Keepers of the flame
How pioneering surrealist photographer Lee Miller’s legacy has been preserved in her former Chiddingly home
Lee Miller had a life of two halves.
The first centred on modelling and a photographic career that embraced the glamour of New York and Paris and travel to exotic lands, as well as the tension and horrors of World War II. The second, spent in Sussex, saw her descent into heavy drinking and depression. By the time of her death in 1977, at Farley Farm in Chiddingly, she was a largely forgotten figure, her name eclipsed by the greats she had associated with, such as Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray, with whom she had an affair not long after her arrival in Paris from her native United States in 1929.
In recent years, interest in her remarkable life has revived thanks to exhibitions, books and documentaries asserting her artistic creativity, along with her contribution to wartime photojournalism. Lee was one of only four accredited American female war correspondents, and the only female photographer to take pictures of the Normandy landings in 1944. She witnessed the liberation of Paris, and the misery of the concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. In Munich in the spring of 1945, she was even photographed impudently soaping up in Hitler’s bath tub. Interest has extended to her domestic life in Sussex. The publication of A Life With Food, Friends and Recipes, brings together the recipes she made into an art form in her later years at Farley Farm when the inspiration to take photographs had faded.
But Eleanor Clayton, editor of new book Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, says much of the attention that has come her way has tended to give “the impression of a singular figure, working in isolation, often emphasizing her uniqueness to avoid being overshadowed by her significant male associates like Man Ray and Roland Penrose.” The book aims to show her as more integrated within a creative network of artists. Mixing with the likes of Henry Moore, it brings together her photos with the work of the artists she knew and photographed, and alongside whose work her own was often exhibited.
The book draws heavily upon the extensive Lee Miller Archives, which consists of 60,000 negatives, 70,000 original prints and a large number of manuscripts and letters. Based at Farley Farm it is overseen by Antony Penrose, the son of Miller and her husband the Surrealist artist Roland Penrose.
Eleanor writes that Roland Penrose was the catalyst for the well-travelled Miller to come to Britain in the late 1930s. It was a time when, because of the growing political unrest on the continental mainland, London briefly became a centre of Surrealist activity, with Roland as its central coordinator. After the interruption of the war, Roland and Lee married. Antony was born in 1947. Possibly influenced by Roland’s pre-war visits to the Bloomsbury set at Charleston, they began to look for property in Sussex, buying Farley Farm,
“[Lee] was even photographed impudently soaping up in Hitler’s bath tub”
with its views across the Low Weald to the South Downs, at an auction in Hailsham in 1949.
To get a picture of life on a Sussex farm in the middle of the last century, in the days when tractors were only just starting to be used and most of the work was still done by hand, Antony’s book The Home of the Surrealists: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their circle at Farley Farm is warmly recommended. Today Antony still lives at the property, opening it up to the public for guided tours. It was his initiative in making available the collections of his parents to researchers that was instrumental in the revival of interest in Miller’s life and work. Yet it is also plain from the book that his mother’s mood swings, which now would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder arising from her wartime experiences, cast a shadow over the atmosphere.
“My father and nanny were very protective of me, but my mother was a heavy drinker and suffered with depression, which made her difficult to live with,” says Antony. “As I grew older, and particularly in my teenage years, our relationship became highly conflicted. Fortunately, thanks to Suzanna, my late wife, my mother and I made peace about 18 months before she died.”
It was only when Suzanna went foraging in the farmhouse attic for a picture of Lee with Antony as a child that they stumbled upon what was virtually her entire photographic career stashed away in boxes. “I knew she had been a photographer and had watched her taking pictures, but I had no idea of the extent of her work,” Antony admits. “She always deflected any questions about her career.”
In his book Antony describes Picasso coming to stay at the farm in 1950, delighted to escape from the media that had mobbed him when he’d arrived in London. “I soon discovered Picasso’s Mediterranean warmth meant he was good for cuddles and horsing around on the floor,” he writes. Other illustrious visitors included Joan Miro, Max Ernst and Henry Moore. But did he come to take such visits as routine? “In a way it was both commonplace and inspirational,” he replies. “The way they were part of our lives was presented as something entirely normal.”
When the chance discovery of his mother’s collection was made, Antony says it opened up a new side of her which he “could not reconcile with the useless, neurotic woman I had known.” Gradually the process of cataloguing the archive began, at first aided by Roland who lived on until 1984. Farley Farm, whose interiors were decorated and arranged in an imaginative way, became a museum and desirable attraction its own right. “We started opening on a limited scale following an article that appeared in World of Interiors in 1999,” explains Antony. “We began opening by appointment and it grew from there. We try to keep everything as it was.”
Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain shows Lee as someone who brought Surrealism into the mainstream. As Simon Wallis points out she took Surrealist themes out of rarified fine art exhibitions and put them into the pages of Vogue. And for Antony, now reconciled to his mother’s memory, awareness of her is growing “in a very rewarding way, particularly among young people who find her life inspiring”. More than 40 years since her death, aged 70, the continuing stream of books is likely to bring more visitors to the door of the characterful farmhouse where she spent the last sometimes troublesome decades of her life.
“I knew [Lee] had been a photographer, but I had no idea of the extent of her work”
BELOW: Henry Moore with his sculpture Mother and Child at Farley Farm by Lee Miller 1953