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Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain Timeline

Photographer Lee Miller (1907–1977) was a pioneer across the fields of art, fashion and journalism. Her work encompassed experimental studio work, portraits, reportage and fashion shoots, and reflected the varied artistic circles of which she was part. Miller first visited Britain in 1931 and returned for trips in the late 1930s before moving to London in 1939.

To coincide with the exhibition Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, this timeline traces the story of Lee Miller's involvement with the surrealist circles and how Britain, for a brief but intense time in the late 1930s, became a Surrealist centre. London was the destination for many artists as they left increasingly troubling political situations on the continent and Miller - along with her later-husband Roland Penrose - played a significant role in bringing them together.

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  1. -

     French poet and writer André Breton publishes the first Manifesto of Surrealism, proposing a literary movement based on an ideal of relinquishing reason and channelling the fertile creative realm of the subconscious mind directly into artistic expression. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, he writes, ‘I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.’ A surrealist movement forms in Paris, attracting artists such as Man Ray and Max Ernst as well as writers.


  2. -

    Breton publishes Surrealism and Painting, acknowledging the growing prominence of painters within the surrealist movement. He illustrates the essay with 15 works by Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. In October, de Chirico has his first, highly influential solo exhibition in Britain at the Arthur Tooth Gallery, London. The Philosopher was purchased by an important collector from northern England Michael Sadler.
  3. -

    After modelling in her home city of New York for two years, Lee Miller (1907–1977) arrives in Paris with an introduction to the artist Man Ray from Vogue photographer Edward Steichen. Over the next three years, she becomes Man Ray’s lover, model and studio collaborator. Together, they discover the important surrealist technique of solarisation, in which a partially developed photograph is exposed to light, creating halo-like effects.
  4. -

    Miller’s work as a photographer for French Vogue, assisting Man Ray and George Hoyningen-Huene, is so successful that she is able to set up her own studio. Having become an integral part of the surrealist network in Paris through Man Ray, she acts as a living statue in Jean Cocteau’s experimental film The Blood of a Poet.
  5. -

    Miller ends the relationship with Man Ray and moves back to New York, setting up a successful commercial studio and exhibiting as an artist for the first time. In response, Man Ray alters his 1923 sculptural assemblage Object to be Destroyed, replacing the cut-out eye on the metronome arm with Miller’s.
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    Influential Paris-based Anglophone journal This Quarter publishes a ‘Surrealist Number’, making surrealist texts available in English for the first time. Man Ray’s drawing of his updated Object to be Destroyed is illustrated, accompanied by a text urging the viewer to destroy the sculpture in a single blow.
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    In June, Paul Nash writes a letter to The Times announcing the formation of Unit One, an English avant-garde group bringing together abstract artists like Barbara Hepworth with surrealists such as John Selby-Bigge and Nash.
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    Miller marries Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey, closing her studio and moving to Cairo. Over the next few years, she studies Arabic and undertakes extended photographic expeditions in the desert. Her photograph ‘Portrait of Space’ was seen in 1938 by René Magritte when visiting the house of Roland Penrose, inspiring his painting ‘Le Baiser’.
  9. -

    British artist Roland Penrose returns from travels in Paris determined to encourage the development of surrealism in the UK. With Herbert Read, Henry Moore and others, he organises the landmark International Surrealist Exhibition in London in June. The show included 392 works by British and international artists, in addition to performances by Salvador Dalí, Dylan Thomas and Sheila Legge. The exhibition attracted 23,000 visitors over three weeks and became a popular sensation.
  10. -

    Miller travels to Paris where she meets and falls in love with Roland Penrose. Reconnecting with her surrealist circle, Miller and Penrose host a ‘sudden surrealist invasion’ in Cornwall, bringing together major artists and writers such as Max Ernst, E. L. T. Mesens, Man Ray and Leonora Carrington for a holiday marked by creative exchange. This is followed by a second group holiday in the South of France, at which they are joined by Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar and Eileen Agar.
  11. -

    Roland Penrose and E.L.T. Mesens organise the exhibition Surrealist Objects and Poems at the London Gallery. Miller, now back in Cairo, writes instructions to Penrose to assemble a sculpture, titled Le Baiser (The Kiss): ‘I’d like to have an object in the surrealist show if possible… you could make it for me as it is very simple. It is a beautiful wax hand, like [one in] a manicurist’s window standing up from the wrist, vertically, and on it I’d like a bracelet made of false teeth mounted in particularly false pink-coloured gums’. Penrose shows it alongside his own sculpture and works by René Magritte and Eileen Agar.
  12. -

    Penrose and Mesens take over the London Gallery on Cork Street, turning it into the main centre for surrealist activity in the UK. They launch the London Bulletin, a new art magazine, which showcases London Gallery exhibitions as well as those of Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery next door. Miller’s photographs appear in the journal.
  13. -

    Miller sails from Egypt to England, joining Penrose in London on the eve of war. She becomes a photographer for British Vogue, creating monthly fashion and society spreads that respond to wartime conditions.
  14. -

    The final major exhibition of the English Surrealist Group is Surrealism Today, which opens at Zwemmer Gallery just a week after the Dunkirk evacuation. The catalogue records a mixture of group members and those whose work was exhibited ‘by invitation’ – Miller included. Henry Moore’s carved Reclining Figure sculpture is displayed on a mat of hessian sackcloth on the floor. William Plomer in the New Statesman and Nation writes that he had heard of soldiers returning from Dunkirk and commenting on the exhibition, ‘This isn’t strange to us, it’s just like what we’ve been seeing over there.’
  15. -

    Miller’s private photographs of London transformed by the Blitz are published in Grim Glory: Pictures of Britain under Fire. The book proves highly popular, going through five editions between May and December that year. In these photographs, Miller draws on surrealist imagery, capturing the strangeness of streets transformed by bombing.
  16. -

    Miller receives accreditation as an official war correspondent with the US armed forces, initially documenting the Home Front in Britain.
  17. -

    Miller is the only female journalist in combat zones in Europe, documenting D-Day and the liberation of the concentration camps with photographs and accompanying essays published in British and American Vogue.
  18. -

    Miller gives birth to Antony, her son with Penrose.
  19. -

    Miller and Penrose acquire Farley Farm in Sussex, which becomes their home for the rest of their lives.
  20. -

    Miller contributes to The Wonder and Horror of the Human Head, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, co-founded by Roland Penrose in 1946, examining images of human heads across history. Miller stages the ‘scrapbook’ section, installing images from advertising, photojournalism, fashion magazines and art books, on shop-style carousels. Drawing attention to gendered ways of looking, and finding surprising similarities and disjunctions across diverse visual material, Miller’s radical approach prefigures the merging of high art and popular culture that defined pop art.
  21. -

    Miller’s photographs of visiting surrealist friends feature in Working Guests, Miller’s final assignment for Vogue in 1953. The article insists on the importance of putting one’s artist and curator friends to work on household chores, and is accompanied by photographs of influential figures in the art world such as Max Ernst planting corn in the garden, Alfred H Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, feeding the pigs and Henry Moore placing his sculpture Mother and Child.
  22. -

    Miller largely retired from photography until her death in 1977, while Penrose became one of Britain’s leading art historians and was knighted in 1966. Filled with their archives and art collections, Farley Farm remained a gathering place for several generations of international artists, and is now open to the public every Sunday (April – October) as a museum – www.farleyshouseandgallery.co.uk 

Cover image, Man Ray, A l’Heure de l’Observatoire – Les Amoureux, 1932–4/1970. Collection Clo and Marcel Fleiss, Paris, © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018. Telimage – 2018