A few lifetimes ago, I was in Falmouth, Cornwall, with several hours to kill and so found myself in a small room, looking at some of the most extraordinary and arrestingly beautiful photographs I had ever seen.
In 2004, Anthony Penrose, son of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, discovered a cache of photographs taken on holiday in 1937; his parents had taken a house at Lambe Creek on the River Fal and invited a bunch of friends - artists, poets, some wanted by the police, others by furious fathers.
The black and white images, some snapped, some carefully staged, were taken mainly by Roland Penrose, and heavily feature his wife, the traumatised, troubled and talented Lee Miller. At that time she was already a successful surrealist and commercial photographer, whose later images as war correspondent for Vogue were some of the most harrowing and important photographs taken during and in the aftermath of World War II, including the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. Read this. You will be transfixed.
It was a tiny, delightfully curated exhibition; the photos were simply mounted and I felt as though I were pottering about a sunny house, nosing at the holiday snaps of almost all my artistic and poetic heroes.
For three weeks, with Europe on the brink of war, they ate, drank, slept, quarrelled, took lovers, swam and fished in sunny creative bliss - the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard and his wife Nusch, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, Henry Moore and Eduard Mesens all turned up at some point to join the poets, artists, photographers, sculptors and writers.
They looked like they were having a ball - Lee larks happily in many of them. In one photo she is backlit, her pale hair haloed against the sun as she hangs from an upstairs window, in another she demurely pours tea from a silver pot, dressed in dowager tweeds. The groups laugh; wreathed in smoke, they lie across one another on deck chairs, on grassy slopes, on slumpy chintz armchairs. Max Ernst has wrapped his head in what seems to be freshly-sheared sheep's wool and embraces Lee. They look naughty, silly, frequently drunk, bursting with creative spirt, their love of the surreal and ridiculous evident in every shot.
The most compelling photograph was of an open-air picnic; two topless women and three men - shocking for its time, it is the faces which intrigue me the most; expressing open joy, bashfulness, eroticism, thoughtfulness. The rough low table bears empty plates, bottles, glasses. There are huge cushions to lie on; the sun dapples through the woods. It has become a well-known image, but at that time, I had never seen anything like it. My fascination and admiration for Miller, as I have learned more about over over the last decade, has mushroomed.
I have seen many exhibitions of Miller's work since. I even attended a surreal dinner hosted by her thoughtful, charming son and featuring some of the mad dishes she created in her later years, when food became her obsession. But for me, the images mounted simply on the walls of that simple little room in Cornwall, were the sweetest and most seductive introduction to an artistic movement that I can imagine.
I'm not sure when Paul Eluard wrote the poem below, but I think it captures Lee's essence perfectly.
For the splendour of the day of happinesses in the air
To live the taste of colours easily
To enjoy loves so as to laugh
To open eyes at the final moment
She has every willingness.