­graved with her sig­na­ture. As a war cor­re­spon­dent Miller wasn’t is­sued with a weapon but al­ways took the pre­cau­tion of arm­ing her­self and car­ry­ing these match­ing bad-boys. A gold bracelet with a dog-head shaped whis­tle tops off the collection of chic pro­tec­tive-wear. All this is set against a back­drop of colour. None of the in­te­rior walls at Far­leys House are generic chalk-white; they’re all shock­ingly colour­ful – brazenly, gar­ishly and gor­geously pink, red, blue or yel­low. Sir Roland had painted them with reg­u­lar white paint mixed with artist’s pig­ment and the in­ten­sity of the colour is so right. Far­leys is also home to Miller’s archive. A week after she died, Antony’s late wife, Suzanna, came across boxes of neg­a­tives, con­tact sheets and writ­ing. For 30 years there’d been a com­plete collection of Miller’s work, about 40,000 neg­a­tives and 20,000 pho­tographs in all, stashed in the attic. Not even Roland had known they ex­isted. When Antony had pre­vi­ously asked her about an archive she’d said there was nothing. It took 10 years to sort and now Antony and his chil­dren run the business of Lee Miller – the gallery shows around the world, the books, the house, the lec­tures and more. After a fire-side lunch with Antony at the local pub, The Six Bells, who make a fan­tas­tic wal­nut and Stil­ton pie, we head back to the farm and visit the main archival build­ing with its gallery-stan­dard cli­mate and se­cu­rity. Here, we see the orig­i­nal con­tact sheets. Open­ing files at ran­dom we browse through some of the most di­rect and in­tense im­ages of the 20th cen­tury. There’s a box with Miller’s dress uni­form, tai­lored by Kil­gour on Sav­ile Row, and her stan­dard­is­sue Jeep coat that saw her through two Euro­pean front-line win­ters and doesn’t look all that warm to me. Turn around and there are orig­i­nal prints and Man Ray’s ‘Ob­ject to be De­stroyed’ with Miller’s cut-out eye on the metronome’s arm. Turn around again and there she is on Ge­orge Lepape’s Vogue cover from March 1927. And there are more than a few Pi­cas­sos. Miller pho­tographed the artist more than 1000 times. I have a print of one of them in my liv­ing room. Pi­casso, in turn, painted Miller six times. The fol­low­ing day I see Pi­casso’s ‘Por­trait of Lee Miller à l’Ar­lési­enne’ at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery in London. In the paint­ing Miller is beau­ti­ful, strong, im­pos­si­ble to hold still. She was a free spirit who, de­spite hav­ing the nat­u­ral abil­ity to make al­most ev­ery man she met fall wildly in love with her, and hav­ing more than her fair share of lovers, was never de­fined by the men in her life. She was lib­er­ated, she was pow­er­ful, she was a fem­i­nist of the first de­gree, a great pho­tog­ra­pher and, in my opin­ion, an even bet­ter writer. For all that and more, I adore her.

Far­leys House & Gallery is open to the public on Sun­days from the first week­end in April to the last week­end in Oc­to­ber. Worth a read are The Many Lives of Lee Miller by Antony Pen­rose, Lee Miller’s War and The Home of the Sur­re­al­ists by Antony Pen­rose.

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