Lesley Blanch was born in West London in 1904. At heart a nomad, she spent the greater part of her life travelling about those remote places her books record so vividly. She used to say: “I have always had a strong appetite for life and for loving.“
Her father, Walter, was cultivated and idle, and spent his time in museums and galleries, while her mother, Martha, longed to travel, but never did. “I was brought up to read a great deal. My parents were always broke, but had beautiful old things, and I used to make up stories about them. My father used to recite a poem to me that I specially loved, I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby and Tales of Far Kashmir.”
“My mother would read The Koran for breakfast in bed which she found very stimulating. My father would read Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year because he said the descriptions were so ghastly it made daily life seem so much more agreeable. I would be in my room getting ready for school and reading Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution; I had a thing about tumbrils and all that. It was not exactly a conventional household. Of course school [St Paul’s] was a letdown.”
From her early childhood, a mysterious family friend whom Blanch only ever called ‘The Traveller’ occasionally blew into her nursery, muffled in heavy furs and bearing gifts of Fabergé eggs and icons. Full of the fairytales of Russia, “He looked like Nureyev with slanting eyes.” When he swept out of her life, he left her in the grips of a lifelong obsession.
Blanch describes her search for her great love, and the Russia he had planted within her, in her memoir, Journey into the Mind’s Eye. Later, she was among the very few who adventured across Stalin’s Soviet Union, tracing history and literature rather than politics: “I went to Moscow and Leningrad because of my interest in Pushkin.”
Blanch studied painting at the Slade School of Art where Oliver Messel and Rex Whistler were among her contemporaries. Her subsequent work as a scenic and costume designer with Russian emigré director, Theodore Komisarjevsky, culminated with eight of her designs representing England in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Theatre Art International Exhibition in 1934.
The Diaghilev of the theatre world, Komisarjevsky was fluent in a number of European languages and had encyclopaedic knowledge. A restless seeker and an ambitious idealist, he spoke of the “true beauty of art.” He worked in Paris at the Théâtre des Champs Elysees from 1923 to 1924 and from 1925 to 1926 at Barnes Theatre where he directed Chekhov’s Ivanov, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard; Andreyev’s Katerina; and Gogol’s The Government Inspector in which Charles Laughton made his professional debut with Claude Rains.
John Gielgud, one of Komisarjevsky’s students, said of him: “His influence has been considerable and his contribution to the English theatre and its artists leaves us greatly in his debt.” His controversial productions of Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon in the early 1930s caused an uproar.
Blanch’s portfolio circa 1923-35 came to light in January 2014. It contains seventy theatre designs, book illustrations, caricature-portraits, sketches for wall panels, and whimsical animal line drawings.
There are scenic and costume designs for three of Komisarjevsky’s productions, along with designs for a ‘French Farce’ and the ballets Rouge et Noir, Baroque and Daphnis et Chloé. The names of dancers with de Basil and Blum’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo are written on a couple of sketches.
There are also designs for Ashley Dukes and his wife, Polish-born ‘Mim’ Rambert, who worked briefly with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before moving to London in 1914. The Mercury Theatre, (home of the Ballet Club, later the Ballet Rambert), in Notting Hill was like a European alternative to the Bloomsbury group.
Blanch also designed book jackets for T.S. Eliot at Faber: “A very grave, quiet, polite man,” and she edited and wrote an introduction to a book of illustrated verse by John Dryden.
She developed “a new kind of caricature-portrait” based on her interview with the sitter. (Later, she would send sent caricature-portraits of herself and her husband Romain Gary on their travels, or of ‘Darling Self’, as Christmas cards to friends.)