The Road is Wider than Long. An Image Diary from the Balkans, July–August 1938. By Roland Penrose
One summer's day a few years ago I visited Farley Farm House, the former home of the photographer Lee Miller and her husband Roland Penrose. After an intimate tour of their lives and art by their son and grand-daughter, Tony and Amy, I left fascinated by a little book penned by Roland – what he called an 'image diary'. I found his use of photographs to create a narrative, a paean to his then new love, Lee, compelling.
Lee was a remarkable photographer and a master of her craft – whether shooting fashion for Vogue or documenting the horrors of Dachau concentration camp as a war correspondent. She wielded her camera with the eye of a Surrealist and the brutal precision of a sniper.
Roland was a painter not a photographer. Individually, the photographs in The Road is Wider than Long reflect this: they are holiday snaps that simply record what he saw without pretension – just aide-mémoires. But Roland, in creating this book, has made them much more: intertwined with the words of a poem, his photographs become infused with meaning, expressing his passion for Lee as they explored the Balkans. This, to me, is the essence of photography: its ability to tell a story, to communicate.
Photographs seem increasingly judged on their technical merit – witness the need, the obsession, to have the most up-to-date digital camera and the sharpest lens. Roland’s book reminds us that photography is more than just aesthetics and technology. His book affirms the importance of context: how photographs are presented profoundly affects their meaning.
▲ A spread from Roland's book, The Road is Wider than Long.
Roland created the original handmade version of The Road is Wider than Long in 1938, on his return to England after his travels with Lee in the Balkans; 80 years later, it is still in Lee and Roland’s home – Farley Farm House in Chiddingly, East Sussex.
A printed edition of 510 (ten signed and with an original drawing) was produced by Gallery Editions a year later in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. This first edition is rare and costly. However, two later editions are widely available. The Arts Council of Great Britain published a second edition in 1980 (as a run of 3000) for Roland’s first retrospective exhibition; and the third edition was created in 2003 by the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles to coincide with a major exhibition of Lee's work, Surrealist Muse.
The first edition is a hardback with a balsa-wood veneer. The second edition has a printed cover and a new introduction, but is otherwise identical to the first. The third edition is also a facsimile of the original book, but a special one: it is a reproduction of the copy that Roland gave to Lee, and differs from the other copies in that he added drawings and annotations.
I bought a copy of the second edition, and discovered that it had a poignant handwritten dedication ''for Roy'', and Roland's signature. Intrigued, I scoured the web to find out more about the book and its inscription. ''Roy'' was likely Roy Edwards, a writer and Surrealist poet and collagist who had been a close friend of Roland and Lee since the end of the Second World War. I didn't uncover much more, just that he worked at the London Gallery when it reopened in 1945, and helped Roland write his autobiography.
And this is how Roland's book came to be…
It's July 1938. Europe is preparing for war; and Lee Miller and Roland Penrose arrive in Athens, about to embark on two journeys. One is their love affair – they first met the previous summer in France, but have been apart since. The other is an idyllic exploration of Greece, Bulgaria and Romania – lands soon to be transformed forever by war and progress.
Two months later they separate, she to her home in Egypt, he to England. One journey has ended but the other continues.
Back in London, Roland created a book for Lee: a poetic commentary in photographs and words on their travels and his love for her. The following June, Lee left Egypt to spend the rest of her life with Roland.
Four decades later, in 1980, Roland had his book reprinted to accompany an exhibition of his art, with the addition of a new line: ''The road was wider than long''. He dedicated one copy to a close friend, Roy Edwards, writing in it
This apparition with perfumes of the past and love
An evocation of Lee ... She had died just three years earlier in 1977, aged 70, quietly passing away one summer morning, held tightly in Roland's arms – almost exactly 40 years after the sunlight-dappled picnics in the South of France where they first met.
A few years later, in 1984, Roland died too, aged 84. It was Lee's birthday, 23 April.
My copy of Roland’s book, inscribed and signed by him, with Lee’s autograph below.