Joan Leigh Fermor: Artist and Lover. Benaki Museum

Athens Benaki Museum Exhibition ends October 21, 2018

I had read about this exhibit months ago and was pleasantly surprised to find an hour to slip into the Benaki Musuem, just three blocks from Grande Hotel Bretagne. Joan Leigh Fermor was married to one of the most well know British travel chroniclers, Paddy Leigh Fermor. Their marriage of love, was also a marriage of artistic sharing; he a writer and she a noted photographer.

Joan Leigh Fermor: Artist and Lover. Benaki Museum, Athens

Her classic black and white photos of their years in Greece, and in particular, the Peloponnese are riveting. Everyday images of everyday people in their natural environment. An archive of the Greek landscape and its ancient sites before troves of tourists have made their visits, in a pre-digital age, she composed simple yet haunting images. A treat even if you aren’t a photographer.

From the Museum site: Joan and Paddy Leigh Fermor were united in a pact of liberty – sharing their lives, mostly in Greece, as lovers and friends. As photographer and writer, they were also artists of equal stature.

Joan was a restless rebel when she took brilliant images of the London Blitz as a symbol of all that she would be leaving behind. She met Paddy in Cairo in 1944 and soon he was following her to Athens. They travelled all over Greece before settling in the Peloponnese – in the beautiful house they built at Kardamyli and bequeathed to the Benaki Museum.

Between the 1940s and 1960s Joan took thousands of photographs of people and places as she travelled with Paddy round Greece. A few appeared in his books Mani and Roumeli; most remained unseen on her death in 2003. Her archive is held at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

In her lifetime, Leigh Fermor was hailed—and hired—by John Betjemen and Cyril Connelly, and she was recognized as a powerful recorder of the London Blitz. But the true scale of her achievement was only realized after her death, when a treasure trove of photographs was discovered documenting the landscape and culture of Greece between 1945 and 1960. Through Leigh Fermor’s fundamentally democratic lens, we meet Cretan shepherds, Meteoran monastics, and Macedonian bear tamers. She brings the same intimate eye to architecture, while showing just as much facility in the panoramas of landscape—all clearly animated by a love of Greece. This book, drawn from a collection of five thousand images held by the National Library of Scotland, lets one see Leigh Fermor for what she was: a twentieth-century master.

If your plans lead you to the Golden city of Athens before the end of October, I encourage a visit to this extraordinary exhibit.