In the footsteps of Lee Miller and the surrealists: a tour of her arty Sussex retreat

<span>A mural by Lee Miller’s husband, Roland Penrose, above the dining room fireplace at Farleys.</span><span>Photograph: Tony Tree /Lee Miller Archives</span>
A mural by Lee Miller’s husband, Roland Penrose, above the dining room fireplace at Farleys.Photograph: Tony Tree /Lee Miller Archives

There’s an original Picasso tile – of an abstract face with a yellow nose – roughly cemented into the wall above the Aga in the kitchen of Farleys House in East Sussex. “Patsy [the housekeeper] used to scrub it with Vim,” says Jenny, my guide. “Lee and Roland believed art was to be lived with – not just for a museum.”

The pair in question are Lee Miller (American model, muse, fashion photographer turned second world war correspondent for Vogue) and her husband, Roland Penrose (surrealist painter, author and co-founder of London’s Institute of Contemporary Art). They moved into this house in Muddles Green, Chiddingly, with their two-year-old son Antony in 1949. From the street, the modest Queen Anne facade gives no hint of the colourful world inside.

Miller’s story is set to hit the silver screen in September with Lee, starring and produced by Kate Winslet. A passion project of Winslet’s and 10 years in the making, it tells of an extraordinary life – and will undoubtedly bring more visitors to her former home.

“Kate captures the essence of Lee,” Antony tells me as we chat over tea in what was his childhood bedroom. “She spent a lot of time at Farleys, conducting very immersive research, going through the archives, asking questions. She wanted the film to be authentic. It’s a film about a woman made by a team of women, which was important too.”

Though views of the Downs were filmed here, a replica of the sitting room was created in a studio in Budapest. But “everything is spot on, even the paintings on the walls were perfectly recreated,” says Antony.

Visitors to Farleys can join a fascinating tour and wander the sculpture gardens and gallery spaces. The kitchen is still in its 1950s glory – complete with condiments in the cupboards. A Picasso sketch made in 1950 hangs on the wall: it’s of Grasshopper Bulls, an ink drawing inspired by the couple’s bull, William.

In the final room hangs an iconic photo of Lee in Hitler’s bathtub in Munich at the end of the war

The dining room is painted the yellow of Farmers Weekly, to which Penrose (a “gentleman farmer”) subscribed. His bright mural, inspired by the Long Man of Wilmington – which can be seen from the house – decorates the fireplace and surrealist paintings hang on the walls. A cabinet of curiosities contains objects ranging from a Honduran pottery chicken to a mummified rat and piece by Picasso.

A small display – knuckle dusters engraved with her name, a Rolleiflex camera, a US military badge – reminds us of Miller’s time on the frontline as one of the only female photographers to follow allied troops, and the Nazi horrors she witnessed. In the final room hangs an iconic photo of Miller in Hitler’s bathtub in Munich at the end of the war, dusty combat boots from Dachau concentration camp staining the bath mat.

Growing up with Miller as a mother wasn’t easy, says Antony. “She was a very, very difficult woman – looking back, she was obviously suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder and self-medicating with alcohol. But of course, I didn’t understand that as a child.”

What he does remember is the stream of interesting characters who came to stay at Farleys, many of them friends from her time in prewar France. Picasso “smelt good and was good for cuddles”. Man Ray was “very funny and generous with his time”. The visitors’ book is a who’s who of the 20th-century art scene, with signatures, poems and drawings by luminaries including surrealist poet Paul Éluard and artists Max Ernst and Joan Miró.

Miller largely abandoned photography once she got back to the UK after the war. “After the things she had seen, she couldn’t go back to taking photos of frocks and hats,” says Antony. A new passion provided an outlet for her creativity – cooking, often with a surrealist twist (dinner party fare might be pink breasts created from cauliflower or signature verdant Muddles Green chicken).

She kept so much of what she’d gone through hidden. The woman I found out about was so different from the mother I’d known

Antony Penrose

It was only after Antony’s late wife, Suzanna, discovered 60,000 negatives and thousands of pages of meticulous notes in the attic after Miller’s death in 1977 that he began to really understand his mother. “She had kept so much of what she’d gone through hidden. The woman I found out about was so different from the mother I’d known,” he says. Years of work cataloguing the archive and research followed and formed the basis of his 1988 biography, The Lives of Lee Miller, which inspired the film.

