Art Detective: Picasso’s Pint

Picasso by the signpost, Chiddingly, East Sussex England 1950, by Lee Miller. © LeeMiller Archives England 2022 All rights reserved

There’s a great yarn that’s been doing the rounds for years, the retelling of which is pertinent to the latest exhibition at the excellent Newlands House Gallery, Lee Miller and Picasso.

Pablo Picasso, visiting friends in Sussex, walks into the Six Bells in Chiddingly, and orders a pint. The landlord pours it, and asks him to pay. Picasso says he has no cash, but offers to draw a sketch, instead. The landlord says: “You can pay us good English money, like anyone else.” The Spaniard doesn’t get to quench his thirst; the landlord doesn’t earn himself a valuable artwork. Ha!

But is the story apocryphal? A thorough examination of the circumstances unearths evidence to suggest it could have happened. Picasso did visit Chiddingly, in November 1950, immediately after the disastrous Sheffield Peace Conference, cancelled after a single meeting in the City Hall, due to the government’s justified fear it was a thinly veiled Soviet propaganda exercise.

Picasso was great friends with the photographer Lee Miller, and her husband Roland Penrose, who had moved to Farleys Farm, a mile from the Six Bells, in 1949. Penrose was his biographer, and an energetic promoter of his art. Miller and Picasso’s friendship stretched back to the 1920s; she’d modelled for him for several portraits, and it has been suggested they had been lovers. It is well documented that he stayed with the couple after his trip to Sheffield, before returning to Paris.

We know that Picasso was in the habit of drawing impromptu sketches. At Sheffield City Hall he had drawn a picture of a dove, on a napkin, which the socialist scientist JD Bernal had auctioned off to raise funds for the out-of-pocket Peace Conference promoters (it fetched the sum of 21 guineas). A day earlier, he had drawn an impromptu cartoon on the dining room wall of Bernal’s London apartment, which is now part of the Wellcome Collection.

And it seems very likely that Picasso had acquired a taste for English beer. One common motif in his early Cubist paintings, after all, was the Bass Export label, with its trademark red triangle: Bass was a big seller in Paris in the early 20th-century.

One problem with the story’s likely veracity is that the Six Bells landlord, Charlie Kirby, was well known to Lee Miller, who had photographed him outside the pub, as part a Vogue fashion shoot, in the summer of 1950, several months before Picasso’s visit. Surely, even if Miller hadn’t informed him of Picasso’s visit, he would have associated the strange Spaniard with his glamorous American neighbour, and given him the benefit of the doubt?

And, as Antony Penrose, Lee Miller and Roland Penrose’s son (who famously bit Picasso that week) points out to me: his parents were exemplary hosts. If the Spaniard had walked to the Six Bells, they would have accompanied him, and paid for his drink.

On the balance of this evidence, I would imagine the story to be apocryphal. But, happily, there does remain a chance that there is some truth in it: and if that’s the case, it betrays a disastrous error of judgement by the Six Bells barman. A pint of Best Bitter in 1950 cost about 19 old pennies. In the 2020 Sotheby’s auction The World of Picasso, Picasso’s pencil were selling for between £20,000 and £50,000.

Words by Alex Leith