Credit: Courtesy Joan Leigh Fermor/Haus Publishing
Found photos offer a window into postwar travel and glamour
They were discovered in shoeboxes and old folders tucked away in a bedroom cupboard in Greece after her death: an extraordinary forgotten archive of more than 5,000 photographs. Joan Leigh Fermor sometimes referred to her own work as "snaps," but she was a far better photographer than she knew.
She is usually only remembered as the muse of a famous writer, her husband, Patrick Leigh Fermor. But the discovery and conservation of her archive is very likely to change all that.
Fifteen years after her death, she is the subject of a new book and an accompanying exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens, both the book and exhibition are entitled "The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor: Artist and Lover." Shot in black and white on a high-end Rolleiflex camera, the photographs are carefully composed and simply beautiful. In a pre-digital age, she clearly didn't waste a frame.
The largely unseen archive is a postwar record of travels across Europe, of marriage, friendships and an abiding love of her adopted homeland, Greece, and its peoples. We have the Aegean, the Greek landscape and its ancient sites before mass tourism, Delphi and Epidaurus empty of visitors. We have visiting friends: Margot Fonteyn and Freddy Ashton limber up with morning barre exercises using the handrail on a yacht; Fonteyn, asleep, stretched out in the sun, is utterly natural in her nakedness.
And of course, there is Joan's spirited husband, Paddy, the great Anglo Irishman who could happily sing and recite in Greek and multiple other languages. At one moment, he's dancing down stone steps, at another, contemplating the Aegean, heroically and athletically bronzed in shorts. Often, there is cigarette between his fingers. We have Greek villagers, wrestlers, musicians, potters and fishermen; a cobbler outside his shop, a traveling entertainer with his dancing bear, the skeleton of a wooden fishing boat under construction.
Olivia Stewart, coauthor of the new book, detects "an extraordinary stillness" in the pictures. An old family friend and regular visitor to the Leigh Fervor home -- a wonderful stone house the couple built by the sea in Mani in Greece -- it was Stewart who first who discovered the photographs in Joan's bedroom cupboard in 2003. Quickly realizing their importance, she packed them into an old Globe-Trotter suitcase and took them back to England. They've since been donated to the National Library of Scotland and have been properly conserved.
With the book and exhibition, Stewart said, "I wanted Joan to have the recognition as the artist she was."
On her passport and marriage certificate, Joan Leigh Fermor wrote "photographer" as her profession. She was active between the 1940s and 1960s taking photos for her husband's books and receiving commissions from magazines like Horizon and the Architectural Review. But at some point, in her late 40s, she simply stopped taking pictures. We don't know why, but, if Joan had a true vocation, it was probably looking after Paddy. By her own choice, he came first.
But all these years later, Joan Leigh Fermor is finally and quietly stepping out of her husband's shadow and perhaps for the first time. Were she alive, she would likely be doing so reluctantly. She was naturally reticent about herself and her talent. Stewart thinks Joan would be "very pleased by the beauty of the photos and horrified by the attention."
For almost 60 years, the Leigh Fermors were a handsomely striking couple with a gift for friendship. She died aged 91 in 2003; he followed her in 2011, aged 96. They are buried side by side at Dumbleton Hall, her family seat in Worcestershire.
Paddy Leigh Fermor was an intrepid traveler, heroic soldier and, above all, a revered travel writer. Joan was muse not only to Paddy, but to many others including Giacometti, Balthus and novelist Lawrence Durrell. (Her blonde hair, cut short, led Durrell to refer to her as the "Corn Goddess.") In their separate ways, Paddy and Joan both cast a spell.
Now both Leigh Fermors have a legacy: Paddy left us his writing, Joan left us her photographs. They also left us their Greek house. It is now being prepared to become a retreat for writers and artists