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Monday, November 8, 2010

“Baby I’m home!”: the lives of Lee Miller in our church hall (which is the last place you would expect to find her)

Who would think that the life of the legendary muse artist and subversive Lee Miller could fill a church hall in Surrey a good 30 years after her death. Well, it did – the week before last, and I was one of the congregation of listeners when her son Anthony Penrose gave an illustrated and candid discussion of his mother’s life. I have read quite a lot about Lee Miller and I guess that the number of people should have come as no surprise to me: she always did know how to pull a crowd.

Here was a lady who has gone down in history as a staggering beauty and a muse who utterly obsessed the artists who immortalised her. By far the most famous images of Lee are those photographs of her taken by her lover Man Ray and it was together that they discovered the process of solarisation. As a result of an unplanned encounter with a rat in the dark room, a photograph was exposed to some light during development such that its tones were reversed and a strange line appeared around its object. This odd beautiful effect became entirely associated with Miller and Ray.

And there is one of the main points that Penrose made about his mother: she was not just an beauty to be brushed on canvases and pictured and objectified; she had her own work. Miller’s photography abounds with images of freedom and escape and like many surrealists – she was fascinated by the idea of the “found object”. That is to say that she looked for the marvellous in the ordinary and she, as Penrose put it – used her camera like a cookie cutter to chop out bits of everyday life. Intellectually she railed against being objectified. Here was a woman who served a severed breast up on a plate with a knife and fork to make a point. She was pretty subversive and she was pretty brave.

Which she needed to be when she went into occupied with the allied troops at the end of the Second World War. She was there as a war correspondent and the photographs that she took and the words that she wrote were the first that many people knew of the horrors of life under the Nazis. She took the most harrowing pictures of concentration camp interiors and they were not taken from a distance: they were right close up. She was able to flash her camera while men around her were vomiting into the bushes. Famously her companion took a picture of her having a lounge in Hitler’s bath, her muddy boots, fresh from the camps on the dictator’s bathmat.

Miller only left Europe because she was told, none too subtly, that her English husband wanted her back and was not content for her to roam around with the army forever. I got the impression from Penrose that his mother would never have come home of her own volition. When she did come home she suffered badly from having nothing important to do. She became extremely depressed, hit the bottle and there is no doubt a lot in her son’s suggestion that she was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. For those of you (and there are quite a few I think) who excel in the domestic arts, it will be heartening to know that her life was practically saved by the restorative powers of cookery. That having been said, Miller was no Delia – she was a surrealist in all things and her meals reflected her love for the unpredictable and the outrageously coloured.

One of the most touching aspects of Penrose’s talk is that he was utterly candid about his own dreadful relationship with her mother while she was alive. It sounds as though they argued like cat and dog. Miller did not have the normal maternal feelings towards her child and he was embarrassed and no doubt deeply hurt by her. The experiences of the children of avant-garde families in the twentieth century is a pet interest of mine and I think that Penrose would have quite a bit to say on the subject. He described himself as having met his mother through her work and through the work of others who knew and loved her.

The public face of Lee Miller is available for everyone to discover and the archives of her life are kept at her former home Farley Farm House in Sussex. I feel a trip coming on.


  1. wonderful post, I am a devotee of Lee Miller too. She was the modern woman-and devastatingly beautiful too, a lethal combination. Her unusual relationship with her photographer father may have contrived to her detachment from her own children. She is included in a series of post I did last winter of-devastating beauties .

  2. I loved this post Hannah! You given enough food for thought on Lee Miller. I looked up some of her work at her website and particularly liked this one where Picasso is sitting with Miller's son on his knee. I am very intrigued. Would LOVE to learn more. Thanks for sharing :)

  3. I did not know of Lee Miller before your posts on her. What an intriguing woman and life and how interesting that you were able to hear her son. i can only imagine how difficult her relationship with him must have been. Thank you for introducing me to a new subject/person here on your blog.


  4. Amazing to think how many so-called celebs come and go these days - todays darlings and yet few remember them a few years down the line - and then we have the celebs of yesteryear who survive the test of time, who are still thought of many years later.

    And talking of thinking of people, I've just realised that there are several of my followers who I haven't yet met or haven't visited for such a long time that I thought I'd stop by and say hello.

  5. Very interesting post Hannah and you've prompted me to find out more. How lucky to have her son give a talk at your local Church Hall - we get nothing like that at ours!

    I have a feeling I may have visited her house in Sussex many years ago...


  6. You were very lucky to be able to go to such an interesting talk in your church hall! I like reading about Lee Miller so I enjoyed your post very much, but I don't think that I would have liked her. She was too 'out there' for me!