October 20, 2013

A Visit to Farley Farm

The great American beauty Lee Miller was a pioneer in the world of supermodels but she was much more than just a pretty face.  Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907, she began her career as a cover girl for Vogue Magazine and Vanity Fair before moving to Paris in 1929 where she met up with the Surrealists, in particular Man Ray, and moved to the other side of the camera.  Her expertise as a fashion photographer soon expanded into portrait photography and she ultimately became one of the very few female photojournalists to cover the war.

After the stellar world of modeling, the passion and radicalism of the Surrealists and the horrors of World War II, Lee Miller re-invented herself once again, this time as a country lady in East Sussex, England - the wife of artist and writer Roland Penrose and the mistress of Farley Farm.

When a trip to London came up on the calendar (more on this in the next blog post) I booked the air travel to allow an extra day to make the pilgrimage to Farley Farm and a visit the "Home of the Surrealists".  Sunday morning was raining cats and dogs but the tickets had been purchased and it was the only day possible so off we set to Victoria Station to take the train to Lewes.  After a tasty pub lunch we hailed a taxi for the 20 minute drive to Chiddingly, Muddles Green and the Farley Farm House.

Owned and managed by the son and granddaughter of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, Farley Farm is now the site of a gallery for local artists, a sculpture garden, the Lee Miller Archives and Farley Farm House, the actual home where Lee and Roland lived for 35 years, until she died in 1977.

Given the really nasty weather on my particular Sunday a walk through the sculpture garden was out of the question, but I was able to join a guided tour of the home.  Entering the kitchen at Farley Farm was like going into anybody's country kitchen - except for the Picasso ceramic tile that is set in the backsplash, or the signed and dedicated Picasso lithographs decorating the walls.  You see, Farley Farm became a sort of salon, or cultural meeting place for some of the 20th century's artistic luminaries who came to the English countryside to recharge their batteries and enjoy some of Lee and Roland's famous hospitality.

Farley Farm House remains virtually unchanged from its glory days in the 1950s and 60s when Lee would cook and entertain personages like Man Ray, Henry Moore, Jean Dubuffet, Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso.  The dining room features a large fireplace that is entirely covered with a mural painted by Roland Penrose (see above left) and there are mementos and works of art throughout the home that were received as gifts from famous visitors.

Life at Farley Farm was good, but not perfect.  Despite her meteoric rise to fame as a model, Lee Miller had had a lot of trauma in her life and suffered from what we now call post traumatic stress syndrome.  Raped by a family friend as a young girl, un-ceremoniously dumped as a cover girl when her picture showed up in a Kotex ad, the object of Man Ray's adoration to the point of obsession, a witness to World War II atrocities like the London Blitz and Dachau, and never truly certain of her husband's fidelity, Lee Miller was clinically depressed and drank too much.  She never returned to the darkroom but energetically taught herself to cook and created a little haven for intellectuals who flocked to be in her company in the middle of nowhere.

While Lee Miller's legacy has not kept pace with her cohorts like Man Ray or Berenice Abbott, she is beginning to get the recognition she deserves as a true master of photography.  Her youthful beauty was forever immortalized in print, but her artistic eye and inner sensitivity is finally being appreciated by a wider audience thanks in large part to the efforts of her son, Antony.  Although I was certainly familiar with Lee Miller's life and work, my visit to Farley Farm put it in a new light and I gained a new respect for this remarkable woman.

No comments: