The sun is shining but I’m feeling cool. After all, I’ve got my newly acquired super-strength sunglasses balanced on the end of my nose, my peaked New York MOMA baseball cap protecting the tonsured top of my craggy cranium and, in combination with my creamy off-white colour-coordinated M&S lightweight cotton and polyester suit, I reckon I’d be able to pass for a transatlantic version of Tom Wolfe’s slightly shabbier sibling.
In short, it sort of feels as if summer has finally arrived which means that it’s time for another out-of-town arty jaunt. So, I grab the tube up to Victoria, the train down to Brighton and then summon one of the friendly natives of that fine outpost of greeny Bohemianism to act as my chauffeuse for the rest of the day. And so it is that I find myself being whisked around a sequence of tiny winding roads, dodging the roadkill of squashed squirrels and flattened foxes; brushing past the thrusting buttocks of the lycra-clad bipedalists; and squinting at the little wooden signposts that offer directions to tempt the unwitting traveller towards the bosky shadows of places like Royston Vasey, or whatever are the south coast equivalents.
Speaking of which, we soon shoot past a sign pointing to Charleston, spiritual home of the gymnastic Jazz Age dance craze but more commonly recognised as that exquisite countryside retreat where Virginia Woolf (no relation to the lupine American referenced above) and the other intellectual elitists of the Bloomsbury circle engaged in daringly triangular relationships while simultaneously practising their radical forms of Modernist artistic experimentalism. Having already made my pilgrimage to that particular place of art historical heritage some years ago, I can certainly recommend the attractions of the house and garden but today there’s no time to indulge in a Red Riding Hood reprise visit and, instead, I must press on with my journey into the further recesses of these pleasant greenbelt backwaters. And, after a few more miles of twisting and turning down the B-road byways where public transport never dares to traverse, finally the ethereal pixality of google’s digital device for cartographic assistance can be put aside, superseded by the more reassuring tangibility of a crude wooden pointer bearing the simple inscription: Farley’s House and Gallery, the destination to which all the efforts of today’s expeditionary exertions have been so determinedly directed.
Now, I’m not sure who Farley was but the buildings that bear his name are today more familiarly associated with the famous former inhabitants – that most highly regarded of artistic pairings, the painter, biographer and curator Roland Penrose, and his wife, the model, photographer, war correspondent and innovative master chef, Lee Miller.
It need hardly be said that merely listing some of what might be described as the occupational elements of Penrose and Miller’s curricula vitae does scant justice to the importance and influence of their twin contributions to the development and promotion of the arts in this country and abroad. And for those who wish to learn more of the details of their fascinating biographies and adventurous lives, what better setting could there be than within the walls of their family home, filled as it is with the original souvenirs and mementoes of two lifetime’s worth of artistical engagement? So, while the official hour-long tour of the house is constrained to a shuffle around just four or five rooms of what seems to be a much larger building, nevertheless, the guide gives a continuous running commentary expatiating not just on the lives of her eminent subjects but also illustrating various idiosyncratic episodes with reference to the paintings, photographs, assorted ephemera and objets d’arts which fill every shelf, sideboard, nook and cranny of the homely mansion.
So, to start off with we’re invited to inspect the contents of Miller’s comparatively small, but still rather stylish, fitted kitchen and, immediately, hints of the Surrealistic sensibility that permeates the rest of the house are revealed. It’s not just being directed to admire the hoarding of some of the original packets of the herbs and spices that Miller used, and that are now well past their sell-by date, but also learning about their incorporation in the preparation of the green chicken and pink cauliflower combinations that she served up on special occasions for the amusement of some of her more broad-minded dinner party guests. The suggestion has been made that these colourful culinary concoctions may have inadvertently been a contributory factor to the bouts of indigestion that apparently plagued poor Penrose, though doubtless he would have been happy to suffer such minor discomforts for the sake of his wife’s artistic entertainment.
