Friday, 3 June 2016

IN THE ARCHIVE by Antony Penrose

IN THE ARCHIVE by Antony Penrose

"Who would you still like to be photographed by?"
"Living or dead?"
"Either....."
"Lee Miller."
"Why?"
"Well, many years ago and we're talking 1980s or even 1970s here, I saw a photograph of hers in a Sunday Newspaper supplement called "The Picnic" and it fascinated me."
"What was it that you liked particularly?"
" Well, first of all it was a great photograph. The composition was perfect and each of the five people in the picture were doing something slightly different. Also, I was intrigued by the hedonistic lifestyle of the picnickers. It was a way of being that I hankered after but I was too uptight to dare put my toe in that water. It was that picture that first got me interested in photography."
"So, Lee Miller it is but she died some time ago so, who else?"
"Well, the next best person"
"Who's that"
"Her son, Antony Penrose"

Soon after I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, I was on the computer at home and thought that I could search for Lee Miller. Up until that time, I hadn't really used the computer much and although we had one at work, I had only used it for work-related matters. So, I typed in "Lee Miller" and was directed to her archive website. There, all laid out, especially for me, were all her wonderful photographs and loads of information about her but what really caught my eye was the fact that one  could visit Farley Farm, her home in East Sussex. Within minutes, I had booked two tickets and Jane and I travelled down to the village of Muddles Green a few months later and it was there that we first met Lee's son, Antony Penrose. We got there early and so first had a drink in the pub, "The Six Bells" which features in a few of her photographs. We then carried on a few yards up the road and parked near the house. We congregated with the other visitors in the hall with the beautiful flagstone floor and I began to get a sense of the history of the place. Antony introduced himself and his daughter, Ami and also his former Nanny, Patsy, and we were taken for a tour around the house which was riveting and then, at the end, we had a cup of tea and a chat with Antony. I came away from there even more in love with Lee and her work than ever before and also with the realisation that Antony was as much a fan as I was.

I returned to Farley Farm for another tour with my darling niece, Olivia, and then, a few years later, Jane and I attended a talk given by Antony at Charterhouse School. We were invited to the dinner afterwards and Jane sat next to Antony and they chatted about her work. We then swapped places and I told him about "Over the Hill" and also took his photograph as part of another project where I was photographing someone different every day for a year. We kept in touch and he began to take a close interest in Jane's work and in 2011, asked us if we might be interested in holding a joint exhibition at Farley Farm Gallery...............I was so excited. The exhibition took place in the summer of 2013 and it was such a lovely experience for both of us. Since then we have remained in contact and, when I was asked recently which photographer would I still like to be photographed by, I thought about my answer and realised that, if I was going to finish the project, I had to ensure that Antony was going to be one of the photographers.

He readily accepted the invitation and so on 3rd June 2016, almost exactly three years after exhibiting there, I drove along the familiar roads to Farley Farm and parked under the trees outside the house. As I walked up to the front door I felt the hairs on my body tingle both with anticipation and the strange fearful rush of a confusion of emotions that hit you when you re-enter a world of magic and love. Tony came down to the hallway and greeted me warmly. We chatted briefly and then he led me to the building which housed the archive. His idea was to photograph me looking through a drawer of negatives. A drawer of negatives of photographs taken by Lee Miller. A drawer of negatives of photographs taken by Lee Miller at Farley Farm where she lived and where she died. Gulp. It was cold as we entered the store, the temperature kept at a certain level to preserve the photographs and Tony pulled open a drawer full of envelopes marked with the details of their contents. I remarked on the neat labels and Tony explained that it was the handwriting of his first wife, Suzanna. It was a poignant moment because, before Suzanna died of cancer not long after the death of Lee Miller, she had discovered the store of thousands of negatives in the attic and then with Tony began to create the archive. If that wasn't enough, Tony pointed out a box on the shelf behind me containing some Nazi artefacts purloined by his mother when she accompanied the American troops into Germany at the end of the War; on top of the box was a Rolleiflex camera.

After taking a number of shots in the archive, we returned to the house and sat and chatted in the kitchen over a cup of coffee and I then bade Antony goodbye and walked to my car, each step made meaningful because this was ground walked on by Lee Miller. Yes, yes, I know this sounds like heroine worship but I can't help it. Her work means so much to me and to have become acquainted with her son, walked around her home, sat in her kitchen, exhibited in her gallery is the nearest I have come to knowing her and understanding a little of what made her tick. Nevertheless, I like Tony for himself, very much indeed. He is a very easy going companion and his voice has a lovely drawl which immediately relaxes whoever he is speaking to either one to one or when giving a talk about his parents and their art. He doesn't intellectualise his discussions of their work but rather expresses his emotional response to it which is very attractive and pleasing. It was typical of his good nature that he accepted so enthusiastically my invitation to become part of "Over the Hill" and I am very, very proud to have a photograph taken by Antony Penrose, Photographer, Artist, Curator, Archivist, Writer, Playwright and Speaker. 

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