Lesley Blanch

I’ve written a series on women food writers for At The Table. Click on the title to read my post on Lesley Blanch

Or read here….

To be a vagabond is to have the urge to wander; to cook conjures a kitchen, a desire to stay in one place. These words do not sit comfortably together. The first speaks of the open road, an itinerant life filled with uncertainty, unfamiliar flavours, meals consumed quickly and often out of doors; the traveller takes what she can find. By contrast, the cook has time to plan and the means of gathering ingredients; her culinary paraphernalia – pots, pans, plates, glasses, knives and stove – are at hand. So what makes a vagabond cook?

For me the phrase describes a particular kind of food writer, one for whom food is a doorway to other cultures, times past and far off places. I think of these women (and somehow they are always women) as cooks whose kitchens have no walls, travellers for whom food was an essential part of the journeys they took. And for their readers, the recipes were a way of travelling without ever leaving home.

As widely read as they were travelled, writers such as Patience Gray, Dorothy Hartley and Lesley Blanch all fashioned books inspired by what they saw in the wider world. This short series begins with Lesley Blanch (1904-2007) – a traveller, biographer, historian and food writer who lived a very long, colourful life and left behind a series of scholarly yet wildly romantic cult books. Read them and be inspired to leave the everyday behind and take a true culinary trip. For as Lesley Blanch herself said, “Nothing can ever replace the joys of eating impromptu meals in some wild and lovely setting”.

Nothing can ever replace the joys of eating impromptu meals in some wild and lovely setting

Lesley Blanch (1904-2007)

Always explore a new town on an empty stomach, it sharpens the vision.

This piece of advice was given to the writer Lesley Blanch by the mysterious ‘Traveller’. This highly-cultured man, a Russian of Mongolian descent and quite possibly a spy, was a friend of her parents, and his tales of Russian life lit up her nursery. He was the most interesting man she would ever meet and he remained the romantic obsession of her life. Only ever referred to as ‘the Traveller’, his identity has remained a mystery.

At 17 Blanch fell for the Traveller hard and, scandalously, they eloped together on a train to Dijon (pretending it was the Trans-Siberian Railway). They had one brief yet marvellous holiday in Corsica together (all without her parents’ knowledge of his seduction) but although he had proposed marriage, he then disappeared from her life. By this time his stories had sparked a lifelong obsession with travel.

The book she wrote about Russia and the Traveller, Journey Into the Mind’s Eye, is an entirely original construct; part travel book, part love story, it describes the evolution of her obsession with wilder shores: “I had fallen in love with the Traveller’s travels. Gradually I became possessed by love of a horizon and a train which would take me there, of a fabled engine and an imagined landscape.” Startlingly ahead of its time, it mixes memoir, travelogue and literary criticism in a way that was entirely new. Facts about food history are interwoven with the narrative. For example we learn from the Traveller that “the word bistro is Russian – it means hurry – quick… our troops brought it with them when we occupied Paris.” Later he tries to get round her dislike of rhubarb by explaining that

Rha is the dialect name for the Volga. All along its bank this plant grows hugely. So since my country has always been considered barbarous by others, the Latin – barbara is tacked on. There you have it – Rhubarb – a plant grown in the barbarous regions of the Rha, or Volga. Yes. I thought you’d want a second helping after that.

1. Journey Into the Mind’s Eye (Eland Books, 1968)

2. The Wilder Shores of Love (Phoenix Press, 1954)

3. Round the World in 80 Dishes: The World Through the Kitchen Window (Grub Street, 1955)

4. From Wilder Shores: the Tables of My Travels (John Murray, 1989)

Blanch was an unusually independent woman both in love and work, earning her own living at a time when women of her class rarely did, first as an illustrator then in the theatre as a set and costume designer, before becoming features editor of British Vogue during the war. Alison Settle, the editor of Vogue at the time, headhunted Blanch after reading a piece she had written against dull clothes for Harper's Bazaar entitled Anti-Beige, A Plea for the Scarlet Woman. But by the end of her life it was as a traveller and writer that Blanch would be best remembered.

Blanch’s most well-known book is a biography of four 19th century women who found themselves drawn inexorably towards the East seeking love and adventure. The Wilder Shores of Love was published in 1954 and has been in print ever since; it made Blanch a best-selling debut author at age 50. Several more biographies followed, but in addition to these vivid historical works, she also took time to publish two lighter books on food. In Round the World in 80 DishesThe World Through the Kitchen Window, Blanch, who also illustrated her book, offers a medley of recipes from Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, Central and South America, the Pacific and the Far East.

