Lee Miller: Nurses

Lee Miller: Nurses

Exhibition open to public 11 May – 5 June
Open Tuesday – Saturday 11-6 and Sunday 12-5
Closed Mondays and Sat 28, Sun 29 May and Wed 1 June

The Fitzrovia Chapel is proud to announce our exhibition Lee Miller: Nurses held in conjunction with the Lee Miller Archives, and forming part of our ongoing cultural programme relating to the history of the chapel as part of the former Middlesex Hospital.

Lee Miller is an iconic name in the world of photography and art, with a career that spans many realms from modelling to Surrealism to gourmet chef. She is most renowned, however, for her pioneering photography reporting on World War II. Lee Miller: Nurses presents 12 of her images from this period, focussing solely on nurses. We begin with a US army base in Oxford, then move to the front line in France, and then on into Austria and Germany. The images chosen celebrate the essential role of nurses in this period and explore the spectrum of friendship, romance, daily life and tragedy of these women at war.

At the advent of World War II in 1939, Lee Miller had just arrived in London with her British artist husband Roland Penrose. Her desire to become involved leads her to Vogue magazine and she began by photographing the Blitz in London and soon became their main fashion photographer. In 1942 she became accredited with the US army and after D-Day on 6 June 1944, she went to France to report from the front. Her accreditation as a war correspondent gave Miller access to be able to record the efforts of the women in the armed forces and other war efforts. The first article she wrote and photographed for British Vogue was nurses at a US army base in Oxford. Miller was constantly being drawn to covering a ‘woman’s story’. She photographed these American nurses at work – in their uniforms and in the operating theatre – and at play, with an off-duty nurse sidling up to a soldier in a phone booth. Although she was there to document daily life at the base, she also could not help but bring her Surrealist eye to proceedings, and in particular with the wonderful image of a nurse with rows of surgical gloves being dried and sterilised.

Her first article in Europe just after D-Day was on the same theme, reporting on American nurses at the 44th Evacuation field hospital in France, and was published in both British and US Vogue. Here she captured the daily life of nurses further. This time conditions in the field were harder but she showed their resourcefulness and resilience as they went about their ablutions outside or took part in operations in makeshift hospital tents. There were also depictions of nurses in positions of power, with Lt Gertrude Van Kirk, a prominent US nurse, signing the manifest for US charges that were stable enough to be evacuated to England.

In her next European article, which represented her first combat scoop in Saint Malo, there are images of German prisoner-of-war nurses chatting or pushing their belongings along the road in a cart. Miller was present at key moments in the close of the war including the siege of Saint Malo, the liberation of Paris, and the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Dachau. One of her most famous images is her sitting in Hitler’s bath tub in his apartment in Munich in 1945 on the day he killed himself, with her dirty boots from the concentration camps pointedly soiling the pristine bathmat. Throughout her time reporting for Vogue, she kept up a regular correspondence with British Vogue’s editor Audrey Withers, who was tasked with editing reams of candid and dynamic writing on what Lee had witnessed and the selection of often extremely difficult to view images. Miller’s most heart-breaking image in the exhibition is of a nurse standing over a bed in a children’s hospital in Vienna in 1945, Miller wrote: ‘For an hour I watched a baby die.’ Neither US or British Vogue published the article. For the exhibition Lee’s granddaughter Ami Bouhassane, will provide an accompanying audio to the images by reading aloud excerpts of Lee’s writing from the Vogue articles and her notebook.

The Fitzrovia Chapel was originally built as part of the Middlesex Hospital, and for decades was a place of respite and contemplation for medical staff, patients and visitors alike. The Middlesex was also a medical school where many doctors and nurses trained, and as such was the site of many formative friendships and memories for its alumni. When the hospital was closed in 2005, the chapel was saved from demolition because of its Grade II* listed status. It reopened in 2015 as a charity with one of its remits being for the promotion of culture and history for the community. As such our exhibition programme focuses on subjects that either directly or indirectly relate to The Middlesex Hospital or Fitzrovia. Lee Miller: Nurses seeks to draw parallels and connections of Miller’s images of nurses with the legacy of the hospital and the community of nurses at the Middlesex.

To support the work of The Fitzrovia Chapel and the Lee Miller Archives, there will be a new platinum print edition available of the image US Army nurse drying sterilised rubber gloves, Churchill Hospital, Oxford, England, 1943. Available in an edition of 10 at the exhibition, the first edition will also be part of the online Photographs sale at Sotheby’s 13-19 May 2022, where it will be auctioned along with the cut up negative of the image. The physical print and negative will be on display for the duration of the auction at Sotheby’s.

Please email madeleine@fitzroviachapel.org for press details and about our press night.

The exhibition is free and you don’t need a ticket.
The public programme includes talks and tours of the exhibition as well as events that relate to the themes of the exhibition. Please see our What’s On page for details. On 17 May, we present a free talk: Lee Miller: Legacy and Archive with Ami Bouhassane and Brandei Estes. You can book your free ticket on Eventbrite. On 31 May, we invite you to Lee Miller: A Woman at Work and War with Katy Hessel and Ami Bouhassane. You can book your low-cost ticket here.

Photo credit: Lee Miller, US Army nurse drying sterilised rubber gloves Churchill Hospital Oxford England 1943 © Lee Miller Archives England 2022. All rights reserved. leemiller.co.uk