A Sussex Connection: Eiderdown Books and Lee Miller

Sussex Modern Stories  |  5 minutes read

Harriet Olsen is the founder of independent Sussex-based publishers, Eiderdown Books. If you haven’t already heard of them, their books about female artists are written by leading female writers, art historians and cultural commentators. Harriet joins us to talk about how Eiderdown Books was created, and to tell us more about the artist Lee Miller – the focus of one of the books in the popular Modern Women Artist series – the surrealist artist-photographer who settled here in Sussex with her husband, fellow artist Roland Penrose. If you haven’t already been to visit, a trip to their eclectically decorated home, Farleys House and Galley, ought to be at the top of your list before they close their doors for winter.

The idea for Eiderdown Books started over a bottle of wine at the kitchen table of our Sussex home a little over two years ago. I’d worked in museums and galleries for more than a decade and produced numerous books about a multitude of artists who were working in the first half of the twentieth century. But I could count on one hand the number of books I’d made about female artists over those years. Within a few months, this bubble of an idea – to make books only about female artists and thereby ‘balance the bookshelves’ – had grown legs and arms and wings, and finally started to turn into a ‘real’ business once we had given it a name.

I’m often asked why we are called Eiderdown Books but it came from a very simple idea: eiderdowns are quilts which traditionally take the breast feathers of female eider ducks, extracted from their nests in the wild and stuffed into a material casing to end up in a bedroom. If we were going to be a publisher who foregrounded women artists – who throughout history have been overlooked, ignored and often relegated to domestic interior spaces like the bedroom – then the eiderdown was a neat metaphor for this endeavour.

I wanted to produce books that were pick-up-able. No intimidating coffee table books for us! I’m much more interested in the kind of friendly, ‘Ladybird’ book we are all familiar with from childhood. So our books all have lots of large, full page images with an accompanying text which is understandable and accessible, even if you’ve never heard of this particular artist before.

Lee Miller, Egypt 1939 by Roland Penrose. © Lee Miller Archives, England 2020. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk

When it came to deciding which artists to include in our collectable series called ‘Modern Women Artists’, Lee Miller was an absolute must; I had too often read about her only through the lens of the men in her life: her relationships, affairs and marriages. I wanted to foreground her as an artist in her own right, not just a model and muse but as a world-class photographer who took extraordinary images of key moments in the early twentieth century.

Miller’s involvement with the Surrealists is how she came to live in East Sussex in 1949. It also offered her a sanctuary from the horrors of war she had witnessed and documented in her photographs. Her home at Farleys is a treasure trove of artworks from artist friends who visited Miller and her husband the surrealist artist Roland Penrose. Above the kitchen aga is a tile painted and given to the couple by Picasso, in the dining room, living room, and throughout the house hang works by a roster of artists including Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Man Ray, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning.

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