Keep­ers of the flame

How pioneer­ing sur­re­al­ist pho­tog­ra­pher Lee Miller’s legacy has been pre­served in her for­mer Chid­dingly home

Sussex Life - - Inside - WORDS: Jack Watkins

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

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