The Fitzrovia Chapel's exhibition Lee Miller: Nurses was held in conjunction with the Lee Miller Archives from 10 May - 5 June 2022, and formed part of the 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 thirteen of her images from this period and two contact sheets, focussing solely on nurses. We begin with a US army base in Oxford in 1943, then move to the front line in France in 1944, and then on into Austria and Germany in 1945. 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. The catalogue presents all the images in the exhibition alongside the transcripts of both Vogue articles and excerpts from her manuscripts and diaries. There is also an insightful interview with Lee's granddaughter Ami Bouhassane about Lee's work and relation to the Nurses series.
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 lead 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 in 1943. 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 a 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 in 1944. 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 back 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 some 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 of herself 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 the editing of 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.
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 it 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 with Miller’s images of nurses with the legacy of the hospital and the community of nurses at the Middlesex.