The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor Artist and Lover
Ian Collins & Olivia Stewart
Decades before Format, the women’s photography agency, was set up in 1983 to represent female photographers, Joan Leigh Fermor (5 Feb 1912 - 4 June 2003) was one of a handful of ‘women photographers’ working in the UK. She fit the type -- most British women photographers of that era came from wealthy families. Joan certainly did. Hers was the world of finishing schools and debutante balls. Her husband often spent Christmas with the Devonshires at Chatsworth House, her father was a Tory MP, and the family was comfortably settled in a landed estate at Dumbleton in Worcestershire.
Name an artist or writer of the twentieth century and there’s a good chance they were connected to Joan Leigh Fermor. House parties were frequent and included people like John Betjeman, the Mitford sisters, Stephen Spender, Antonio Giacometti and Louis MacNeice to name but a few. Joan, often cited for her beauty and poise, seems to have collected hearts, and was known to be the ‘muse’ for at least four artists.
Her own history as an artist (though she never considered herself as such) is told in a beautiful new coffee table book The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor: Artist and Lover by Haus Press. The book includes many of the thousands of square format photographs unexhibited in her lifetime, and tells how most had been left in boxes, quite forgotten.
Originally a photographer hired for the National Buildings Record to document buildings at risk of being bombed in the war, she had the cover of The Architectural Review as early as 1939. She went on to document post-war damage in the UK ‘ghastly parodies of Greek ruins’ but by the 1950s she had met her husband Paddy Leigh Fermor (said to be the inspiration for James Bond), they had both fallen in love with Greece, and would spend much of their remaining lives there.
The collected photographs of Greece which make up most of the book include portraits, landscapes, as well as documentation of the site on which she and super secret agent and story teller Paddy Leigh Fermor were to build their house: an infamous retreat for artists and the well at heel. Despite her lofty start in life, Joan Leigh Fermor’s portraits show an affinity with their subjects; the lens finds an ease and naturality. The photographs of Greece are interesting as a collective record of a time when Greece was truly rural. Why then, one day, in her forties, did Joan Leigh Fermor suddenly stop taking pictures?
Writer Ian Collins and friend of Joan, Olivia Stewart, provide a fascinating and comprehensive insight into a woman most often understood in relation to her husband, but whose considerable contribution to the British photographic canon can no longer be overlooked. One to pack in your steamer trunk for the Grand Tour.
Meave Haughey is a short story writer based in Birmingham. Recent stories have been published in Comma Press’s The New Abject, and Forecast: New Writing from Birmingham, Doestoevsky Wannabe’s Love Bites: Fiction Inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks and in Birmingham, from the Doestoevsky Wannabe Cities series.
Find more of her writing at her blog Worth the Coming Home.
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