“The film is very honest,” says Antony. “She doesn’t emerge as a shiny heroine but as a badly scarred person for whom the price of her journalism was extreme – yet she never expected any sympathy.”

Besides the regular house tours, Farleys offers longer, private tours with a member of the Penrose family, with the option of learning more about the vast archive of photos and manuscripts (Antony’s granddaughter Ami Bouhassane is co-director of the house and archives). There are two galleries, too. The smaller, in a former barn, has a cafe and revolving exhibitions of contemporary artists, as well as one about the house to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the family moving in.

The larger gallery, opened in 2020 in a converted cattle barn, currently hosts an exhibition of Miller’s work in England during the blitz – including fashion shoots for Vogue set against bombed-out London – and Antony’s own incredible three-and-a-half year journey around the world in a Land Rover in the 1970s (that’s another story and subject of a memoir in progress).

Later this summer, there will be an exhibition of stills from the new film, twinned with the original photos that inspired the scenes.

There’s a programme of workshops and events, too, and each August a surrealist picnic takes place in the grounds. I stroll the gardens, which are dotted with intriguing sculptures (including Antony’s oak and lead Sea Creature and Fallen Giant by Michael Werner) and imagine the colourful people who have been here before.

“The surrealists were all about challenging convention,” says Antony. “People, particularly young women, often tell me that Lee’s story inspired them to change something in their lives. I love that – and Lee would have, too.”

Related: Surrealism and war: the life of Lee Miller – in pictures

This area of East Sussex appealed to Miller and Penrose because of the beautiful landscape and its proximity to London and France (the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry is close by). It was home to another unconventional artistic household at Charleston, which Penrose had visited too. The home of the Bloomsbury set – with modernist painters Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and David Garnett’s menage à trois at its heart – was a gathering point for some of the 20th century’s most radical artists, writers and thinkers.

“It was actually [art critic and artist] Roger Fry, who was involved with the Bloomsbury set, who suggested my father go to Paris and become an artist after Cambridge,” says Antony. “That was the beginning of Roland’s involvement with the surrealists.”

It’s just a 15-minute drive to Charleston from Farleys. The whole place is a work of art; almost every surface is painted. There are guided tours, but most visits are self-guided, with staff on hand to offer insights into the seductive characters who lived and worked here. “Isn’t it great to be shocked by the lives of people from 100 years ago?” says the woman at the door as I leave.

Where to stay

Between Farleys and Charleston on the Firle estate, near Lewes, the recently opened Shepherd’s Cottage makes a fitting base. The secluded cottage dates from the late 18th century. Hand-painted stencilling decorates the two bedroom walls and there’s specially printed hemp wallpaper, with scenes of barns and buildings from the estate, in the sitting room. The expert renovation used original bricks and traditional materials (the kitchen floor is lime and ash mix, not concrete, for example). It feels like a very comfortable and charming (TV-free!) time capsule, with memorabilia from the 1930s and 40s.

Related: The South Downs bolthole that offers a ‘complete escape from the world’

Charleston is just a stroll away, while Firle is 40 minutes by foot along country lanes. (I head to the Ram Inn for dinner and walk back under the stars.) Firle Place itself houses a remarkable collections of old masters. For more art, Charleston recently opened a new exhibition space in Lewes.

This area of Sussex has no shortage of brilliant walks – the cottage is on an ancient byway between Firle and Alfriston, and the South Downs Way is on the doorstep. A little further away is Berwick, its pretty church vividly decorated by the Bloomsbury set, and the Long Man of Wilmington. Stop in at the church in Wilmington village to see the impressive ancient yew too.

Farleys House and Gallery is open Thursday, Friday and Sunday from April-31 October (entrance £10 or £23 with tour). Shepherd’s Cottage, sleeps four, from £179 a night, three-night minimum. With thanks to Sussex Modern. Lee is in UK and Irish cinemas from 13 September.