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Archive for the ‘War’ Category

Review: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming.

51egqtRjPEL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Maxwell Knight was a pioneer of 20th century espionage and counter-espionage who referred to himself as M; his section was known as M, and all his agents were designated M/1, M/2 and so on. Although it is not known whether he knew the Bond author, it seems most likely though currently unprovable that Ian Fleming’s character was named after him. The author addresses this in his final chapter, but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other: the “real” M’s story is remarkable in its own right.

Born in south London in 1900, Knight spent part of World War One in the navy reserve. He was first recruited as an agent – having been identified as a good candidate at an anti-Soviet right-wing rally – in 1923. He was initially tasked to infiltrate the British Fascisti, modelled on its Italian counterpart but at this time a very different creature from the Mosley organisation a decade later. With no training whatsoever, he took to the task like a duck to water, rising quickly in the organisation. An explanation for this might be that being right-wing himself, Knight was at home in this environment: there was little pretending to do. He became close friends with – among others – William Joyce, aka “Lord Haw-haw”. It is suggested, but not proved, that Knight may tipped off Joyce as World War Two loomed, allowing the traitor successfully to skip to Germany (the author injects an interesting point on the Friend v Country debate per EM Forster which had some currency at this time). This, however, was his only concession to the past, by this time having come a committed espionage boss against the Nazis.

This is the story of how initially, during the interwar years, Maxwell Knight built his own group of agents who committed domestic espionage against strongly pro-Soviet left-wing groups. He nurtured them, encouraged them, comforted them in their almost endlessly dull existences: being an agent is a stressful and lonely business. In particular, he proved what valuable spies women could be, running completely counter to the MI5 orthodoxy at the time. He used at least six of them, largely to great effect. But the whole organisation was yet tiny, and the author makes the point that in the Soviet v British espionage stakes it was like Manchester United versus Corinthian amateurs, even back then. Apart from the audacious kidnapping of a left-wing agitator on a Liverpool-bound train, most of the action throughout this book takes place in London.

All changed in the late 1930s when it was demonstrated without doubt that agent provocateurs in countries like Czechoslovakia proved great enablers in aid of Nazi invasion and that Britain potentially had no shortage of these too (as we know). M section under Knight turned to countering fifth column pro-German activity. His suggested solutions, including widespread internment, were severe indeed though ignored for some long time by the Home Office.

Among many, no doubt, we are told of a number of amazing missions: the capture of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring in 1938 (they had been sending ordnance designs to Germany);  the unmasking of Tyler Kent, the spy within the US Embassy in 1940 which owing to America’s nominal neutrality and the implications of diplomatic immunity a) had to be handled most carefully and b) was referred to the very top of both governments’ relevant departments. All these missions were undertaken with a combination of patience, commonsense and unease. They are described with crackling suspense and in great detail.

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But what sort of man was M? You would argue that the job description demands that he must have been a bit of a strange one: unusual. And indeed he was. Maxwell Knight was an outsider. Though clearly good with people and a kind friend on a personal level, despite being twice married he lived largely alone, if we exclude the menagerie of wild animals he kept in his flat (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). Despite belonging to many London clubs, he was not what they call “clubbable”. He was a big fan of jazz music and keen clarinettist. Both his marriages were almost certainly unconsummated, the problem lying on his side. With no evidence that he was bi- or homosexual, the author suggests he simply may have lacked the penchant.

Knight adored animals, particularly wild ones, many of which he kept at home, as mentioned. One of the most amazing things about this MI5 spymaster it that in the early 1960s he became known to millions of his fellow Britons as a radio and television presenter of various nature and environmental programmes, very much a proto-David Attenborough. Proper you-couldn’t-make-it-up territory.

This is a beautifully balanced biography of a complicated and interesting man. The derring-do and intrigue are wonderfully researched and described: fabulous true stories. But where the book really scores is the effort taken by the author to understand Maxwell Knight the man and through that prism explain how that shaped him and the things he did. Highly recommended.


M: MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (400pp, hardback) is published by Penguin Random House with a cover price of £20, but available at time of writing for substantially less if you’re quick!