Elsewhere in the kitchen is a pretty little Picasso sketch of some flying bulls and also one of his decorated tiles that has been inset directly into the wall. That the latter has a slightly dulled patina is a detail explained by the fact that Patsy (the long-serving live-in maid and nanny to the Penrose’s son Antony) used the well-known conservator’s trick of regularly attending to the priceless ceramic by scrubbing at it with Vim scouring powder.
If Picasso was perhaps the most celebrated of the guests to visit Farley’s House, Penrose and Miller were also good friends with most of the major Surrealists including Max Ernst and Man Ray, examples of whose works are also dotted about the house. Most of the paintings now on show, however, are by Penrose himself although this is evidently a posthumous rehang arranged by Antony in tribute to his father’s memory. Obviously, it’s rather a nice touch and entirely appropriate but it does tend to confirm the wisdom of Penrose’s decision to sideline his own artistic career in favour of promoting the works of other more talented individuals – by helping co-ordinate the famous first Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936; by being one of the founding members of the ICA; by writing a biography of Picasso (which is interesting if perhaps a little too sympathetically sycophantic). As for his own works, well, the small early figurative landscape work is ok-ish; the jump into designer-Cubism not too bad; but the attempts at Surrealism, that occupied most of his efforts, are perhaps too much influenced by the stylistic tropes of his more famous friends as well as being generally a little too simplistic in the symbolic representation of his supposed subconscious reveries.
The largest work by Penrose here, however, is a Surrealist landscape mural painted directly onto a brick wall fireplace that’s somewhat reminiscent of the in situ decorative handiwork that can be seen at Charleston where Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and some of the other lodgers also went about trying to brighten up the place by defacing – or should that be ornamenting – the furniture. I’m not sure that any of these attempts are completely successful and all seem to highlight the peculiarly British problem that many of the early proponents of Modernism in this country were from society’s upper echelons and had real difficulty trying to emulate the radicalism of the Continental avant-gardistes they so much admired. I think part of the difficulty was that they were just too repressed and self conscious ever to be able to happily unfasten their metaphorical corsets, liberate their minds and take the required risks with rationality that were required to produce truly convincing and innovative artworks – especially when they were also shackled by the overbearing responsibility of also having to worry about looking after the interests of their various nannies, menials and maids.
As for Lee Miller, of course, she was a yank and a very high-spirited one at that which goes some way to explaining her amazingly rambunctious life and her real talent as a photographer. But it also makes it very much more difficult to understand quite why she was so attracted to the patrician Penrose, let alone being happy with the idea of settling down to a life of relative solitude in the sleepy senescence of her south downs retirement home. That she drifted in and out of alcoholism in her later days at Farleys as she sat in her study surrounded by her vast collection of cookery books is perhaps understandable but still tragically sad. It’s a feeling made even more poignant when one imagines how she must have felt when wondering through the house filled with so many items recalling aspects from her fabulous past life – the Vogue cover shot that launched her modelling career; the portraits by Man Ray; the famous photo of her lounging in Hitler’s bath on the days of the dictator’s suicide; not to mention her own photoworks and Penrose’s Surreal plaster cast bust of her own perfectly cast bust.
Having said all that, it seems that despite the darknesses in her life, she also still retained something of her Surreal sense of humour as evidenced by the display of the desiccated rat in the hallway; the super kitsch silver King Kong table decoration in the dining room and the absurdly massive African sculpture plonked down in the middle of the living room.
Outside the home – which can only be entered as part of the official guided tour (price £13.50) – there’s also a small gallery which currently contains lots of Miller’s fashion photographs and other more personal shots of friends and visitors to the house, as well as a display of recent collages by Peter Blake. Finally, outside the gallery is a garden containing a very random selection of sculptures – and while there are no great masterworks, I think it’s fair to say that all are made prettily acceptable by the charm of their situation in such idyllic surroundings. After which there just remains time to instruct the chauffeuse to head back to Brighton, stopping en route at the nearby Middle Farm Shop to purchase one of their famously tasty pasties.