Published: 12:00AM BST 05 Jul 2003
Joan Leigh Fermor, who has died aged 91, created a remarkable house in southern Greece with her husband, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, which attracted a host of distinguished figures from the literary and social spheres.
Joan Leigh Fermor was a noted beauty, with a ready gift for company and a sharp intelligence; her friends and admirers included Maurice Bowra, Cyril Connolly, Stephen Spender, Giacometti, Lawrence Durrell, and what sometimes seemed like almost every figure from the literary and scholarly worlds who gathered around the Mediterranean after the Second World War. She was also one of the most distinguished amateur photographers of her generation, and provided the illustrations for several of her husband’s books.
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani (1958), an account of his travels with his wife in the southern Peloponnese, was illustrated with Joan’s photographs; eight years later, the couple produced Roumeli, devoted to the north of the country. In addition, Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Three Letters from the Andes (1991), an account of his mountaineering expedition 20 years earlier, were addressed to his wife. They provided a picture of the gentleman traveller, stoical in the face of all hardships (other than the preparation of a hard-boiled egg at altitude).
Joan Elizabeth Eyres Monsell was born on February 5 1912 at Dumbleton, Gloucestershire. Her father was Bolton Eyres Monsell, the Tory MP for South Worcestershire who went on to become Chief Whip and First Lord of the Admiralty before being created Viscount Monsell in 1935. He had added the name Eyres on his marriage to his wife (Caroline Mary) Sybil, who was lady of the manor and patroness of the living at Dumbleton.
Joan was educated at St James’s, Malvern, and at finishing schools in Paris and Florence. Afterwards she became keen on photography, concentrating – on the advice of her friend John Betjeman – on architectural studies. The first among these were published in Architecture Review; she went on to become a contributor to Horizon.
On the outbreak of war, Joan Monsell became a nurse, and also took photographs of architectural sites which were thought vulnerable to bombing. She then joined the cypher departments of the British embassies in Madrid, Algiers and then Cairo, where she became friendly with Lawrence Durrell, Robin Fedden and Charles Johnston, and where she met Patrick Leigh Fermor. From Cairo, she managed to escape on leave in order to travel in Kurdistan, before moving to Athens, where she became secretary to the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster.
Joan Leigh Fermor was passionately fond of cats, eight of which were settled about her her bed on her last morning. She was also addicted to chess, and kittens were reprimanded only if they had the temerity to muddle the pieces. She was accommodating, too, of her husband’s derring-do – though she watched him swim the Hellespont (at the age of 69) “sitting on her hands so as not to wring them”.
She died on June 4 after a fall in the Mani, where she and her husband had settled nearly half a century before, living in tents while constructing their home. The house, centred on a great room full of books (and often also music), stands on a wild peninsula on the southernmost tip of Greece, looking out on olive groves and cypresses toward the sea, against a backdrop of mountains. There the Leigh Fermors entertained many visitors, plying them with large quantities of wine and the sea-green olive oil from their own trees.
She married, first, in 1939, John Rayner, features editor of the Daily Express; but the match did not survive the war, and was dissolved in 1947. She married Patrick Leigh Fermor in 1968.
Billa Harrod writes: Joan and I met when we were both 18 and remained great friends for more than 70 years. Neither of us was quite the sort of daughter our mothers would have hoped for (luckily they had others). We were very lucky in our backgrounds of big comfortable houses – which we did not always treat as well as we should have, once breaking off an arm of a dignified candelabrum at Dumbleton. (Though when Joan’s father was First Lord of the Admiralty and they lived at Admiralty House in Whitehall, we did appreciate the beautiful fish furniture.)
Joan had more money than most of her friends and was quietly but largely generous when she saw that it would be helpful. She was beautiful and elegant, and also a highbrow, who had the highest standards, and did not suffer fools gladly. Although her actual schooling was rather feeble, she had read a vast amount and had an excellent memory. Music and literature were her real interests, but she was also a superb cook, and taught others to be. The food in her various houses was always delicious.
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