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A guest post by Joe Gingell.

In May 1940 the British Government ordered the evacuation of women, children, the elderly and infirm to French Morocco to convert Gibraltar into a fully-fledged fortress, which Hitler was planning to capture.

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Commodore Creighton. National Portrait Gallery.

Soon after the arrival of the evacuees in French Morocco, France fell. As a result of this and the destruction of the French Fleet at Oran, the Gibraltar evacuees were ordered to leave French Morocco within 24 hours. Coinciding with the expulsion of the Gibraltar evacuees, 15,000 French troops were arriving at Casablanca on British cargo ships from the UK. The French authorities threatened to impound these ships unless they took away the Gibraltarian evacuees. Commodore Creighton (later Rear-Admiral Sir Kenelm Creighton) pleaded for the cleaning and replenishment of the ships but the request was refused and evacuees were forced on board by French troops.

The British Government did not want the evacuees to return to Gibraltar. Nonetheless, Commodore Creighton ignored the instructions from the Admiralty and sailed to Gibraltar with all the evacuees. But on arrival these evacuees were not allowed to disembark. Again Commodore Creighton insisted that the ships had to be cleaned and replenished. By then both the Italian and Vichy French air forces were bombing Gibraltar. Eventually alterations were made to the holds of the ships sailing into the Atlantic, with no medical facilities with hardly any life-saving equipment. After six days all provisions were inedible. Babies were born and some elderly people died in the journey. To avoid the menace of German U-boats, the convoy had to circumnavigate the Atlantic taking 16 days to reach England, specifically London.

Commodore Creighton in his book Convoy Commodore said that “if the convoy with Gibraltar evacuees had been attacked, it could have resulted in one of the worst disasters in maritime history.”

The evacuees arrived in London in August 1940, shortly before the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. About 13,000 of them lived in the capital during the war enduring all four years of bombing with some inevitable casualties.

I was one of those children evacuated to London. By 1944 I was already six and have vivid memories of the bombing of our evacuation centre, the Whitelands College in Putney. While in central London, I still remember my mother, my two brothers and I lying on the floor of the room at the York Hotel as a result of the explosion from a flying bomb which killed a Gibraltar evacuee. By end of July 1944 half of the evacuees had been repatriated. The remaining half were to live for four years in camps in Northern Ireland to await their gradual return home. Many of these evacuees had to wait for as long as ten years from the beginning of the war to rejoining their families in Gibraltar.

During the war Gibraltar became extremely vital, particularly, during Operation Torch. Some historians have qualified Gibraltar’s importance to the extent that, without Gibraltar, Britain would have lost the war. In the fortress scenario there was no place for non-combatant civilians who co-operated fully with a forced evacuation. Very little seems to be known about the story of the Gibraltar evacuees in London.


If you wish to read the book and find out the full story you can download it from the Gibraltar National Archives.

 

Evacuees at Dr Barnardo's

Evacuees at Dr. Barnardo’s.

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Evacuees at Wembley.

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Evacuees at Whitland College.

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A guest post by Rebecca Rideal.

In April 1664, a House of Commons committee was set up in Westminster to investigate the nation’s declining cloth industry. It didn’t take long, however, for committee members to widen their focus to the deterioration of English trade more generally. Over the previous few years, mercantile tensions between the England and the Dutch Republic had grown steadily (erupting into the First Anglo-Dutch War, 1652–1654) and much of the blame for this perceived deterioration in trade was levelled at the Dutch. Throughout committee meetings, influential London merchants were encouraged to voice their grievances. With their companies venturing further afield for mastery of trade in gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, silks and spices, key complainants were the Levant Company, the East India Company, and the Royal Adventurers for Trade in Africa, whose headquarters and boards were all based within the capital and whose ships docked and delivered along the Thames. They complained that the Dutch had taken possession of all the former Portuguese territories, especially along the West African coast where they had severely inhibited England’s ability to trade.

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Cape Coast Castle in 1682.

