Meeting the man who bit Picasso

Jeremy Miles is pictured in the sculpture garden at at Farleys on Sunday 21st October 2018. Photograph by Hattie Miles

By Jeremy Miles

There’s a wonderful photograph of Picasso visiting Muddles Green in the depths of the East Sussex countryside in 1950. He’s dressed in tweeds and pointing at the local signpost to the village of Chiddingly. It was posted on Facebook the other day -  the 25th October - to remind people that it would have been the great artist’s 137th birthday. 

It was particularly timely post for me, because just a few days earlier, I was standing not far from the very place that the picture was taken talking to a man who was actually there at the time. Antony Penrose was only three years old in 1950 but has good reason to remember the encounter because he bit Picasso.

Not in malice you understand just in the heat of the moment during a playful session of pretend bull fighting and no sooner had little Antony sunk his teeth into Picasso’s arm than the Spaniard bit him straight back. Antony has been reported as saying that he has subsequently checked for tooth marks but says that regrettably there are none otherwise his arm would have long ago been bought-up by some enterprising art dealer.

A genial fellow wearing a baseball hat and a ‘Tuck Frump’ button, Antony told me he’d happily take commissions to bite other people but feared that his teeth may not be up to it these days. He was joking of course.I suspect his teeth are just fine.

Which may not have been the case for anyone who dared threaten his mother who, for a while anyway, carried a knuckleduster. In fact she had one made of brass and another specially fashioned in silver and bearing her name.

Today Antony Penrose, is a prolific writer and photographer and the director of Farleys House and Farm, the idyllic East Sussex museum and archive dedicated to the work of his extraordinary parents.

His father was Sir Roland Penrose, distinguished surrealist artist, collector and curator. His mother, who took the Picasso picture, was Lee Miller, who in the 1920s and 30s had been muse and lover to surrealist master Man Ray. She was also a stunning and successful model but found her true calling on the other side of the lens. As a photographer she specialised in portraits often using her artist friends and their circle as her models. It was an impressive group that included not only Picasso, but Jean Miro and Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning and many others.

Farleys House and Farm was and still is a remarkable place, a retreat, a haven and, during the post-war years, probably the salvation of a deeply traumatised Lee. For during World War II the American born photographer enlisted as a correspondent covering the hostilities in Europe. The US Government, mindful of the fact that war photographers did not carry guns, issued her with the aforementioned brass knuckleduster. Lee herself commissioned the silver version feeling she needed something a little more stylish should she be required to deliver a bunch of fives while in ’evening wear’.

War service found Lee pushing boundaries as she did in all aspects of her life. She filed pictures and copy on everything from the London Blitz to the siege of St Malo and the Alsace campaign. She was on the streets of Paris for the liberation and recorded the horrors of the death camps at Dachau and Buchenwald.

Most famously perhaps she covered the destruction of Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden and in April 1945, found herself briefly billeted in the Fuhrer’s old apartment in Munich. In a final defiant flourish Lee had herself photographed sitting in Hitler’s bathtub.

Not surprisingly her wartime experiences took a brutal toll on Lee’s psyche and she retreated with her husband Roland to the farm he had bought in the depths of the East Sussex countryside.

It was not an easy move. For a committed city girl like Lee the countryside appeared to offer little stimulus. On the other hand, after the horrors of Dachau and Buchenwald, the mere idea of doing fashion shoots for Vogue and Vanity Fair in London, Paris and New York must have seemed distressingly frivolous.

She hurled herself into cooking, enrolling on top-end Cordon Bleu courses, immersing herself in the practise, commitment and artistry of creating cuisine that not only tasted good but looked amazing. Lee and Roland continued to spend most weekdays in London, but each weekend the country kitchen became a kind of performance platform where, as they entertained their famous and influential friends, Lee would produce magnificent and often exotic looking meals. She loved experimenting with food-colouring and would conjure up her own special surrealist dinners - maybe serving up bright green chicken, blue spaghetti or making a head-turning feature of a pair of her celebrated pink cauliflower breasts.

There is still the sense of the joy of those meals at Farley Farm which, with its striking decor, art collection and wonderful curios is open to the public each Sunday from April to October. House tours start in Lee’s kitchen where friends like Picasso once sat chatting. Everyone pitched in, chopping vegetables, gathering produce from the garden or even feeding the pigs. For Lee Miller though this apparently blissful rural existence was overshadowed by what today would almost certainly be diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder. She was haunted by depression and gradually spiralled into alcoholism. 

Although she continued to photograph the famous friends who enjoyed the hospitality of weekends at Farleys, Lee was clearly struggling. Not surprisingly perhaps by the 1960s her now teenage son was also struggling, struggling to make sense of his erratic mother who could seem distant and barbed. 

There was, almost inevitably, a period of estrangement when Antony regarded Lee and ‘the enemy’. Happily they were reconciled before her death from cancer in 1977 and Antony has since devoted his life to championing, celebrating and protecting Lee Miller’s extraordinary artistic legacy. In doing so he has developed a deep love and respect for her achievements.

If you want to learn more about this highly intelligent, complex and multi-talented woman and the life she made with Roland then check out Farleys House and Farm at Muddles Green, Chiddingly , East Sussex BN8 6HW. It is open just one more time in 2018, on this Sunday, October 28th. Alternatively make a note in your diary for next year.

© Jeremy Miles 2021