It’s a long time since we had a Daily Mail article on here to raise the tone, so I thought I’d correct that (!!!) and the lack of features about Simon Fenwick’s book about Joan.
Which rather lucky woman managed to catch and keep hold of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the dashing travel writer who, while in Crete during World War II, famously managed to kidnap a Nazi general and was awarded an OBE for his heroism?
It was a woman called Joan. Not the most exotic of first names, but Joan Eyres Monsell, born in 1912, the daughter of Sir Bolton and Lady Eyres Monsell of Dumbleton Hall, Worcestershire, was not only stunningly pretty — ‘a beautiful ideal, with the perfect bathing dress, the most lovely face, the most elaborate evening dress’, as one suitor described her — she also stood out from the upper-class beauties of her day in that she supplemented her mean rich father’s allowance by earning her living.
She, like Leigh Fermor, was a roaming spirit, and the two beautiful people were, this book shows us, made for each other.
Read more here.
Buy Joan: The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor by Simon Fenwick
Like you, I was a little surprised at the lack of reaction to the Joan Leigh Fermor biography. I has been anticipating Fenwick’s book, not only because of the connection with PLF, but also hoping for an insight into Joan as a photographer. Having read the book and looked at other sources I have tried to draw out an appreciation of Joan’s photography – this is on my blog at http://brianhuman.co.uk/wp/joan-leigh-fermor/. I have copied below a few paragraphs from the longer article.
Joan Leigh Fermor has footnotes in the history of the 20th Century as the daughter of a rich and well-connected family, as a confidante of notable literary figures and as the wife of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Her footnotes should also include her now little-known photography: her obituary in the Telegraph in 2003 said she was ‘one of the most distinguished amateur photographers of her generation’. Simon Fenwick has expanded the footnotes into a biography, Joan – The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor. It reveals something of her photographic life, which is my main interest.
Joan’s photography concentrates on a conventional range of subjects suitable as editorial illustration for a range of publications. She tackles architecture and landscape satisfactorily, with overall sound composition and brings out the essential elements of the subjects. Among the best pictures are those where she poses and presents figures in a landscape or townscape, both subjects reinforcing each other and capturing something of the harmony between the two. There is some evidence that she had a good eye for detail and the quirky. Her portraits are largely unexceptional and can seem stiff and conventional. She is least successful with informal documentary style pictures where she lacks the confidence and instinct required to capture the moments that shows people naturally. Overall the impression is of a competent photographer, who has made valuable historical records of places, but not one able to get under the surface and reveal her subjects in new ways. Photographs of her friends, of the creative circles in which she mixed, evoke a particular era.
The limits to her work and her casual attitude combine to diminish Joan’s photographic legacy. Pictures thrown up by web searches, if relevant at all, concentrate of Paddy – Joan’s work from her assignments and travels are entirely absent. Modern paperback editions of Mani and Roumeli do not include photographs. In Fenwick’s biography two-thirds of the photographs are not by Joan, of the 17 that are two thirds are ‘snaps’ of partners and friends.
What Joan earned from photography was only ever a supplement to her private income. She was at best semi-professional, unlike her more widely recognised contemporaries such as Helen Muspratt, Barbara Ker-Seymer and Elizabeth Tudor Hart. Insofar as it is possible for me to judge from the limited amount of material available outside the archive, she was a good amateur and the Telegraph’s use of that word is justified. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that her relative financial independence and the doors opened for her by friends, lovers and husbands reinforced a casual attitude and a failure to develop the range of skills required of a professional photographer. Photography was not a passion.
Fenwick’s biography is an interesting and enjoyable read and provides a wealth of detail on Joan’s adventurous life. It’s biggest failing, for me, is that it does not lead to a better understanding of Joan as a photographer – the chance to showcase her work at its best is missed completely. As a consequence that footnote is only a minor one and Joan remains a vague, if attractive, muse to the men who so often dominate the story Fenwick tells.
Best wishes and keep up the good work.