Blue Plaque Honours Champions Of Surrealism

By David Prudames | 20 June 2003
Shows a colour photograph of Sir David Hare and Anthony Penrose unveiling the Blue Plaque.

Photo: Sir David Hare and the couple's son Anthony Penrose unveil the Blue Plaque at 21 Downshire Hill on Friday June 20.

An English Heritage Blue Plaque has been erected in London to jointly honour photographer Lee Miller and surrealist artist, art promoter and Picasso biographer Roland Penrose.

Unveiled on Friday June 20, the plaque commemorates the couple's residency at 21 Downshire Hill, Hampstead between 1936 and 1947.

While Miller (1907-1977) is perhaps best known for her combat photography of the Second World War and Penrose (1900-1984) for his championing of Surrealism, the couple were undoubtedly two of twentieth-century British art's most influential figures.

Shows a black and white photograph of Lee Miller on the telephone.

Photo: Lee Miller on the telephone, 1942. Photo: David E. Scherman. © Lee Miller Archives.

Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, Head of the Blue Plaques Team at English Heritage, Emily Cole explained why the pair have been honoured.

"Our panel felt that Lee Miller was certainly worthy of commemoration," said Emily. "She is only the second person to receive it from the field of photography and they thought she was absolutely eminent."

"With Roland Penrose, who did a range of work, there were many reasons," she added. "His raising awareness of Picasso, his founding of the ICA and his contribution to art as a whole was felt to be outstanding."

Born near Watford, Penrose studied architecture at Cambridge University before becoming a painter and moving to France in 1922. It was there he met surrealist poets André Breton and Paul Eluard.

Shows a colour photograph of the Blue Plaque itself.

Photo: the couple lived in Hampstead between 1936 and 1947, during which time their home became a gathering place for eminent artists, politicians and journalists.

On returning to Britain in 1935 he formed the British Surrealist Group and shortly after co-ordinated the First International Surrealist Exhibition in London during the summer of 1936. This exhibition launched Surrealism in Britain.

Living among the avant-garde artists and intellectuals of Hampstead, it was Roland Penrose who helped establish Picasso in Britain, touring his painting Guernica in 1938 and publishing a biography of the Spaniard in 1958.

Penrose met the American-born and already successful photographer and surrealist, Lee Miller in 1937 and two years later she joined him at 21 Downshire Hill.

Miller began her career as a model, before becoming a studio apprentice for Man Ray in 1929. She worked as a portraitist and fashion photographer in New York between 1932 and 1934, moving to London just before the outbreak of war.

Shows a black and white photograph of Roland Penrose seated in an armchair with Lee Miller kneeling at the left of the picture.

Photo: Lee Miller and Roland Penrose at 21 Downshire Hill, 1942. Photo: David E. Scherman. © Lee Miller Archives.

After taking photographs of London during the Blitz for a US publication, in 1944 Miller became a correspondent accredited to the US army.

The only female combat photojournalist to cover the infantry, Miller boldly captured horrific and dramatic scenes from Dachau and dying children in Vienna, to Hitler's house at Berchtesgaden.

In 1947, Penrose and Miller were married at Hampstead Registry Office and in 1949 moved to Farley Farm in East Sussex, where the Lee Miller Archive is now held.

While Penrose was knighted in 1966 for services to contemporary art, the innovation, range and quality of Miller's work is regarded as unique and her reputation continues to grow.

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