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The Phantoms of Farley Farm

Following my brief stop-over in Oxford, I arrived safely in Brighton on Friday evening which was spent on the borders of Hove supping dry martinis in memory of Luis Buñuel (whose recipe for a perfect dry martini features in his autobiography My Last Breath – although there’s always the possibility that Jean-Claude Carrière or the League of Toledo invented the recipe but that’s a horse of a different colour).

Waking with some trepidation I headed in the direction of Lewes to visit Farley Farm where I had booked a special extended tour led by Anthony Penrose. Farley Farm was the post-war home of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller and is known as ‘The Home of The Surrealists in England’ – it was the country retreat where the most well known and influential artists of the 20th century would meet and socialise when in Britain. The house has a wonderful history and is full of the most marvellous examples of art and artefacts relating to surrealism. Much of the Roland Penrose collection can now be found in major museums including the Tate Gallery and the Dean Gallery (now rebranded with the rather ugly corporate title ‘Modern Two’) in Edinburgh where the Penrose archive is held. Despite the dispersal for safekeeping of some of the more valuable works from Roland Penrose’s magnificent collection of 20th Century art, Farley Farmhouse contains works that are all the more interesting, not only for their rarity but also for their situation in a domestic setting with all the accompanying memories of a family history.

I gave myself plenty of time to get to the farm from Brighton but unfortunately got lost on the winding country roads that lead to Muddles Green, stumbling rudely into a darkened room as Anthony Penrose was giving a brief lecture on the historical context of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, their relationship to each other and to 20th Century art. A strange scratching, bumping noise was emanating from somewhere beneath the ancient wooden beams in a hidden corner of the dark room. I imagined perhaps a large dog turning over in wooden crate or a cat trying to half-heartedly escape from a timber box. As the lecture finished and the lights went up I saw that the strange noise was caused by some large ‘guard’ tortoises milling about in the far corner of the room.

Anthony and his daughter Ami gave a wonderfully intimate and personal tour of the house, drawing on their own experience of living at Farley Farm and being amazingly honest about their relationship with their family and the famous visitors. I was expecting a rather staid National Trust-type tour of a historical building but instead found myself being shown around a lived-in house where a Picasso tile sits behind the cooker splashed with bacon fat and where the walls are covered with works about which Anthony and Ami were happy to answer with great engagement, any question that was thrown their way.

I don’t want to give too much away about the tour but I can recommend that anyone with an interest in the history of surrealism in Britain should book themselves in on one of the 2013 extended tours. The rose above reminded me of the 1936 ‘Phantom of Surrealism’ wandering around Trafalgar Square, her face covered with roses.

I didn’t want to leave the house but the day was bright and the garden looked inviting in the summer sun. Although I had many questions, I didn’t want to outstay my welcome so I wandered out into the garden to photograph the views and search for some alchemical traces of surrealism scattered through the everyday objects in the garden.

Some days later I dreamt of tortoises – like the Freudian ‘Wolfman’, I had become a Penrosian ‘Tortoiseman’ – dreaming of these large shelled beasts sitting in a strange, leafless tree, staring at me with red tortoise eyes.

For more information on visiting Farley Farm, visit their website here.

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