In fact, that same year, a forty-three-year-old Irish-born sea captain named Robert Holmes had been sent by the London-based benefactors of the newly-formed (and state-backed) Company of Royal Adventurers to facilitate the company’s expansion. Founded by the Duke of York and Prince Rupert of the Rhine on the belief that there were rich gold fields along the Gambia river, the company regularly came into conflict with Dutch trading bases along the West African coast. As the small fleet set off from the Thames, its primary goal was the acquisition of gold but Holmes also had explicit orders, for the first time, to establish a trade in slaves, with the aim of acquiring 3,000 per year to sell to the West Indies. He was instructed to ‘kill, take, sink or destroy such as shall oppose you’, but the unwritten truth was that in order to achieve these ends, he would need to take possession of Dutch trading bases.

In his forty-gun flagship, the Jersey, Holmes led a taskforce of English vessels to capture the Dutch fortress of Carolusborg, on the northern part of the Gulf of Guinea. He took with him a new spring-based pendulum watch, designed by the illustrious Dutch scientist and inventor Christiaan Huygens and refashioned by the Royal Society ready for the sea. It was hoped that the watch might enhance the accuracy of navigation. A cunning man who, by his own admission, looked ‘his enemies in the face with as much love as his friends’, Holmes was also a determined military leader and knew these waters well. With the support of his loyal crew and aided by the latest naval weaponry and navigation equipment, he seized a cluster of trading bases before setting his sights on the main prize, Carolusborg. It took Holmes eleven days of hard bombardment to capture Carolusborg, which was renamed Cape Coast Castle under English control.

His actions on behalf of Royal Adventurers for Trade in Africa far exceeded what the company’s backers had expected and Holmes found himself in the unanticipated situation of being reprimanded for capturing Dutch vessels. That said, his achievements were not unwelcome and, along with the wider grievances raised by London merchants and influential war-hungry court factions, they would trigger the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665–1667). The Dutch eventually managed to win back many of the African trade posts Holmes had taken, but they never again had control of Cape Coast Castle; a fortress that, over the next two centuries, morphed into the rotten heart of the British Transatlantic Slave Trade.


revised-1666_Bpb.jpgAdapted from 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire. Rebecca Rideal is a writer, former TV producer and historian. Her first book 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire is published by John Murray and out in paperback today, 23rd February.

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General the Lord Dannatt recently retired from the ancient position of Constable of the Tower. Here, LH Member Chris West writes a guest post about some of the highlights of this 900 year old office.

This is the most senior appointment at the Tower; the first Constable was Geoffrey de Mandeville, appointed by William the Conqueror in 1078. In the medieval period, four Archbishops of Canterbury held the office, Thomas à Becket being the most famous. The Constable of the Tower was nominally responsible for management of the site when the monarch was not in residence; the duties for managing the site devolved to a deputy known as the Lieutenant of the Tower, who had an office with clerks to oversee administration, accounting and running the Constable’s own court of law.

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Over time Constables acquired a variety of legal and financial privileges which included collecting tolls on selected goods from trading ships and entitlement to all flotsam and jetsam on the Thames. They also gained from fees paid by state prisoners for their upkeep, the ownership of livestock falling from London Bridge and passing swans. Sir Henry Bedingfield was appointed Constable by Queen Mary and was responsible for Princess Elizabeth while incarcerated at the Tower prior to her removal to Woodstock. The Princess was reported by some sources to have lived in fear for her life while at the Tower. Following her succession, Queen Elizabeth may have advised Bedingfield to stay away from Her Court. Sir John Holland, Duke of Exeter, was a leading army commander who had served at Agincourt. He was appointed Constable and died in 1447. Originally, his tomb was in the nearby Royal Foundation of St Katharine but is now in St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower itself. Since 1784 the Constable has been a senior Army officer, either Field Marshal or General. Henry VIII built The Queen’s House for Anne Boleyn which has since been used by Constables and Governors.

duke of wellingtonArthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington was Constable from 1769 to 1852. He made important changes, which included draining the moat, removing the menagerie of wild animals, reorganising the establishment of the Yeoman Warders, overseeing the building of the Waterloo Barracks and other extensive restoration of the site. He also made the last, unsuccessful attempt to refill the moat. Wellington did not favour its development into a museum and preferred the Royal Repository at Woolwich for the prizes from Paris in 1815. He did ensure that the guns captured in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo would be preserved at the Tower, some of which are still outside the Waterloo Block. His memory is honoured with a plaque in the Chapel Royal- though interestingly, this was only initiated recently.

