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Joan Leigh Fermor met her husband, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, in Cairo in the 1940s. The future author of seminal travel works such as A Time to Keep Silence and The Traveller’s Tree was smitten with the encounter and duly followed Joan to Athens. They lived a fairly utopian life, travelling around Greece together while each one worked on their own creative projects. Eventually, they settled in a beautiful house that they built together in Kardamyli in the Mani where Joan and Patrick remained until she died on June 4, 2003.
Historically, it has been her husband who has received the mass of critical attention, while Joan’s work has remained in the shadows. Such a lack of attention is woeful as throughout the couple’s travels around Greece, Leigh Fermor’s camera was never far from hand. The photographer documented the country as intimately as her husband evoked it in prose, capturing the landscape and the people they encountered. Through her works, the photographer conveyed the soul of Greece. Her black-and-white photographs wonderfully capture the contrasts of light and shadow, the nuances of the landscape in which beauty and menace often mix. The series of photos is a testament to their adventures, and the thoughtful, precise approach to her work is wholly compelling.
Unsurprisingly, Joan Leigh Fermor photographed her husband often. Throughout their travels, candid portraits show the author smiling and posing against historical sites and landscapes, at ease in the country that he found so much inspiration in. They did collaborate. Her portraits of Greece rank in the thousands, yet aside from a few appearances in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books Mani and Roumeli, most remained unseen. (Her archive is kept in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.) However, a new exhibition at the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture in Athens, curated by Olivia Stewart, joyfully remedies this.
Visitors to the Benaki Museum are invited into the world of Joan Leigh Fermor, who left their house to the Benaki Foundation. Her legacy alongside her character is one that had a long-lasting impact on the many creatives who visited Joan and Patrick. The renowned painter John Craxton remembers her: ‘Her unwavering empathy, generosity, taste and intelligence made her a creative catalyst to all who became her friends. Later on, Constant Lambert, Giacometti, Francis Bacon, Dadie Rylands, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Balthus, Maurice Bowra and Freddie Ayer, to name only a few, were all devoted admirers.’
Indeed, the allure of post-war Greece was strong for many creatives. The haven of natural beauty and abundant sunshine drew painters, artists, poets and writers, many of whom stayed at the Leigh Fermors’ home. As John Craxton quotes in his obituary of Joan: ‘“Of course that big room,” John Betjeman wrote to the Leigh Fermors in 1969, “is one of the rooms in the world.”’
Nostalgic, romantic and insightful, Joan Leigh Fermor’s images intimately tell the story of Greece. The exhibition is a must-see for anyone who wants to escape and immerse themselves in the country’s dream-like past.
Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor: Artist and Lover is at the Benaki Museum of Greek Culture until October 21, 2018.