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Farleys House & Lee Miller

Sussex is well blessed with places of the arts to visit.

I have visited and reviewed Charleston, the Bloomsbury outpost where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant painted and had a brief affaire, and Batemans – the home of Rudyard  Kipling at Alfreston.

By bad luck my planned trip to Farley Farm House, the home of Lee Miller and her husband Surrealist painter Roland Penrose had to be abandoned once the lockdown was imposed.

Yesterday I rescheduled my trip to  Farleys and have to say this was the most interesting of all my Sussex excursions.

Lee Miller was a true polymath and that most precious of humans – a free spirit.

Born in Philadelphia on the 23rd of April 1907, the daughter of Theodore, an engineer and Florence (a  nurse), her childhood could not have been more traumatic.

She was raped by a family friend and contracted gonorrhoea.

She was a great beauty and her big breakthrough came when she nearly run over in Manhattan.  She was saved by Vogue publisher Condé Nast who signed her up in 1927 as a photo model.

Nothing in her life seemed to run smoothly  or consequentially as, without her permission, a sanitary towel manufacturer called Konex unlawfully used her images to promote their product and her career as a model ceased.

She decided next to teach herself how to be a photographer, rather than being photographed.

In 1929 she travelled to Paris and pitched up at the studio of Man Ray, becoming his muse and lover.  It is said that it was she – after leaving a negative too long to develop – created the solarisation process for which Man Ray became famous.

A wilful woman easily bored and fed up with Man Ray’s philandering, her next stop was in Cairo Egypt where she married Aziz Bey.

Her husband sensed her boredom so in the late 1930s she returned to Paris where she met and fell in love with surrealist painter Roland Penrose.

She returned to work for Vogue and became a war photographer. She, with her close friend photographer David Scherman, were there a day after the liberation of Dachau.

That very same day she visited a flat in nearby Munich and was photographed in its bath by Scherman.

That flat had belonged to Adolf Hitler who, on the day of her visit, committed suicide effectively ending all German resistance.

She married Roland Penrose and they set up home in Downshire Hill Hampstead and acquired Farleys Farm House near Lewes.

Penrose founded the ICA and his nephew Jonathan was a chess Grandmaster and British champion for many years.

In 1947 Lee Miller gave birth to Tony who still lives very close to Farleys Farm which he runs with his daughter Amy.  Looking through the email threads I noted that I corresponded with Tony and he kindly agreed to meet with me yesterday.

I had in fact seen him lunching at the Colombe d’Or with Richard E Grant in a TV programme about the artistic life on the Riviera and this formed an immediate point of contact.

Tony has written an excellent biography of his mother The Lives of Lee Miller.

You might have thought that someone who had used Hitler’s bath and was a close friend of Picasso, who visited the farm twice, would have the most interesting story to tell but Lee Miller was famously reticent about telling it.

Indeed, when I said how much I would have enjoyed meeting her, he doubted whether she would have opened up at all.

Only a chance visit to the attic revealed a treasure trove of photos and letters which forms the Lee Miller Archive.

I thought our Daffers might have succeeded in bringing out Lee Miller, who in later years became a gourmet chef.

As was apparent from the 50 minute tour of the house, her guests would first go to the kitchen where there is a Picasso ceramic attached to the wall and be asked to chop up vegetables.

In the dining room are pictures of Roland Penrose and more ceramic plates of Picasso, which they had acquired from the Modura pottery in Vallauris where Picasso lived and cooperated with the pottery owners.

The house tour culminated in the sitting room and the photos of herself and Scherman in Hitler’s bath.

The guide said how difficult the overhead shower must be for Scherman, who was Jewish, given that very day they had been at Dachau.  At this point two elderly German ladies in the tour party gasped and hung their heads in shame.

There is so much to see here and the tour guide Gill packed most of the life of these two extraordinary people into her 50 minute tour.

There is also a sculpture garden, a café that tries to replicate Lee Miller’s recipes, a gallery of Lee Miller photographs and also a wonderful view over the South Downs to a landmark The Long Man of Wilmington of which there is a sculpture in the garden.

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About Nancy Bright-Thompson

A widely-respected travel editor, Nancy is a past president of the Guild of Travel Writers (GTW). She and her husband Phil now run a horse sanctuary in East Sussex. More Posts