Heritage: Lens of Hampstead model and photographer Lee Miller revealed true scale of Nazi atrocities
- Credit: Lee Miller Archives, England. All rights reserved.
In the latest of our series commemorating people honoured with blue plaques, Adam Sonin explores the life of photographer and model Lee Miller, who captured some of the most important images of the last century.
She was a tomboy turned Vogue fashion model who ultimately switched sides of the lens.
As a photographer, Lee Miller captured and recorded some of the most iconic and important images of the 20th century. When the concentration camps were liberated, she was able to show the world some of the hidden atrocities that had taken place.
As a surrealist, her friends, admirers and collaborators included artists Man Ray, Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso, who immortalised her in a number of his famous works.
In 1937, she attended a surrealist costume ball in Paris where she met an English painter who was dressed as a tramp. He was Roland Penrose, who later became her husband. Their house, at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead, where a blue plaque is erected, played host to a variety of colourful characters, including “Cambridge spies” Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. MI5 kept a file on Miller, who was suspected of being a communist. But she was later exonerated despite “wearing queer clothes, liking queer food and having queer friends”.
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In her later years, Miller became an accomplished gourmet and often featured in glossy magazines.
With short, silky blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and athletic figure, Elizabeth “Lee” Miller (1907-1977) was born on April 23 in Poughkeepsie, in the state of New York. At the age of seven she was raped, which resulted in serious medical complications and psychological trauma. Almost as if to take some control in her life, Miller became rebellious and was expelled from a number of schools.
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Her father Theodore, a self-improving man who loved photography, included his daughter in his hobby. He taught her the technical side of photography but also recognised the natural model in her.
After a chance encounter with Condé Nast, owner of Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines, Miller’s career as a fashion model took off. She was arguably the world’s first supermodel and was in constant demand. While in the studio or on location, she used the sessions to absorb the intricacies of professional photography. But her modelling career ended in scandal when her image was used to endorse Kotex sanitary towels. So, in May 1929, she departed for Paris.
There, Miller met Man Ray, the best known photographer of his day, and became his lover, pupil, and model. On one occasion, Miller was developing some photographs in his darkroom. A rodent scuttled over her shoe, startling her into switching on the light. Man Ray immediately turned it off for fear of over-exposure. But the results were startling – accidentally pioneering the process known as solarisation, where dark areas appear light or light areas appear dark.
In 1932, Miller returned to New York to establish her own photographic studio. But, in 1934, she abandoned her work to marry an Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey, whom she had met in Paris, and moved to Cairo with him. During journeys across the desert, she took more than 2,000 images of rock formations, buildings and oasis villages.
But she missed Paris and, in 1937, she returned, resulting in the meeting with her future husband Roland Penrose (1900-1984).
The couple travelled to Mougins, in the south of France, for a holiday with poet and surrealist Paul Éluard, his model wife Nusch and Man Ray and his muse Ady Fidelin. Picasso was also there and so drawn was he to Miller’s beauty that he painted six portraits of her.
Miller’s romance with Penrose continued and they journeyed to the Balkans and Egypt. In 1939, shortly before the Second World War broke out, she left Bey and joined Penrose in London.
Penrose and Miller were famous for their hospitality and Downshire Hill became a focal gathering point for artists, politicians, journalists and the Cambridge spies. Artists and poets André Breton, Man Ray, Éluard and Ernst were frequent visitors. During the war, Belgian poet E.L.T. Mesens, Freddy Mayor, of the Mayor Gallery, David E. Scherman, the Time Life photographer, and the Irish journalist Kathleen McColgan, all lived there for a while.
During the Blitz, Miller worked for Vogue and photographed the often surreal effects of the bombing. Some of the images contain jokes in their titles, such as Eggceptional Achievement, where a vast grounded barrage balloon appears as the egg of a proud pair of geese, or Nonconformist Chapel, where a pile of bricks becomes the Nonconformists leaving the chapel. Apparently, it was a barrage balloon that destroyed a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth that Miller and Penrose displayed in their back garden.
The features Miller contributed to Vogue were outstanding. After D-Day, as an accredited war correspondent, she followed the advance of the American army across Europe. During the liberation of Paris, she photographed Picasso and many other art world figures – all friends from before the war.
Contrary to army regulations, she photographed combat on many occasions and was present at the siege of St Malo and during the bitter fighting in the Vosges Mountains in the winter of 1944-5. She was also present at the liberation of four concentration camps and her images of Buchenwald and Dachau shocked the world. In 1947, she married Penrose and the couple had a son, Antony.
After the war, Miller continued photographing in Austria, Hungary and Romania. She returned home to Penrose – and a hero’s welcome – in 1946. Having witnessed so much pain and pointless destruction, she found returning to work at Vogue extremely difficult. With the onset of the Cold War, she fell into a long period of depression and alcohol abuse.
In 1949, Penrose bought Farley Farm in Chiddingly, Sussex, which became their home. She undertook no further professional assignments after 1954 but, during her visits with Penrose to their artist friends on the Continent, she photographed extensively. Ever resilient, Miller reinvented herself as a gourmet cook in the 1960s and featured in several magazines.
She died of cancer at Farley Farm on July 21, 1977, and her ashes were later scattered in the garden. The plaque was unveiled in 2003 by her son Antony Penrose and the playwright Sir David Hare.
* Farley Farm House tours are available from April to October. For further information, visit www.farleyfarmhouse.co.uk.