JOCASTA INNES: “Lesley Blanch’s dashingly personal blend of romantic evocation, sharp observation and sheer gusto has echoes of Colette one minute, Lady Mary Whortley Montagu the next . . . What I have always admired about Lesley Blanch is the deft way she reconciles femme de tête and femme d’intérieure, independent mind and adventurous person, with a notable talent for making homes beguilingly pretty and social gatherings festive and fun”
Lesley Blanch liked to mix everything up and loathed anything en suite – for example she might use a Caucasian rug as a wall hanging, drape a fur rug over a bed, or use an old toile de Jouy curtain framed as a picture, a work of art.
She was a pioneer of so called ‘ethnic chic decor’. She was admired by her friends for her decorative flair, and was emulated by her fans.
Her advice when it came to domesticity and decoration was to “surround yourself with the things you love and your house will make you happy; I never decorate, I just make sure that I’m going to be comfortable and let the effect come with the living. You must have comfort first, everything else follows naturally.“
An Exotic Medley
Blanch mourned the loss in the fire of all her treasures and memorabilia – an eightheenth-century Staffordshire rabbit, the first possession she ever bought; a portrait of Empress Elizabeth of Russia; a collection of Russian silver snuff boxes; antique rugs of all kinds from Bessarabian to kilims; a court painting of Fath Ali Shah’s Persian ministers; a teak rocking elephant from India, once a child’s toy; a cupboard the front four panels of which she painted herself to represent the wooden or gilded domes and crosses of the churches of Moscow, Kazan, Kiev and Leningrad, their differing architecture spanning the vast surface of the Orthodox religion; her surviving oriental book collection left to New College Oxford.
“Things have life”
She felt rooted when she had her own things with her, and considered that “things have life” – a belief expressed by The Traveller in her memoir Journey into The Mind’s Eye.
“Eighteen years of being a diplomat’s wife taught me to carry my precious everything with me, on my back like a snail . . . I made eleven bases with Romain, which I always had to do very quickly.”
Known for her hospitality, Lesley Blanch had a special talent for blending the exotic with the intimate, thereby creating a unique and very personal atmosphere. Wide divans “smothered in rugs and cushions, Turkish style, recreated a land of memory stretching from Cairo to Constantinople.”
Although her writing desk was in the living-room, she could work anywhere – just by dropping cushions on a favourite carpet she would make that her work-nest for the day.
“During the day Ms. Blanch works at a desk strewn with books, papers and household bills in the living room. All other rooms, including her own bathroom, are also lined with bookshelves. Ms. Blanch is visited by a stream of friends and admirers, but her much-loved constant companions are her two cats, Smiley (‘because he smiles all the time’) and Kuçuk (Turkish for ‘little’).“
She liked to write to music: “I must have classical, Bach and Wagner, and also Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, or reggae. I love the folk or traditional music of Bulgaria; the Middle East, Persia, Asia, or elsewhere I have travelled. And that would include New York’s marvellous jazz clubs.”
The Joys of Comfort
Since the traditional domestic costume of most of the countries where Lesley Blanch travelled is made for comfort, she wore it if suitable to whatever she was doing, adapting it to fit into her way of life. So during the day she’d dress in a shirt and trousers, but in the evening she’d change into a long kaftan. She wore brocaded robes and cotton kaftans gathered on her travels – from eighteenth-century museum pieces to bargains found in the souks of the Persian Gulf or Istanbul – with velvet slippers, and necklaces of enormous uncut stones, or bracelets like great cuffs, for many years before couturiers or anyone else thought of doing so. Her collection of robes and heavy jewellery was destroyed in the fire. Although she could no longer travel as she aged, her friends sometimes sent her strange garments found in some remote souk.
Lesley Blanch: “Ever since I first saw these clothes I never wanted to wear anything else. I wore them long before they became the fashion, and I will be wearing them long after they’ve gone out. My friends used to say, ’Oh, there goes Lesley in another of her funny outfits.’ Now nobody thinks anything of it.”
“George Cukor used to call me a real Eccentric Englishwoman when I worked with him for a year in Hollywood. But I’ve always thought of Eccentric Englishwomen as looking rather odd – you know, peculiar hats and no dress sense. George spared me that, and quite encouraged unconventional, mixed-up dressing, ‘You don’t have to look as if you’ve been studying Vogue’ he’d say, which was sustaining.“