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Review: Lee Miller: Friends at Farleys at Victoria Gallery & Museum

Lee Miller was, and probably still is, one of the most significant photographers of the mid-20th century. She moved behind the camera after a career as a fashion model in 1920s New York, later moving to Paris, and working as an official correspondent for the U.S. Army throughout World War II.

After the war, she continued to work in creative circles and formed close ties with some of the most important artists, writers and creative thinkers of the 20th Century.

Farleys House, a farmhouse in East Sussex, became home to Lee Miller in 1949. It is here that she invited friends including Jean Dubuffet, Pablo Picasso, Georges Limbour, Valentine Penrose, Henry Moore and Saul Steinberg to visit, and here where the surreal and performatively menial images of this gallery are set.

It feels like a power play, packed with name-dropping, but the archive was and is a defining piece of art history, by a photographer who understood the power of the camera to tell stories, and her power as an artist to curate them.

Saul Steinberg, the American artist and illustrator, is the subject of the most memorable photograph in the archive, having been invited to untangle a garden hose. It’s also one of the most posed images in the series.

This who’s-who of mid-century art was asked to visit and perform mundane tasks and household chores. A handful of the photographs were published by British Vouge, alongside an article called ‘Working Guests’. Whether intentional or not, the wider series creates a juxtaposition of archive and satire. It lets us see into the world of artists who are often othered and seen as unreachable, posthuman beings.

And yes, they were and still are celebrities, being asked by a celebrity photographer to pose, but they were also a group of genuine friends who had worked together in a surreal and avant-garde art movement for decades.

This archival exhibition, on tour from Farleys House and on loan from the Lee Miller Archives, is presented as a museum piece. Prints are held behind glass, and mounted in richly stained timber cabinets.

Each photograph is concisely described without emotional inflection. And all of it feels comically dry. ‘Lee Miller: Friends at Farleys’ is a perfect representation of a photography series that was, in itself, a false archive.

Lee Miller: Friends at Farleys is on display at the Victoria Gallery & Museum until 30th November 2024
Words, Kathryn Wainwright