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Posts Tagged ‘Lee Miller’

A guest post by London Historians Member Martin Thompson.

150_portrait_lee millerElizabeth (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.

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 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 often 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 that this became known, her son Anthony having spoken to his Uncle Erik. It might be argued that it affected her personality as she was always restless and somewhat rebellious, finding it difficult to find love and settle down with anyone.

Aged 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 pull her away just in time. Her rescuer was Conde Nast, the founder of Vogue magazine. He effectively launched her modelling career on the cover of American Vogue. She was photographed by the greatest talents of the day, becoming one of the most sought after models in New York. However, unbeknown to Lee, one photograph of her was used in an advert for Kotex and work began to dry up.

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, making friends with, among others, 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. But 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.

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With Pablo Picasso.

Early in World War 2, 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 to his lectures two or three times. He was also required to do duty as an air raid warden; 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, of course, 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. Immediately after 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 that, she continued to work for Vogue for a further two years, covering fashion and celebrities.

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In uniform.

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, as featured in several magazines. She hosted Surrealist dinner parties and made wildly experimental dishes, serving her guests food 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 at Farley Farm House. Farley Farm has now, through the work of Anthony Penrose, become a museum featuring the work, life and times of Lee Miller.

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Image: London Remembers.

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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A guest post by London Historians member Martin Thompson. 

Lying slightly behind the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead lies a remarkable block of flats. Remarkable for two reasons. The first being for the architecture which was ahead of its time and secondly for the people who lived there and those who visited it.

isokon flats

The Lawn Road flats in Hampstead opened in July 1934 and were the product of Molly and Jack Pritchard, who put up the money, and their architect Wells Coates. The three had similar views on the problems of city living and wanted to apply Modernist principles in solving them. This meant that the flats would follow Le Corbusier’s mantra that the home was ‘a machine for living in’. It was the first block ever to be built mainly using reinforced concrete. Intended to be the last word in contemporary modernist living, the block of flats was minimalist with built in furniture and communal facilities such as a laundry. They were aimed at the market of new young professionals of the 1930s. They contained 22 single flats, four double flats, three studio flats, staff quarters, kitchens and a large garage. In 1937 a club, ‘The Isobar’ was added to the complex.

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Walter Gropius

The first ‘Controller of Design’ was the internationally-renowned architect Walter Gropius who was appointed in 1934. With the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in 1933, Gropius, then the Director of the internationally renowned Bauhaus School, believed that there was little future for him or the institution. In this he was proved correct as Hitler closed the Bauhaus shortly after coming to power. Gropius and his second wife, Ise Frank, whom he had married in 1923, secretly fled Germany and arrived in England on 18 October 1934. However, in March 1937, Gropius left for the USA to become professor of Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. A month before he left, Gropius recommended Marcel Breuer, as his replacement for Controller of Design.

Marcel Breuer, otherwise known as Lajkó, was a Hungarian born designer who became world famous for his furniture designs in the early part of the 20th Century. After Gropius had left the Bauhaus, Breuer followed suit. He initially moved to Switzerland where he concentrated on furniture design. The tubular steel and aluminium pieces which he produced won universal praise but still left him with little or no money. By the time he left in 1935 to join Gropius in the pioneering modernist Lawn Road Isokon Flats in Hampstead, Breuer was one of the best-known designers in Europe. During the two years he spent in Hampstead, Breuer was employed by Jack Pritchard at the Isokon Company, which became one of the earliest proponents of modern design in the United Kingdom. The innovative furniture Breuer designed whilst at Isokon in Hampstead were highly influential pieces of modern design and included chairs, tables and the famous ‘Long Chair’. He not only designed furniture, however, as between the years 1935 and 1937 he worked in practice with the English architect F. R. S. Yorke with whom he designed a number of houses in and around Hampstead and further afield.

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Marcel Breuer in one of his trade mark chairs.

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Agatha Christie

The flats – and particularly the bar – became famous as a centre for intellectual life in North London. Notable residents included Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the authors Nicholas Monsarrat, Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan as well as Gropius and Breuer. Agatha Christie lived at 22 Isokon, throughout the Second World War, from 1940 until 1946, suffering all the fears and privations of the bombing. She did voluntary war work at the University College Hospital as a hospital dispenser as she had done in the First World War. Sometimes she walked home to Belsize Park when the Tube trains were not running properly, and her evenings were spent writing. She was at the height of her powers and fame as an author, and her war-time years at Lawn Road were extremely productive. Not only did she write several of her well known crime novels but she was also very involved in writing for the stage, which she loved. When her daily life became too stressful she would take refuge in her flat and in her own words, “lie back in that funny chair here which looks so peculiar and is really very comfortable”. An original 1930s Isokon ‘funny chair’ can be found in the Hampstead Museum at Burgh House. She left Lawn Road in 1946 when she was able to reclaim her home in Devon which had been requisitioned by the navy.

Regulars at the Isobar included Henry Moore, who made a series of remarkable sketches of people sheltering from the German bombing in the nearby Belsize Park underground station. Others included the artists Piet Mondrian, Paul Nash, Roland Penrose and his wife the war photographer Lee Miller, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, all of whom were at one time resident in Hampstead. The chef at the Isokon building later became the first British celebrity TV Chef – Philip Harben.

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Henry Moore sketch of Londoners sheltering from the Blitz.

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Henry Moore in the Underground, by Lee Miller.

The building fell into disrepair in later years but in 2003 it was sympathetically refurbished. During the restoration the services were completely renewed and a later overcoat of render removed from the exterior The Isokon is now occupied by key workers under a shared ownership scheme whilst the larger flats were sold outright on leases.

As part of the refurbishment, an exhibition space was created in the former garage. Run since 2014 and staffed wholly by volunteers, it tells the story of the building, as well as the social and artistic life of the residents. It is usually open on weekends from March to October from 11:00 to 16:00.

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