Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Joan Leigh Fermor

Joan Leigh Fermor

at the Benaki Museum, Athens.

We visited this exhibition a while ago, and I have finally got around to writing about it.

Joan Leigh Fermor is considered by many to be one of the finest amateur photographers in England during the late 30s and early 40s. Her photographs were first published in The Architectural Review by the deputy editors and the poet John Betjeman, and subsequently in Horizon, edited by the writer and critic Cyril Connolly. In 1940 the conservation architect Walter Godfrey set up the National Buildings Record to document damage to buildings of national importance. Leigh Fermor was one of the many photographers involved in the project, and the photographs she contributed - of war-wrecked buildings - stand as stark symbols of the dark and shattered world she was about to leave.

In 1943 she was sent to Algiers, where her brother Graham was working in the Intelligence Corps. From there she moved to Madrid. In early 1944 she was transferred to Cairo, where later that year she met Paddy Leigh Fermor. He had just returned from his second tour of duty in Crete, where, he, William Stanley Moss and a small band of partisans had kidnapped the island's German commander, General Heinrich Kreipe, who commanded the central (Heraklion) sector of the island. Paddy was handsome, full of lively curiosity and good will and immense vitality and an irreverent sense of humour - and he shared with her a passion for Greece. When in September 1945 she accepted a job as secretary to Osbert Lancaster, the Press Attache at the British Embassy in Athens, Paddy soon followed her - as the newly appointed Deputy Director of the British Institute of Higher English Studies.

'It was not the building but the bright air of Athens and enthusiasm in the air that made it natural to find more friends here in a short time than one would find elsewhere in long years'.

John Craxton describes Joan Leigh Fermor as '...enigmatic... a very seductive presence. She was naturally self-effacing. Even in a crowd she maintained a deep and private inner self... Paradoxically, she loved good company and long lasting friendships. It was her elegance, luminous intelligence, curiosity, understanding and unerring high standards that made her … a friend and inspiration to a host of distinguished writers, philosophers, painters, sculptors and musicians'.

The Leigh Fermors trip to Thessaloniki in 1946 was the first of their many trips together in Greece, trips on which Joan produced the hitherto largely unseen archive of extraordinary photographs of Greece in the 1950s. She used a Rolleiflex with a 6x6 negative size and a 75mmf3.5 lens. These large square negatives produced sharp, clear and grain-free landscapes. She used the square format with equally beautiful results for architecture, group and individual portraits. Joan never  developed her own pictures, nor manipulated them in anyway. Nor were they formally catalogued. By the end of 1960 she seems to have stopped taking photographs and did not pick up her camera again except to record the building of the home that she and Paddy built at Kardamyli in Mani between 1963 and 1969.

Location not noted

'The Aegean is seldom a bare expanse of sea. Islands float on the horizon as faint and immaterially as smoke and their outlines harden as the shortening distance enlarges them into the contours of sleepy dragons half submerged that slowly stretch their limbs and change shape until the towering concavities heave high above the ship, suspending their white villages and their battlements overhead. The breeze carries the smell of thyme over the bulwarks and goat-flocks, scattered on the ledges of precipices like the quadrupeds in cave paintings, fill the air with their jangling bells'. Paddy Leigh Fermor






Vatheia, Mani

'A spell of peace lives in the ruins of ancient Greek temples. As the traveller leans back among the fallen capitals and allows the hours to pass, it empties the mind of troubling thoughts and anxieties and slowly refills it, like a vessel that has been drained and scoured, with a quiet ecstasy. Nearly all that has happened fades to a limbo of shadows and insignificance and is painlessly replaced by an intimation of radiance, simplicity and calm which unties all knots and solves all riddles and seems to murmur a benevolent and unimperious suggestion that the whole of life, if it were allowed to unfold without hindrance of compulsion or search for alien solutions, might be limitlessly happy'. Paddy Leigh Fermor.

Makrynitsa, Pelion


Location not noted


Paddy Leigh Fermor at the ancient city of  Kameiros, Rhodes



The Leigh Fermor house during construction Kardamyli, 1966

In 1963 the Leigh Fermors started building their house just beyond Kardamyli, on a high jutting rock above a small bay with views towards the Messenian Gulf and the setting sun.

In 1996, they signed a deed of donation leaving the house to the Benaki Museum on their deaths, expressing their hope that it be used as a centre for writers, researchers, academics and others. Thanks to a generous donation from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, repair work is now underway. The Benaki Museum is developing an annual schedule of residencies and educational programmes in honour of the Leigh Fermors.

'What a life you and Joanie have had, and how wisely and well you have spent it, where the orthodox saints look down with olive-shaped eyes from the walls of the basilica and the goats leap from crag and the olives are silvery....' John Betjeman, letter to Paddy.


P.S. You can read about our visit to Kardamyli here . It's a place I intend to revisit.


  1. Eirene I thank you for this post. It prompted me to do some initial research on JLF because of her visit to Thessaloniki in the '50s - a time and place which seem to become ever more vivid in my memory. I discovered that JLF's photographic archive is in the National Library of Scotland, in Edinburgh - an institution I knew so well in the '60s. I now have the beginnings of a vague notion for a project to pursue - nothing definite as such, but something.
    Also, needless to say, I very much enjoy looking at the photographs you show.

    1. How lovely. I am so pleased, Olga, and I look forward to finding out more about your project when you post about it in your blog.

      I will bear what you say in mind when we finally visit Edinburgh and see if I can get to see her photographs in the archive, as I am interested in her work. I was tempted to buy the book and I still might. I am also waiting for the Benaki Museum to open the house (it was meant to open in the autumn of 2019, but given the economic situation in Greece, everything gets delayed) so that I can visit Kardamyli again - it is such an enchanting, atmospheric place, no wonder they wanted to live there.