The Verse’s Jake Francis review Farley’s House and Gallery: Home of the Surrealists.
‘Your school years are the best time of your life.’ I think a lot of children heard that quote at least once before the age of 18, usually, in response to a seemingly reasonable moan about a teacher, fellow pupil, or desperate want to grow up faster. Continuously challenged by the nightmares of PE, the coffee-breath of Mr Clayton (no offence, sir), and the incessant need to grow your hair long, cut it short, and then long again– our so-called ‘golden’ years of school certainly had a knack for making us feel otherwise about them.
Despite the constant shrugs and eye-rolls, however, there are moments we may feel were genuine or engaging: That first goal for the school football team, a praised piece of homework, or that top-notch performance as Sheep #4 in the school play. Moments that are still brought up today in your so-called ‘adult’ conversations amongst like-minded peers.
‘It was absurd, and I was hooked…’
For me, one of those moments found itself during the usual doldrums of an art class, a spatial memory that still haunts me to this day with the smell of PVA glue and posters of Constable landscapes. Geared to receive yet another dreary painting of chocolate-box proportions laid in front of me, it was the arrival of Rene Magritte’s ‘Son of Man’ that proved to be the hiccup to my hardened disengagement. With a repressive posture and brooding sky, the classical gentleman was immortalized in his anonymity with the teased placement of an idyllic green apple. It was absurd, and I was hooked.
Thus arrived my obsession with Surrealism – an art movement that continues to claim the minds of children and adults alike through its various guises. Intoxicating yet unruly, it is despite (or because of) its intangible familiarity that Surrealism continues to find itself in the most unlikely of places; a feat achieved by next to none of its successors or predecessors. Case and point – the tiny village of Chiddingly.
On my drive up to this remote, yet quintessentially British patch of civilization – it would be a far reach to expect anything Surrealistic in view – bar, perhaps, a rogue cow finding itself strolling to the local café (I know what I saw, you weren’t there). That is where Farley’s House and Gallery can catch you off guard. Claiming the title ‘Home of the Surrealists’ upon every sign, the first glance at this grandiose promise is, initially, found to be a damp squib; the greeting figures and animals made from car parts and old wheelbarrows screaming kooky middle-class kitsch rather than actual ‘art’.
The house itself…
This disappointment is luckily laid finite as one is led to the actual house, our tour guide trudging us into a treasure trove of old-farmhouse clutter and overpriced merchandise for sale. As our tour guide warns of the strict surveillance and no-nonsense rules in place, a sensation of entering the ‘private dwelling’ is made two-fold: 1) to maintain a sense of respectful decorum for those who lived there. 2) As a protective capitalistic measure, a notion that has been reiterated by the removal of my photos from the PUBLIC EXTERIOR on Instagram. A copyright ‘issue’, apparently…
Casting my shoulder-poised chips aside, the house itself was indeed worthy of its title and subsequent visit. Boasting the private collections of its now-deceased owners, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, visitors are provided access to their eclectic and absurdist wares from their near four-decade stint in this quiet corner of East Sussex. With each prevailing room, our guide introduced us to the works of not just Miller and Penrose themselves, but also an impressive cadre of pieces from the likes of Man Ray, Marcel Broodthaers, and most prominently, Picasso.
‘Like an abstract portrait of the Sun-baby from Teletubbies…’
It is perhaps the presence of the latter’s work that offers the most unique aspect of what Penrose and Miller had passionately cultivated. Amongst the tidbits of the owners’ colourful histories and achievements, our tour guide would offer us a glance into the childish – wonder of Picasso’s works placed around the various rooms. Mostly granted the formal treatment that one can expect for someone like Picasso, that of the grand and protective frame, it is undeniably his interaction with the fabric of the building itself that is most enticing.
Poised above the oven like an abstract portrait of the Sun-baby from Teletubbies, this unique Picasso tile sets Farley’s apart from a mere domestic art gallery and into the footnotes of modern art history. Tarnished and ‘loved’ as any home fixture can expect over the years, it sits as a testament to the Surrealist sentiment of the every-day and the artist’s escapist visits amongst friends during social duties elsewhere.
Returning to the histories of those who built this oasis, the tour was bustling with stories of both social and individual significance. Delving into the impressive and wide-spanning careers of Miller as model, photographer, and socialite, it is arguably her first-hand documentary of World War 2 that solidifies her as a cultural staple. Whilst perusing what was once her study, the presence of a seemingly intimate portrait between lovers offers a much more significant backstory.
Depicting a vulnerable-looking Miller within a bathtub, muddy GI boots in tow on its mat, we learn that this particular suite was the Munich residence for Hitler. A photo that represented the prevailing advancement of the allies as it penetrated war-torn Europe, it is clear that the photographer was much more than the ‘pretty-face’ that initially started her following careers. When it comes to Penrose, his achievements appear slightly dwarfed in comparison.
‘Creative expression in the physical form of the subconscious…’
A very capable painter and joint-founder of London’s ICA, it is the personal imagery of his various relationships that shine within these tailored walls. Including the usual delectation of objects as stand-ins for feeling, Penrose’s paintings depict an eclectic experience of schooling throughout art in the 20th century. Littered with the anecdotes of previous lovers and the simultaneous fear/excitement of expecting one’s child, the works further compliment the achievements and costs of Miller’s excursions into new and difficult territories.
As PTSD, postnatal depression, and alcoholism began to claim the mind of the woman he loved, his emblematic styles and totemic repetition found themselves at home in Surrealist theory: That of creative expression as the physical form of the subconscious.
‘I couldn’t agree more…’
In our current age of relentless advertisement and exhaustive visual-trends, it is easy to become flippant about what we surround ourselves with. As the bespoke or unique item/concept is commodified by the latest IKEA catalogue or dummied within the window displays of international retailers – the value of our styles and interests starts to feel like a perverse novelty. Surrealism and art in general for that matter is not immune to this condition – they often find themselves as a medium for the latest marketing campaign or want to seem ‘kooky’ (I’m looking at you, Noel Fielding).
Amidst this warranted cynicism, however, some prove that ‘stuff’ does not have to be so trivial or maniacal; it instead offers a true representation of a life lived well and in hearty spirit. Penrose and Miller certainly achieved that, and their physical legacy serves as that testament. As our so-called ‘golden years’ of school increasingly drift into distant memory, the Surreal can quench the obtuse nature of adulthood and its foibles. After all, Andre Breton, the godfather of Surrealism, once stated that ‘the man who cannot visualize a horse galloping on a tomato is an idiot.’ I couldn’t agree more.
Visiting the gallery…
Farley’s House and Gallery: Home of the Surrealists is open from April – October each year (Sundays only). Admission (including a 50 minute guided tour and garden entry) is £13.50. Sole entry to the Sculpture Garden is £3.50, and gallery admission is free. For more information, please visit: https://www.farleyshouseandgallery.co.uk/plan-your-visit/