Since 1933 the Constable’s appointment has been for five years. His installation is celebrated on Tower Green before an invited audience. The Lord Chamberlain hands the keys of the Queen’s House to the new Constable, who then entrusts them to the Resident Governor, responsible for the management of the Tower.

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The Constable still retains the right to direct access to the monarch. Ceremonial events are attended, including gun salutes, state parades and the Ceremony of the Dues, representing the historic toll of wine or goods paid by ships entering the Pool of London. A Royal Navy vessel berths at Tower Wharf, bringing into the Tower a ceremonial keg slung from an oar, accompanied by a parade headed by the Chief Yeoman Warder, then a military band followed by the ship’s company. At Tower Green, they are met by Tower officials in full dress uniform and the keg is presented. Both parties and guests then retire for refreshments.

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Former Chief of General Staff, General the Lord Dannatt has just finished his tenure as the 159th Constable, having served for seven years instead of the usual five. He has further distinguished himself with his extensive input while resident. Being a Trustee of Historic Royal Palaces (the independent charity responsible for running the Tower), he was involved in the excellent 2014 poppies installation in the moat, ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. He also helped coordinate the services charities involved and was a central figure in the daily Roll Call ceremony.

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Lord Dannatt was extensively involved in life at the Tower, its residents and the various ceremonies, while still regularly attending at the House of Lords. Lord and Lady Dannatt were key figures in raising money to renovate the Chapel Royal and to improve funding for the unique choir, successfully hosting many special day and evening events.

General Sir Nicholas Houghton replaces Lord Dannatt as the 160th Constable.


 

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Firepower, the museum of artillery in Woolwich, closes its doors today for the last time. This is a tragedy. As a former gunner myself I am possibly biased, but in my opinion it was the best military museum in London with brilliant staff, brilliant volunteers and an outreach programme second-to-none.

The museum’s archive has already been shipped out, leaving military history researchers in the lurch. Now the guns, ammunition, displays, ordnance equipment, medals collection (including 22 VCs from the 62 awarded to gunners) will be crated up, transported and stored at the Royal Artillery HQ in Larkhill, to be seen again when – who knows?

I realise that there were – and are – challenging problems, mainly financial, relating to the museum, but I believe a better way forward could have been sought and found. Surely. The Regiment appears to have taken the easy way out and another strand of the thread connecting Woolwich with gunners has been severed. A “gunners gallery” is to be opened at the Greenwich Heritage Centre later this year apparently. Big deal.

I understand from speaking to various people that the ultimate decision to close the museum came from the Master Gunner, General Granville-Chapman.

Anyway, there you go. More heritage denied. I’ll pop into the museum for one last look today. I’d like to thanks all the staff and volunteers at Firepower for their enthusiasm and hospitality they’ve extended every time I’ve visited, an experience shared by many thousands down the years. Good luck with all future endeavours. Ubique!

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Today we celebrate the 70th anniversary of Heathrow Airport, officially opened for commercial air travel on 31 May 1946. Initially, it was rather prosaically named London Airport, only becoming officially Heathrow sometime later, to many of us simply LHR. London Airport took over the role as London’s main airport from Croydon Aerodrome which had operated in that capacity since 1920.

But the origins of Heathrow as an airport go back to the early days of aviation. West London had been the base for military aircraft manufacturers such as Sopwith (later Hawker) in Kingston and Fairey in Hayes. Such was the craze for aviation in the early decades of the 20th Century that airstrips were common in London suburbia in places like Hendon, Croydon, Northolt … and a hamlet near Hounslow Heath called Heathrow. That now lost village existed from medieval times roughly where Terminal 3 is today.

