Picasso, Potatoes and Parsley

The beguiling appeal of Farley’s Garden.

At the end of ROSA #2 you can see a photo of Picasso standing on a triangle of grass in Muddles Green. It feels an incongruous image – one of the most influential artists of the 20th century standing in a beret and wool suit, pointing at a road sign in a sleepy Sussex village. Why was he here?

The answer lies a few metres down the lane, at Farleys House (also known as Farley Farm), a long, low red brick house with farmyard and barns. Bought in 1949 by Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, Farleys House became a weekend retreat for luminaries of the art world, including Picasso, Miró, Ernst and Man Ray. Penrose was an artist, poet, historian and co-founder of the ICA. He collected and promoted art and was a key member of the Surrealist movement. In 1947 Penrose married the photographer Lee Miller, and they wanted a house where they could display their friends’ work, host parties and find some respite from the hurly-burly of London. When they moved in, Farleys was a working farm –cold, muddy, basic. But gradually they decorated, installed a new kitchen and covered the walls with paintings and the surfaces with junk treasure, books, shells and trinkets. They also turned what was essentially a field and orchard into a garden that would not only provide food but also serve as a backdrop for sculptures and Surrealist creativity.

You get a sense that this garden may not be quite what you expect as you approach the ticket desk – a rusty scrapmetal cow looks out over the fields, complete with genitals made from an old farm hook with two pendulous weights. It is best to leave any preconceptions of a traditional English country garden back in the farmyard. To the right of the house stands a large pink sculpture called Salvia Corrupted by Julian Wild, all angles and neon against the rolling farmland. Beyond that a vertical recycled monument by Salvatore Cuschera looks like it’s about to take flight, again the geometries contrasting with the soft hills in the distance.

That is what’s so exciting about this garden – and any outdoor art. It is in constant dialogue with the landscape, elements, weather, changing light and topography. These sculptures draw the eye, bringing our focus to one point within the garden, but are always interacting with the peripheral surroundings. They are aged and eroded by the weather; we can walk right round them, touch them, hear the wind against them. The garden at Farleys is a stage for a holistic sensory experience, so different from the sterile whiteness of a gallery. Smells, sounds and textures all infuse our visual reaction to the work.

Penrose felt this place was aligned with ‘the sun, the moon and the stars in the heavens’, drawn by the view of the Long Man of Wilmington on the horizon. Now the garden is home to contemporary sculptures by annual guest artists. There is also a permanent collection featuring work by Roland Penrose, his son Antony, Henry Moore and Heinz Henghes. The space is divided by hedges, creating garden ‘rooms’ in which different planting designs and sculptures cohabit. A rose garden shaded by a giant pine leads on to the main lawn area with a small oval pond, designed by Roland Penrose to be slightly off-kilter, a false perspective that reminds us things are not always as they seem. A stone figure watches over the pond, its face misaligned and strange. The wide flower borders provided blooms for the house, ready for when visitors tipped out of their cars and crowded into Miller’s kitchen, peeling potatoes and podding peas from the garden, drinking and talking long into the night.

For Miller the garden was a source of ingredients and inspiration for her growing passion for cooking. Knowledgeable and experimental in equal measures, she conjured surreal dishes and bountiful dinners for their friends. Their gardener, Fred Baker, made her a herb bed full of parsley, thyme, fennel, basil, chives, mint and tarragon. He dug four large vegetable beds at the back of the garden, growing British staples like spinach, potatoes, lettuce, turnips and cabbage. Miller added exotic plants like asparagus, artichokes and an American variety of sweetcorn to remind her of home. These beds are still flourishing today – I spot an enormous artichoke, potatoes and squash, flanked by a row of bright orange marigolds. Baker also constructed a huge fruit cage and Penrose added medlar trees to the orchard full of apples and pears.

As a visitor you get a sense of a working garden, a place of sustenance and abundance for sharing and creating. There is always a surprise around a corner: a bronze harpy nestling in the rhododendrons, a fallen giant lying in pieces in the grass, a wooden cormorant keeping watch from a telegraph mast. Some of the sculptures interact directly with the garden, like the Peter Brooke-Ball stone form tied with rope and suspended from a tree, the welts deep and visceral as if the stone were merely plasticine.

Although Farleys was a place of fun and sociability a shadow always hung over it. Lee Miller was tormented by the trauma of a sexual assault as a young child and the things she witnessed as a war photographer in WW2, and she was one of the first to see the horrors of the newly liberated Nazi concentration camps. She was an alcoholic, volatile – her son Antony once described her as a ‘hopeless drunk’ and he grew up in fear of her rage and unpredictability. Cooking became a way for her to heal some of this darkness, to express her creativity and provide nourishment for others. Through uncovering thousands of undeveloped images and learning more about her past, Antony came to understand his mother in a different way.

He has devoted his later life to curating her work, setting up the Lee Miller Archive and running Farleys House and Gallery with his daughter, Ami Bouhassane. Together they have ensured Miller’s work gets the acclaim it deserves, and the house and garden are a key part of this legacy.

After her death in 1977 Miller’s ashes were scattered in the garden, to be joined by those of loved ones over the ensuing years. But this garden doesn’t feel like a museum or relic. There is something magically alive about it, perhaps because the sculptures make us feel we are part of an ongoing performance ourselves. And perhaps because it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture a small boy watching his mother pick sweetcorn for the table while a naked man sharpens kitchen knives under a tree, guests chase geese out of the veg patch while others sip cocktails on the terrace and a model poses for a photograph on the lawn. The garden carries the spirit of its inception as a place of play, restoration, art and challenge.

Lulah Ellender is the author of the memoirs Elisabeth’s Lists (Granta, 2018) and Grounding: Finding Home in a Garden (Granta, 2022).