, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

the photographs of joan leigh fermorThe Patrick Leigh Fermor industry has been busier since his death than he ever was in his lifetime. This year alone we have had a wonderful exhibition at the British Museum devoted to Leigh Fermor, Niko Ghika and John Craxton; which was in turn accompanied by an even more wonderful book, which to my mind is a model of what a book associated with an exhibition should be like. And now Ian Collins and Olivia Stewart have produced The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor: Artist and Lover. (Personally, I could have done without the somewhat saccharine quality of that subtitle; but then I could have done without much of the account of her life that occupies rather too much of this book, particularly since so much of it is devoted to telling us, repeatedly, how devoted she was to Paddy, and by extension how wonderful Paddy was.)

Joan Eyres Monsell, who became Joan Rayner before she became Joan Leigh Fermor, was almost a cliche. She came from the sort of family that makes Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited seem rather common and lower class. Her immediate ancestors include a member of Gladstone’s cabinet, a Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police, a polar explorer, a First Lord of the Admiralty, a hymn writer, and, of course, a Baron. They were rich, influential, massive landowners, and residents of a stately home in the Cotswolds, Dumbleton Hall. She was the archetypal rebellious daughter of privilege, moving in artistic circles, friends with Cyril Connolly and John Betjeman and Lucien Freud and Freddy Ayer and Kenneth Clark and Osbert Lancaster and so on, and sleeping around with those of them who weren’t gay. When she married the journalist John Rayner in the late-1930s, he was monogamous, she wasn’t; the marriage did not last. And Joan helped to cement her position in this bohemian set by using her wealth, buying art from the artists, offering support for those who needed it.

Yet at this time she was also establishing a career for herself as a photographer. Her photographs appeared, often uncredited, in several of the Shell Guides that Betjeman was editing, also in the magazine Architectural Review, and in various other books and magazines. At the outbreak of the Second World War she was commissioned to photograph the heritage that was considered most at risk from German bombs, though with the onset of the Blitz this turned into a record of the damage done, her work appearing magazines like Horizon. As well as her photographic work, she served briefly as a nurse, and then trained to become a cipher clerk, being posted to Algiers, then paddyMadrid, and finally in 1944 to Cairo, where she met Paddy. (It somehow confirms things I’d begun to suspect from my other reading about Leigh Fermor to see him described here not just as charming, but as “indecisive, impractical and clumsy.”) They met again, after the war, in Greece, and began the romance that, in all I’ve read, seems to subsume everything else about her.

She continued to take photographs for various magazines for the next few years, but most of her work was to support Paddy’s journeys around Greece to research his books, Mani and Roumeli. Then, sometime around 1960, she simply stopped being a professional photographer. She had always been dismissive of her own talents, referring to her photographs simply as snaps, and from then on seemed to have largely reserved her photography for recording the house and Kardamyli that she and Paddy were building (mostly with her inheritance). Which is a pity, on the evidence here she was, at her best, quite a remarkable photographer.

greek villagersShe used, practically throughout her life, a Rolleiflex taking a square 6×6 negative. To show them at their best, the book is (almost) square, with the photographs placed in the middle of a grey page. It is a presentation that I find benefits the photographs while at the same time being frustrating to the viewer. I’ll come to the frustrations in a moment, but first let me just extol the pictures themselves. The early ones are haunting evocations of war-damaged London: an arched gateway set within fragments of wall at Haberdasher’s Hall, with nothing else standing, and in the foreground snow piling on the rubble before the gate; a barrage balloon floating almost directly above the tower of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s seen from the grime of Limehouse Cut. There are too few of these, then suddenly we are in Greece and the character of the photographs has changed dramatically. Some are almost abstract: square blocks of an old village standing above a winding pattern of terraces like one of Ghika’s landscapes; a small family of goats plodding wearily up a zigzag stairway clinging precariously to a cliffside. Some are touristy: the Lion Gate at Mycenae, the ruins at Delphi, archetypal orthodox churches almost disappearing into rugged landscapes. Some really are family snaps: Paddy, of course, dancing among ruins or gazing moodily into the distance; and friends like Xan Fielding and Lawrence Durrell and John Craxton. There’s a wonderful series of margot fonteyn & Freddy Ashtonphotographs of Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton performing dance exercises on the deck of a caique, using the ship’s rail as a bar; and there is a beautiful picture of Fonteyn sunbathing nude. But it is the photographs of rural life in Greece that are so wonderful: a muezzin calling out from a ramshackle wooden platform; craggy-faced shepherds in baggy pantaloons grasping crooks taller than they are; clusters of women in traditional costume; an old soldier with a long white beard and his rifle; young men clustered round a ricketty table in a crumbling kafeneion; the ribs of a boat that is being built but that looks like the skeleton of some long-dead sea monster. These are amazing glimpses of something alien and yet extraordinarily human.

I could, quite frankly, have done with less of the life of Joan Leigh Fermor that fills out the last 80-odd pages of this book, and more of the photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor. This is little more than a fragment of her output, after all. At one point there is one of her contact sheets, showing 12 pictures that are not otherwise included in the book. One of these shows a young woman in a floral print dress standing in a barren landscape, but with what looks like the skull of a horse over her head. That is a photograph I want to see full size, that is a photograph I want to examine more closely, that is a photograph I want to see explained.

But there is one of the problems I have with this book. The photographs are displayed, in the main, one to a page. There is nothing else on the page, nothing to distract from the picture, except a small white page number. There are no captions, no information about what we are seeing, until you turn right to the back of the book where you will find a list of photographs. Typically, what this tells you is as follows:

62  Margot Fonteyn
64  Corfu
65  PLF, Corfu
66  Phaestos
69  PLF, Kameiros, Rhodes

And that’s it, that’s all we get to know. This is not particularly fulsome information, there isn’t even a date. Admittedly, this seems to have been Joan Leigh Fermor’s fault, as a note at the head of this list says: “Unless Joan Leigh Fermor made a not of where a photograph was taken on the contact sheet, the location was not recorded.” As for dates, all we are told was that the London photographs date from 1940-41, and the rest between the 1940s and 1960s. It’s frustrating; many of the photographs are timeless, but those of rural Greek life are not, they are specific to a time and a place, and I suspect a lot of them are tied to particular local events and practices.

These are, for the most part, wonderful photographs and I could spend a lot of time looking at them. But they do leave me wanting to know more.