Farley Farmhouse: The Surrealist’s secret Sussex hideaway


The fireplace at Farley Farmhouse features Penrose’s interpretation of the face of The Long Man of Wilmington, an ancient chalk figure carved into the Sussex hills – the house looks out at the Long Man, but here Penrose has invited him inside.

So a few weeks ago I wrote a blog about Lee Miller: muse of Man Ray, Picasso and many others of the Surrealist circle. I went to visit the house she shared with Roland Penrose yesterday and was ahhhhmazed.

Farley Farmhouse is a little place in the Sussex village of Chiddingly, near Lewes, and it looks very ordinary: a modest red brick cottage set in pretty gardens. However this was actually the home of  a Surrealist painter/writer/biographer, and his model/muse/photographer wife so inside the house it’s a whole different story. Above the Aga is an original Picasso ceramic haphazardly plastered between ordinary kitchen tiles, the dining room is a salon-hang of Penrose’s works, original Man Ray collages adorn the hallway and items from Hitler and Eva Braun’s last billet sit in a case in the living room. These are only a handful of the amazing pieces on show, of course there are also Lee Miller’s modelling shots, and her own photographs of famous Surrealists in their studios, the horrors she witnessed as a war correspondent and happier snaps of her travels with Penrose. The artworks featured in the house are endless, I could go on and on and on! I wasn’t allowed a camera on our tour so I was just scrabbling away at my notebook which I got a few weird looks for, obviously the rest of the group weren’t artiiiiistesss pffft. I’m not really a tour person to be honest, and I was quite dubious about it but it was actually incredibly informative and definitely necessary to understanding the lives of the couple that lived here – and anyway you aren’t allowed to just wander about the house as of course it’s filled with priceless pieces.

Sorry about all the screenshots and googled images, I had no choice.

Roland and Miller above, solarised profile of Lee Miller below – between them the couple developed the method of Solarisation.

 It’s worth going to Farley Farmhouse just to listen to the tour and gain an insight into how the 1930s Surrealist circle lived, great fun but with some pretty horrific consequences. Muses are lovers, husbands are left behind, alcoholism was rife and beauty was treasured above all. Lee Miller had an amazing life which was possibly a lot down to her equally amazing face: if it weren’t for the men who fell in love with her, her life would have been very different. Siggghhh to be a beautiful American in Paris.


I’ve studied the Surrealists a lot, but maybe only specific ones as somehow I hadn’t heard of Penrose – he rings a bell but no artwork comes to mind. This must just be my own ignorance as he’s a key figure: he started the Institute of Contemporary Art which is still going today (and whose new TV exhibition I want to see), was Picasso’s biographer, invented our very first army camouflage and was also a pretty decent painter!

I won’t give you his life story, but these paintings above are portraits of his first wife Valentine. The first is called Conversation between Rock and Flower,  1928, you can see the ‘flower’ on the left is Valentine, with her feminine form on the front of her profile and an angrier craggy face on her back, whilst the ‘rock‘ is Penrose with one eye looking out at her. Below this is Winged Domino, 1938, again of Valentine but he painted it during their break-up so it was finished from photographs. The necklace of thorns is stabbing into her neck and the butterflies sort of claw at her lips, so you can see that obviously things weren’t good. According to Laura, our very informative guide, Valentine was a bit of a fiery one, sometimes soft but often aggressive and cold – hence the two-sided, or two-faced, ‘flower’. Apparently this was all just due to her hormones, simple PMT, but it made her so difficult to live with that she and Penrose split, freeing up space for Lee in his life.

Penrose and Lee adored each other; they married in 1947 and here are just  a few of Roland Penrose’s many many portraits of her.

The paintings are all mysterious and dark like Miller whose aloof and distant appearance was a product of a horrific attack she experienced when she was only seven years old – it left her with the ability to disassociate herself from people and it was possibly this cool quality which attracted her lovers – as well as that face. Anyway, her detached nature caused Penrose to often paint parts of her as absence, landscapes and floating clouds. The piece above is a portrait of Lee Miller after the war, in 1946, whereas the painting below was painted in 1937 before she became a war photographer; for this reason in the above painting she’s fragmented and only has a hint of a face whereas the portrait below is much happier and her earthy legs fix keep her grounded. Miller had a fascinating life but it wasn’t plain sailing: her modelling career was cut short by an agency selling her off to a Kotex advert – after which the Paris fashion mags wanted nothing to do with her – and after visiting Belsen and Dachau the day after they were liberated she suffered post-traumatic stress. Then, to make matters even worse, once she returned home to take back her Roland who had now shacked up with a second woman, she fell pregnant, after which she was plagued by post-natal depression. All of this, plus her already troubled childhood meant that the beautiful Lee Miller became an alcoholic for twenty years.

Below…Lee Miller and Roland Penrose with First View, his portrait of a very pregnant Lee.

Still, she got over her alcoholism by becoming an obsessive cook and finally became the caring mother to Anthony, her son, that she couldn’t be before. Strangely, she, Roland and Roland’s first wife Valentine all lived together until first Lee and then Valentine died, following which Roland continued to live at Farley Farmhouse with his son and a series of girlfriends until his death – old habits die hard!

I didn’t intend to write a summarised biography of Penrose and Miller, but I got so into it that that’s sort of what you got. Sorry if it’s all too wordy. Anyway, go have a look, see the house, the gallery and the sculpture gardens……

 
….then after all that culture take a ten minute drive to the town of Lewes afterwards and have lunch at Bill’s like me and my Mama did. It’s tasty.
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