The Lives of Lee Miller: A Woman's War

I went to Farley Farm House last Sunday for a guided tour around the home of Surrealist painter Roland Penrose and American photojournalist Lee Miller. It is a low-key 18th-century house in Chiddingly, East Sussex managed by their son Antony Penrose.

Lee Miller started her career in photography as a fashion model in New York. A chance encounter – stepping out in front of Condé Nast’s car one morning, led to her modelling for Vogue. For the next two years, she worked for various brands and was the first person to feature in a menstrual hygiene ad for Kotex, which almost finished her modelling career. She told a journalist that she wanted to “enter photography by the back end,” and sought inspiration from various artists including May RAY who she followed to Paris in 1929, introducing herself as his new student. She became his lover and muse and together they developed a new artistic technique called Solarisation, which you can see in some photographs in the house.

Lee came back to New York in 1932 and ran her own photography studio for two years before closing it down to move to Cairo with her new husband, Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey. This sparked a series of desert photography shots with abandoned villages and barren landscapes. There’s one photo in Farley Gallery of a desert landscape behind a torn net – a prophecy of what was to come when she became a war correspondent in the 1940s. Boredom and restlessness brought her back to Paris in 1937 and she met Roland Penrose at a ball, who she married 10 years later. 

Lee moved back to London in 1939 just before the Second World War broke out, resisting orders from the US to return home and instead worked as a freelance photographer for Vogue. In 1944 she became a war correspondent with the US Army – and possibly the only woman to cover the front line in Europe – photographing various key events including the siege of St Malo, the Liberation of Paris, fighting in Luxembourg and Alsace, the work of WRNS, ATS, the Land Girls, WRVS and the nurses. She also photographed refugees in Europe, women forced into slave labour and prostitution and concentration camp victims. She stayed in Hitler and Eva Braun’s houses in Munich documenting Hitler’s house at Berchtesgaden in flames prior to Germany’s surrender.

In the sitting room at Farley Farm House, there are various artefacts, photos, books and mementoes from various assignments and their travels together. One photo shows her sitting in Hitler’s bathtub, her muddy boots staining the white bath mat. Another is a group photo of May RAY and his lover Ady Fidelin, Penrose and Miller, Nusch and Paul Eluard picnicking in the sun, the women topless and relaxed. In the corner, there’s a silver tray with her brand of cigarettes and alcohol. Doctors told her to drink to help her relax and forget what she had seen in Europe, which led to her alcoholism. 

Lee and Roland lived at Farley Farm House for 35 years, entertaining visitors from the art world including Man RAY, Picasso, Max Ernst, Joan Miro, Echaurren Matta, and British counterparts Antoni Tapies, Eileen Agar, Kenneth Armitage, William Turnbull, John Craxton and Richard Hamilton. In the kitchen, there are humorous paintings by Picasso and above the Aga, a tile he decorated set in the wall. Surrealism was about finding the magic in the every day, exploring what happens when inner and outer worlds collide and Lee wanted art to be part of the everyday.

In the study alongside her modelling photos and various vintage magazines, there are lots of cookbooks. Lee developed a taste for surrealist cooking – becoming a gourmet cook and frequently told her guests to roll their sleeves up and get chopping.

I saw Antony’s performance piece, The Angel and the Fiend a couple of months ago in Hastings, which is a fantastic biography told through stories, letters and music. Restoring Farley Farm House and founding the Lee Miller Archive has been a lifelong project for him (he found her photographs in the attic and says growing up, he knew little about her war photography). I suspect it has healed some rifts over his mother being away for large part of his childhood and given him a deeper understanding and appreciation of his parents’ lives.

I left the house feeling emotional, humbled and inspired by the rawness of the work and the richness of the life they created together. Outside is a beautiful sculpture garden, a peaceful, healing space overlooking the South Downs, which has been enjoyed by many visitors over the years. Roland Penrose died at Farley Farm House on 23 April 1984, seven years after Lee Miller died from pancreatic cancer. He had been ill for some time but was holding out for something, which was Lee’s birthday.

Farley Farm House is open from every Sunday from April to October with an additional opening day on Saturday 3rd October. 

www.leemiller.co.uk

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War – an exhibition of 150 photographs depicting women’s experience of the Second World War by Lee Miller – opens on 15th October at the Imperial War Museum. It is the first exhibition to address Miller’s vision of gender and features photographs, objects, art and personal items not before seen on display. Book tickets online here. 

Lee Miller: A Woman’s War is published by Thames & Hudson.

Image © Lee Miller Archives, England 2015. All rights reserved. www.leemiller.co.uk