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Farley Farm House and Towner Eastbourne

Thursday 11th September 2014

It was an early start, but we made good time and got to Farley Farm House at Chiddingly, East Sussex with plenty of time to spare for a coffee before we were taken round the Farm House on a fascinating tour. 

Bovine interest in a piece on display
in the Sculpture garden

Bought by Lee Miller and Roland Penrose in 1949 it contains a huge collection of contemporary art treasures, many made by their friends and visitors who included Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Max Ernst and Joan Miro.  Together with works by Lee Miller and Roland Penrose each room was brought alive and it seemed as if the owners had just stepped out for the day, leaving us to look and admire.

We started in the kitchen, very modern for its time, as latterly Lee Miller became a successful gormet cook.  As a surrealist however, you could be served chicken with a bright green sauce.  Prints by Picasso and a tile over the Aga, she wasn’t too bothered about steam.  In the hall, every surface covered by curiosities, fossilized rats, bits of bone, african statues and then the dining room with Roland’s wonderful surrealist painting round the fireplace.  Bright wall colours everywhere, reminiscent of Charleston Farm where Roland had visited with Christopher Fry.  Finally Lee Miller’s study where there was a current display from her huge collection of 10,000 photographs which were discovered
in the attic after her death and have been saved and lovingly curated by their son Antony.

Members enjoying Lee Miller’s portrait of Picasso
with her son Anthony Penrose on his knee

Roland Penrose was the son of successful portrait painter, a Quaker, who after World War 1 moved to France, became friends with Picasso and Ernst and discovered Surrealist painting.  It was explained that this was usually an interpretation of a dream not a representation of something and the viewer then being asked what it was that they saw in it.  He married a poet – Valentine Boue, who he later divorced but she regularly visited Roland and Lee at Farley.

He helped to establish the English Surrealist movement and founded the ICA.  As a Trustee of the Tate and through his connections with many important artists of the time, including Moore, Nicholson and Hepworth, he was able to purchase for small amounts many important works that are now in the Tate collection.  Later he was knighted for his work.

Lee Miller was born in America, an amazing woman, very beautiful, launched as a model by Conde Nast the founder of Vogue after a chance encounter.  A scandal involving an advert for Kotex pads ended her modelling career and she moved to Paris to study photography with Man Ray where her circle of friends included Picasso, Eluard and Cocteau.  Eventually she moved back to New York and became a successful Society photographer.  She married and went to live in Egypt but became bored and in 1937 went back to Paris and met Roland.  They lived in Hampstead and from there, she became the official war photographer for Vogue photographing the Blitz and went to France one month after D-Day, witnessing the horrors of the aftermath.  After photographing the opening up of Dachau she was famously photographed having a bath in Hitler’s flat in Munich.  She never really recovered from these experiences;  for the rest of her life she suffered from bouts of depression and became an alcoholic despite suddenly finding herself pregnant.

We very much look forward to our lecture by Antony Penrose in April 2015.

In the afternoon, we visited the Towner contemporary art museum in Eastbourne.  A fantastic exhibition space designed by Rick Mather, placed next to the Winter Gardens and the Theatre.  Large windows, extending exhibition space, attractive café with outside area.  All examples of his inspired work.  During our tour we were lucky enough to be taken into the storage area and able to view some of their large collection.  All carefully light and heat controlled with no pipes carrying water anywhere near!

As the seagulls cried overhead, we made our way home after a very inspiring day.

Text by Sue Harman

Photos by John Baker

Related Links (open in new windows):

Farley Farm House
Towner website