Fairey Aviation, led by Sir Richard Fairey, having been evicted from Northolt by the Air Ministry in the late 1920s, bought land and developed a three runway aerodrome in the Heathrow area during the 1930s. It was variously known as Harmondsworth Aerodrome, Great West Aerodrome and Heathrow Aerodrome. But in 1944, under emergency powers, the government once again evicted Fairey from their home – without compensation. Hard to credit their grim luck. Not knowing what to do with it after the war, the aerodrome was turned over to civilian use. Result: London Airport.

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Aerial image of LHR in the mid-1950s.

The following 10 years, the airport became very busy indeed, and yet it took until the mid-1950s for permanent terminals to be built: Terminal 1 Britannic (later Terminal 2, recently demolished and rebuilt); and Terminal 2 Oceanic (later Terminal 3 we still know, albeit re-developed). Terminal 1 was added in 1969, and that’s the way things stayed until Terminal 4 was opened in 1986 on the South Perimeter, the first passenger Terminal outside the central terminal complex. Terminal 5 opened near the West Perimeter in 2008. Terminal 1 is now awaiting demolition while the development of a modern expanded Terminal 2 continues. In addition to all of this there has been a long-term cargo area on the South Perimeter.

Concorde at LHR in the 1980s.

Concorde at LHR in the 1980s.

The stars of any airport, of course, are the aircraft. Today the skies and runways are dominated by the giants birds of Boeing and Airbus. But we look back, perhaps ruefully, to the days when Britain played a more active role with our Viscounts, BAC 1-11s, Comets, VC10s. Best, fastest and most beautiful of all of course was much-loved and much missed Concorde, lost to us forever at the turn of this century. Most of all, LHR was her home. And while British Airways is such in name only a member of this or that “alliance”, some of us rue the passing of BEA, BOAC, British Midland, British Caledonian and so on. Especially those, like me, who worked at LHR years ago and today still live under her flight path. From where I’m writing this I look out the window where aircraft fly by every minute all day long: I love them all.

Happy birthday, Heathrow!


Excellent Crown Film Unit footage of the construction of early Heathrow.
Heathrow Airport history timeline on Wikipedia.

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Lee Miller

A guest post by London Historians member Martin Thompson.

Lee Miller in the uniform of United States war correspondent.

Lee Miller in the uniform of United States war correspondent.

Elizabeth (Lee) Miller was one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century; Vogue fashion model, fashion photographer of note with her own studio, artist’s muse, an accredited war correspondent during the Second World War covering events such as the London Blitz, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau, friend of luminaries such as Man Ray and Pablo Picasso and in later life becoming a gourmet cook. She was admired as much for her free-spirit, creativity and intelligence as for her classical beauty. Known as ‘Lee’ Miller she married the artist Sir Roland Penrose in 1947 and thereafter was also known as Lady Penrose.

The Imperial war Museum is currently hosting a retrospective of her work as a War Correspondent exploring the impact of the Second World War on women’s lives through photography until 24 April, 2016 and is well worth a visit.

Lee Miller was born on 23 April, 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York. The name derives from a word in the local tribal Wappinger language, meaning “the reed-covered lodge by the little-water place,” referring to a spring or stream feeding into the Hudson River south of the present downtown. She was the second child of Theodore, an Engineer, Businessman and Inventor and his wife Florence a Nurse. Always a tomboy she grew up on a farm and was always trying to outdo her brothers, Tom and Erik. Her father who was also an amateur photographer was a strong influence on the young Lee and introduced all three of his children to photography at an early age often using Lee her and her young friends as models.

At the age of seven she was raped by the son of a family friend. This was kept quiet, as such things were in those days – so quiet, in fact, that no one knew about the event except her immediate family. It was only after her death that her son Anthony, spoke to his Uncle Erik and this became known. It is possible that it affected her personality as she was always restless and somewhat rebellious finding it difficult to find love and settle down with anyone.

At the age of 19 she was nearly killed when she walked in front of a truck on a Manhattan street but was saved by a passerby who managed to grab her arm and pull her away just in time. Her rescuer was Condé Nast, the founder of Vogue magazine. He effectively launched her modelling career on the cover of American Vogue, and she was photographed by the greatest talents of the day becoming one of the most sought after models in New York.

