The early days: Lee and Roland at Farleys by Antony

The early days: Lee and Roland at Farleys by Antony


October 1949

My second birthday fell on 9th September and we celebrated it at our home in Hampstead, 36 Downshire Hill. That is where my parents, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose had all their close friends, but in truth they may have wanted to avoid taking me to Farleys. It had not been a big success for me when we took possession in February of that year. The old house had no heating and icy draughts swirled in the dark, slamming the doors in damp corridors and comfortless rooms.

The previous owners had kept the place as well as they could, given the constraints of wartime, and although the basic structure dating from about 1730 was sound enough, repairs were needed everywhere. For warmth the woodlands on the farm provided plenty of logs. The open fires smoked incessantly but no one noticed as the air was always thick with cigarette smoke. We were never certain if the nicotine colour tint of the ceilings was cigarettes or the wood fires.

The warmest place in the house was the kitchen where a Rayburn stove was constantly alight for the cooking and the limited supply of hot water. An unreliable pump drew water from the well, sending it up three floors to a tank in the roof space. When it came out of the taps it had a dark orange colour from the immense concentration of iron oxide in the water. We learned that a few miles away at Gun Hill there had been a foundry making cannons from the local iron ore.

My mother took all this in her stride. Her first priority was to make sure the garden was planted with the usual range of vegetables augmented by sweet corn grown from seed sent over from America by her parents, asparagus and artichokes begged from French friends and a massive range of herbs. For Lee herbs were more than a frivolous luxury. She found them invaluable in hard times, and throughout the war her stash of herbs allowed her to be creative with the most dismal rations.

The first guests bravely arriving in April of that year were Timmie and Terry O’Brien. Timmie was an editor at Vogue and particularly supportive to Lee who was battling post-traumatic stress disorder following her war experiences and post-natal depression following my birth. Timmie, a wonderfully intelligent South African, had a way of almost mothering Lee that ensured she handed in her articles on time. She was immensely kind to me and we had the most marvellous adventures together. Terry, an solidly practical Australian, was a big help to my father in coaxing the plumbing to work and connecting Lee’s 110 volt American kitchen gadgets to crude transformers.

Roland had had found an old photo album that had probably belonged to one of his aunts. She had filled the first few pages with formal photographs of the places she had visited but the remainder was untouched. Heavily bound with pages of thick paper it was ideal for use as our visitor’s book, and so it became, keeping safe the record of our guests until 1981, three years before my father died. The signatures began at what had been the back of the book, but suitably the one exception was Paul Éluard, the surrealist poet who had been a dear friend of my parents since their days in Paris in the twenties. Paul started at the wrong end of the book, and the photos give way to these lines in pencil.

A la suite de ces merveilles, j’invite les proffesionels du paysage irlandais ou frivolais, à me prouver leur gentillesse en nous montrant ce qu’ils voient par la fenêtre – ou sans fênetre, avec le jour qu’on a en soi.  Merci!  Paul Éluard.

At the end of these marvels, I invite the professionals from Ireland or Frivolous, to prove their kindness to me and show us what they see through the window – or without a window, with the light we have within ourselves. Thank you! Paul Éluard [i].

These lines hint at Paul’s deep understanding of Roland, who was a Quaker. “… the Quaker belief in the supreme guidance that comes from the ‘inner light’ seemed to me to find a legitimate comparison with the importance given to the subconscious by Freud and Jung.” he wrote more than thirty years later.[ii] With his phrase the light we have within ourselves Paul could be signalling how he well understood Roland’s inner drives.

Lee had almost certainly met Paul when she was in Paris with Man Ray from 1929 – 32 but Roland knew him earlier, probably in 1924, when they were introduced by his first wife, the French surrealist poet Valentine Boué. Roland stated his fascination with surrealism began with Paul and was later expanded by Max Ernst and Joan Miró.

In 1934 Paul married Nusch (Maria Benz) whose grace and beauty was captured by Man Ray, Picasso and Lee herself. It was Paul and Nusch Lee sought out during the liberation of Paris, overwhelmed at finding them still alive and now free. Paul’s resistance activities had forced them to be on the run from the Gestapo for the duration of the Nazi occupation, and the effect on their health was catastrophic. Nusch died on the 28th November 1946, just over a year after the liberation, so Paul was alone during for this visit to Farleys.

Other friends from that September and October included the Albanian/American photographer Gjon Mili, who Lee had photographed in New York City in 1946 and John and Cynthia Thompson, two outstanding journalists. Bernard Burrows, Lee’s old friend from her Egypt days, came with his Hungarian wife Ines and the up and coming QC Jeremy Hutchinson with his then wife the actress Peggy Ashcroft.

The mix of vibrant and eminent friends bonded by a passion for the arts established the pattern of entertaining at Farleys that was to last for the next 45 years.

Antony Penrose

© Antony Penrose 2020. All rights reserved.


 [i] Paul Éluard, Farleys House visitor’s book, undated, page 68

[ii]Roland Penrose, Scrap Book, Thames and Hudson, London, 1981 page 291