From 11 May to 5 June, The Fitzrovia Chapel will be home to the exhibition of photographs Lee Miller: Nurses. Coinciding with the Photo London fair (Somerset House 11-15 May) and held in conjunction with the Lee Miller Archives, the display forms part of the venue’s ongoing cultural programme relating to the history of the chapel as part of the former Middlesex Hospital.
Lee Miller: Nurses presents twelve of her images from World War II, focusing solely on nurses. It begins with a US army base in Oxford, then moves 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.
By the outbreak of war, Miller, still only in her early thirties had already had a colourful past. In her twenties she was the most sought after fashion model in 1920s New York. This was followed by a spell in Paris where she developed her skills as a photographer, as both muse and model to the surrealist artist Man Ray. Amongst Miller’s circle of friends were Pablo Picasso and fellow Surrealists Paul Eluard and Jean Cocteau, who was so mesmerized by Miller’s beauty that he coated her in butter and transformed her into a plaster cast of a classical statue for his film, The Blood of a Poet (1930).
Miller is best known for her pioneering photography reporting during World War II. She worked for Vogue magazine, initially photographing the devastation caused by the Blitz in London, and soon became their main fashion photographer. Miller was constantly drawn to covering a “woman’s story”. She photographed 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. She also could not help but bring her Surrealist eye to proceedings, and in particular, there is a wonderful image of a nurse with rows of surgical gloves being dried and sterilised.
One of Miller’s 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 she had been documenting, pointedly soiling the pristine bathmat.
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.
Lee Miller: Nurses, at The Fitzrovia Chapel, 2 Pearson Square, Fitzrovia, London W1T 3BF. Showing from 11 May to 5 June 2022. Open: 11am to 6pm Tuesday to Saturday; 12 noon to 5pm on Sunday. Closed Mondays and Sat 28, Sun 29 May and Wed 1 June. Admission Free.