Having become interested in the work behind the camera as well as in front as a model, she moved to Paris in 1929, becoming apprenticed to the surrealist painter and photographer Man Ray as well as becoming his lover and muse. It was here that she started her career as a photographer. She was an active participant in the surrealist movement and became friends with Pablo Picasso who immortalised her in a number of his famous works, and the artist and film maker Jean Cocteau. In 1932 she returned to New York and opened a portrait and commercial photography studio with her brother Erik as her darkroom assistant. This was not to last. In 1934 almost on a whim, she married Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey who had gone to New York to buy equipment for the Egyptian Railways; they moved to Cairo. By 1937 she had become bored with her life in Egypt and once more moved back to Paris where she divorced Aziz and met the surrealist painter Roland Penrose (later Sir Roland) who was to become her second husband in 1947 and father of her only son Anthony.

At the outbreak of World War II, Lee was living at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead with Roland Penrose when the bombing of London began. Ignoring pleas from friends and family to return to the United States, she embarked on a new career in photojournalism as the official war photographer for Vogue, documenting the Blitz. Roland was called upon to work as a lecturer on camouflage and used a picture of the naked Lee covered with camouflage netting. He said that his lectures were very well attended after that with some participants coming back two or three times. He was also required to do duty as an air raid warden and Lee would sometimes join him on his rounds. From Hampstead Heath the criss-crossing searchlights, bursting flak and glow of the fires at London docks would present an awesome panorama, one that she found exciting. She also recounted that one night a barrage balloon collapsed on the house. She and the operators spent the whole night getting the thing under control, rolled up, down into the garden, through the house and through the front door. Their house, in Downshire Hill, played host to a variety of colourful characters, including the ‘Cambridge spies’ Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, although they were not known as such at the time.

Lee was accredited into the U.S. Army as a war correspondent for Conde Nast Publications from December 1942. She travelled to France less than a month after D-Day and teaming up with Life photojournalist David E. Scherman, recorded the battle of Saint-Malo, field hospitals in Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the battle for Alsace, and the horror of the Nazi concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. Her photographs, some of the first photographic evidence of the Holocaust, were a horrifying glimpse of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in the camps. From Dachau she and Scherman went directly to Hitler’s private apartment in Munich. She had Scherman photograph her washing herself in Hitler’s bathtub, her boots still with the mud of Dachau on them on the bathmat. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Lee travelled throughout Eastern Europe to see and photograph the devastating aftermath of the war. She photographed dying children in a Vienna Hospital, peasant life in post-war Hungary, and the execution of the fascist ex-Prime Minister Laszlo Bardossy of Hungary. After the war, she continued to work for Vogue for a further two years, covering fashion and celebrities.

In 1949 Roland and Lee bought Farley Farm House in East Sussex which became a sort of artistic Mecca for visiting artists such as Picasso, Man Ray, Henry Moore, Eileen Agar, Jean Dubuffet, Dorothea Tanning, and Max Ernst. Having witnessed so much pain and pointless destruction during the war, she fell into a long period of depression and alcohol abuse but reinvented herself as a gourmet cook in the 1960s having completed the cordon blue course in Paris and was featured in several magazines. She hosted Surrealist dinner parties and made wildly experimental dishes, serving her guests’ foods such as green chicken or blue fish, the latter said to have been inspired by the Spanish Surrealist painter and sculptor Miró.

Lee Miller died from cancer at Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, East Sussex, in 1977, aged 70. She was cremated and her ashes were spread through her herb garden. Farley Farm has now, through the work of Anthony Penrose, become a museum featuring the work, life and times of Lee Miller.

Courtesy and permission of London Remembers.

Courtesy and permission of London Remembers.

A film of her life is currently in production starring Kate Winslet as Lee Miller and is expected to be released in 2017.
The house at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead was awarded an English Heritage blue plaque in 2003. Unveiled by the playwright Sir David Hare, it reads simply: Lee Miller (1907-1977), Photographer, and Sir Roland Penrose (1900-1984), Surrealist, lived here. For historians of 20th-century photography, the plaque marks the rightful rehabilitation of a remarkable artist and character that had been all but forgotten since her death.

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