At a young age, Lee Miller made a name for herself as a model and Surrealist while also working as a photojournalist for VOGUE magazine. Known for her formidable spirit, she chose to photograph the front lines of WWII rather than the soigné models in comfortable New York studios. At the end of the war, however, Lee surrendered her career for a bucolic life at Farleys House in the hamlet of Muddles Green in Sussex, England.
Shared with her husband, Surrealist painter Roland Penrose, Farleys House became the embodiment of Lee’s boundless energy for growing her own ingredients and using them in her delicious concoctions for family and friends. In fact, considering the fervor with which she adopted her new occupations, it seems as if gardening may have been a metaphor for the former life she chose to bury in order to begin anew. The coterie of regular weekend visitors that Lee enchanted with her imaginative dishes included Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Man Ray, with whom she lived for three years in the early ‘30s in Paris.
When I visited Farleys House last fall, I met Lee’s son, Antony Penrose, who manages the Lee Miller Archives located in Farleys House. I asked him whether there were any specific lessons he learned from his mother in the garden. He warmly responded, “She wanted her plants to be comfortable—a wonderful notion to consider if the asparagus and the sweet corn were comfortable. Her plants were her guests in the same way that a guest should be comfortable.” Perhaps this view was a result of the Surrealist’s anthropomorphic view of things—or it may have simply been because of her generous demeanor.
Many of the herbs that Lee grew and used in her recipes are still thriving in the garden at Farleys House, including parsley, borage, chard, and mint seen above.
In the war-torn Europe that she witnessed first-hand, Lee knew the prospect of tomorrow was not necessarily a given. However, in her garden at Farleys House, she savored the promise of each day as something new. Seasonal changes encouraged activities year-round like spending time with seed catalogs in the fall and writing to her parents in Poughkeepsie, New York, in the winter to ask for flower and sweet corn seeds. Lee was a quick study with a can-do attitude, so her gardening took off quickly. She insisted that her herb garden be close to the kitchen door in order to easily snip her favored chives, parsley, basil, tarragon, mints, and fennel. Borage, lemon balm, thyme, and Greek oregano were also planted near strawberry plants and large raspberry cages. The garden even included a grape-covered trellis tunnel.
As Lee’s ardor and prowess for gardening and cooking developed, so did her cookbook collection. A compulsive buyer, Lee filled all corners of the house with her books. Finally, Roland relented and built a cookbook room—a place of her own to plan her garden and work on recipes and menus. Roland and son Antony also built a lily pond with a sculpture so Lee would have something to look at outside her kitchen window.
Lee died in 1977 without ever having mentioned the cache of photographs, negatives, and manuscripts she had hidden in a corner of the attic. When Antony’s wife, Suzanna, later discovered them, Antony learned for the first time about this part of his mother’s life. While she was alive, Lee never shared with her son that she had been embedded with allied troops and was one of the first journalists to enter a liberated Paris in 1944. And she never talked of her past as a famous photographer and war correspondent. Since this revelation, Antony has spent a lot of time honoring his mother’s legacy and getting to know her better posthumously.
In a film to be released this year, Kate Winslet will play Lee Miller during the defining period of her life from 1938-1948. Winslet stated, “This is the story we want people to know about Lee more than the many other parts of her life.”
While Lee Miller’s path to a life of gardening and cooking was long and circuitous, its success was her personal reinvention. After her death, her family scattered her ashes over her beloved herb garden in a final act of commemorating her life and passion. As Lee once said, “Cooking is pure therapy.” For her, indeed it was.
For more information about Lee Miller, Roland Penrose, and visiting Farleys House, visit the Farleys House & Gallery website.
By Charlotte Moss
With a lifelong love of gardening, designer Charlotte Moss has long been intrigued with what draws people—especially women—into the world of horticulture. Some have made it their professions, while others have become enthusiasts, patrons, philanthropists, or simply weekend hobbyists. And then there are those who write about all things gardening. In her new column for FLOWER, Charlotte explores some of these women and the journeys that led to their passions for plants and flowers. She also has a forthcoming book with Rizzoli on the subject of gardening women set to release fall 2024.