Living art

9th May 2008 at 01:00
Farley Farm is an exceptional place where pupils cannot fail to be inspired by the Surrealist work and the stories of how it got there. Fiona Leney tells of her brush with fame
Farley Farm is an exceptional place where pupils cannot fail to be inspired by the Surrealist work and the stories of how it got there. Fiona Leney tells of her brush with fame

In the cosily, messy kitchen, above an ancient Aga, a cheery face painted on to a tile in primary colours smiles down like a child's masterpiece. Except that this is a Picasso, and this is Farley Farm House, once home to the Surrealist movement in England, and now using its heritage to try to make art relevant and exciting to pupils, whether they are artists or not.

Picasso pen and ink sketches hang above the breakfast table, which looks as if the occupants might have just got up and rushed out, while a collection of truly surreal objects, such as stuffed owls, African artefacts and a wooden ship's figurehead jostle for space in the hallway and corridors.

In the study, where the light floods in through French windows from a garden filled with daffodils and sculptures, hangs an extraordinary painting. A serene young woman looks tenderly down at her pregnant belly, which the artist has painted as a blue orb, within which floats a little green stick man.

"That's me," says Antony Penrose, the son of Lee Miller, the American photographer, and Roland Penrose, the leading English Surrealist painter of his day. "My father painted it."

Artwork is displayed at Farley Farm more or less where it was created - there is none of the reverential stuffiness of a traditional museum. When the Penroses lived here, they counted the leading artists of their day as friends. Artists who came to stay included Picasso, Joan Miro, Max Ernst and Paul Eluard, and they left mementos, such as the smiley face tile above the Aga, of their stay.

It makes a visit to this pretty Sussex farmhouse near Lewes, guided by members of the Penrose family, particularly inspiring for children, who can hear stories behind the creation of the paintings that hang here.

Last year the Victoria and Albert Museum in London celebrated the centenary of Lee Miller's birth with an exhibition of her work. Although the archive was busy lending photographs and artefacts, the spotlight never quite shone on the educational activities that have been developed around them.

Lee Miller was not only a great peacetime photographer, but also accompanied US troops into Germany at the end of the war, and documented the opening of Belsen concentration camp. Her story links to the visual arts on display at the house, touching on themes of history, society and the role of women in her day, a theme continued in workshops titled "My Granny" and "My Grandad", which Antony's daughter, Ami Bouhassane, takes to schools in the area.

The presentations, run for key stage 1 and 2 pupils, can be practical too, with portrait workshops that compare conventional representation with Surrealist works and then let children have a go at creating their own pictures. "Talking about my experiences of Surrealist art and how I discovered Surrealist techniques as a child helps contextualise the experience and make it more real for the pupils," Ami says.

"Even young children get a huge buzz out of these artworks, although there are one or two that we do move if primary schools are coming." She indicates a priapic bronze statuette of eye-catching (literally, if you're the height of a seven-year-old) proportions.

School heads are invited to visit before any planned trip, to ensure that there is nothing on display to offend sensitivities.

Four years ago, Antony realised that Farley Farm's educational work was limited both by the nature of the house itself - which can only hold a maximum of 15 children on tour at a time - and by funds.

So a separate public trust was set up in 2004, run by Ian Chance, who already had experience setting up school art programmes in Suffolk, to raise funds and expand the educational outreach, using the Penrose legacy as its base.

Ambitious plans were drawn up to convert the barn in the farmyard into an arts centre that could serve the whole region, and the Farley's Yard Trust has introduced a programme with workshops, arts projects and educational visits.

Funding, however, remains a problem. It costs pound;7.50 per child to visit the house, and plans such as joint projects and exhibitions can be organised only as money becomes available. Despite this, a partnership with 12 heads of art in East Sussex schools has been formed and the annual Farley's arts awards and exhibition for young people set up.

The programme gives GCSE and A-level art and design pupils the opportunity to have their work professionally mounted and shown - last year the exhibition was held in the barn at Farley. Two pieces of art are then selected from the exhibition to hang in the house alongside the work of Picasso and Penrose. Local teachers are enthusiastic.

"It is impossible to overstate how much this has meant to our art students. There's nothing else like it - it's been so inspiring for them," says Clare Simmons, head of art at Uckfield Community College, one of the schools that took part in the awards.

"Puffalump", a textile bust of a girl swathed in bandages, is the work of one of Uckfield's A-level students, and is placed in the study next to Roland Penrose's portrait of his pregnant wife.

"Having the house opened to us, and being able to see the context in which art was created is invaluable. You cannot talk of art and design without putting it into its social and moral context. The syllabus now puts a lot of emphasis on analysis, and a resource like this makes it more real," she says.

Having the resource locally is a bonus. "Usually you have to get the train to London to see important artwork. That's extra money and time, which for rural schools is a problem," Clare says.

Lack of funding means that the future of the educational programme is hanging by a thread, with uncertainty even over whether money can be found for the arts awards this year. "It costs pound;10,000 to mount the awards, and these sorts of activities depend on securing sponsorship piecemeal," Ian says.

"Funding is being sucked into the cities, and it's a bad time for rural arts. There seems to be no concept that children are enthused by, and respond to, seeing art where it was created.

"Studying art for exams is an introspective activity, while displaying it in a public space, and viewing what others have done is an extrovert, creative act."

Rosemary Colebourn, the Farley's Yard Trust's education adviser, tells of a Creative Partnerships project (a scheme funded by the Arts Council to encourage schools to look at how the arts can stimulate other curriculum subjects), recently run with nearby Willingdon School.

"Pupils looked at Lee Miller photos as part of their work on the Second World War, then they went to Farley's to see the art and artefacts she was surrounded by and used. From this they produced poems and DVDs about the experience," she says.

"It was inspiring and a model for how the house could be used to enrich education for children across the whole area. The problem is setting up the infrastructure, and the funding."

Dawn Johnson, curriculum leader for creative and expressive arts at Chailey School near Uckfield, which took part in the awards project, says the loss of the scheme would be a tragedy.

"The awards give pupils access to a public exhibition space - it's an enormous boost for them. Farley's Yard is an artistic engine for schools throughout the area," she says.

For more information on how to set up partnerships between schools and artistic resources, email Ian Chance at: Visit


Surrealism reached its heyday in Paris between the Twenties and Thirties, but continued long afterwards to influence painters, photographers, writers and film-makers.

In its most familiar form, its paintings feature an element of surprise, unexpected or shocking groupings of objects and impossible situations.

The best-known Surrealist images are those of Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte (remember the picture "This is not a pipe"?), but they joined a group already dominated by Andre Breton, the writer, Max Ernst, the painter and Man Ray, the photographer.

Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso joined the fringes of the group, but always maintained their own distinct styles. What makes the movement so rewarding for teachers is that it is bold, exciting, and provocative. And, because the work is figurative, if bizarre, it is accessible - pupils get enormous satisfaction from thinking up their own interpretation of what the artist is trying to express.

"Pupils don't have to be great artists to try to create their own Surrealist work - you don't need to be able to "do" perspective or proportion. Because they have to bring their own interpretation to the images, they get a lot out of it, and love discussing the dream-like images," says Dawn Johnson, curriculum leader for creative and expressive arts at Chailey School, near Uckfield.

Surrealism spread into every area of life at a time of enormous social upheaval, so it is also a useful tool for examining other curriculum areas, such as history or literature.

And one last clinching argument: Surrealists were the original angry young men, appalled by the First World War and believing that established conventions, whether artistic or social, had to be overturned - this, if nothing else, never fails to appeal to stroppy Year 9s.

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