Blanch’s other food book, From Wilder Shores: the Tables of My Travels, details not only her love of breakfast ­– “Find a liver that matches your own or breakfast alone with Darling Self” – and English nursery puddings but along the way tackles train food, diplomatic dinners, Persian country life, and Turkish weddings via a chapter entitled Bread and Velvet. Blanch describes this book as neither travel nor food book but a ‘sketchbook’ written for those who “fiddle around” and “generally enjoy cooking as much as eating and travelling”. She wrote it to “recapture the rapture of some faraway plate”. Just as she used literature to visit a Russia that no longer existed, so food became a portal to far away places when she was back home.

I became possessed by love of a horizon and a train which would take me there, of a fabled engine and an imagined landscape

Blanch’s globetrotting had already begun (with trips to Russia in the early 30s) when in wartime London she met and fell in love with a Free French airman with Slavic looks: the French novelist Romain Gary (born Roman Kacew). After the war, Gary took a diplomatic post in Sofia, Bulgaria and while Gary wrote, Blanch took trains across the country and sampled the culinary delights of her much-loved Bulgarian cook, Raiina. 

Bulgaria was a place she stayed passionately attached too and later wrote about in her travelogue, Under a Lilac-Bleeding Star. Gary continued his dual role as diplomat and novelist and the couple travelled first to New York, where Gary was secretary for the French Delegation at the UN from 1952 to 1954, and then to Los Angeles where he was French consul – in effect, French ambassador to Hollywood. The pair did much official entertaining as well as mixing socially with the biggest movie stars of the time: from simple suppers of stuffed cabbage cooked by Marlene Dietrich to perhaps the most memorable meal of her whole life: a supper hosted by Cole Porter, where Blanch and her husband dined on caviar, pheasant and Grand Marnier soufflé with Fred Astaire. Though Blanch happily describes this as her perfect meal, and is not shy of name-dropping, she was equally if not more enthralled perched on a mountainside drinking dough (a yoghurt and mint drink) with the Kuchi tribesmen of Afghanistan.

5. Under a Lilac-Bleeding Star (John Murray, 1963)

6. The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus (John Murray, 1960)

7. On The Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life (Virago, 2015) 

After Blanch wrote her best-selling book, the couple left Los Angeles for New York and it was here that their stormy marriage ended when Gary left Blanch for the actress Jean Seberg, the urchin-like star of Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). In America Blanch had begun what she considered her finest book, The Sabres of Paradise, a portrait of Imam Shamil, the Chechen leader-prophet ­– a prescient account of Chechnya’s oppression by Tsarist Russia. Although heartbroken, Blanch was freed from the exhaustive drama of her marriage to this demanding and difficult if charming man. She grasped the opportunity to travel and threw herself wholeheartedly into her own work. 

So began a new and highly-productive stage of her life living between Paris and Roquebrune, above the Mediterranean Sea close to the French-Italian border. Blanch took many adventurous solo journeys, falling in love with the Far East and Afghanistan and becoming drawn more and more to the Muslim way of life. She combined serious research into the historical figures she was writing about with more light-hearted culinary adventures. She relished the discovery of exotic dishes, which she recorded and recreated at home and which gave her the basis for her two entertaining food books. She was a one-off; I can’t think of another food writer who has dedicated her book to her own digestion, “which has nobly supported so many surprises, trials and unwise indulgences”.

Lesley Blanch filled the great span of her life with the experiences of many lifetimes. Before she died at the age of 102 (having just finished her memoir, On The Wilder Shores of Love: A Bohemian Life) she had written 12 books of biography, memoir and cookery. With more than a century to record, it is impossible to do justice to such a rich life in so short a space. So while I urge you to seek out her books, I will leave the last word to Lesley Blanch herself: “Benign fate whisked me elsewhere to follow less restricted ways, travelling widely and eating wildly.”

Denton Welch's Dollshouse - article for This Spitalfield's Life

Denton Welch’s Dolls House

FEBRUARY 28, 2019

by Jojo Tulloh

I was thrilled when Jojo Tulloh offered to write this piece about the dolls house in the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green which was restored in the forties by one of my favourite authors, Denton Welch

Upstairs in the ‘Home’ gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green is an eighteenth century dolls house. The outside is painted to resemble pale stone-colour bricks and it has a low dark wood stand. It is just one of many dolls houses displayed in the gallery’s large glass cases. The front is closed and the house quite plain looking, after a quick glance you might be tempted to go on to the next exhibit. However this dolls house is unlike any other in the museum. It is a physical link to a highly original human being, the artist and writer Denton Welch, who restored this house.

In his journal, Welch describes the moment he first saw the dolls house, a gift from Mildred Bosanquet whose mother’s family were the original owners.

26th March seven o’clock 1945

For the last few weeks I have been mending the mid-eighteenth century doll’s house  (which Mrs Bosanquet of Seal handed over to me in 1941). It has been in her mother’s family (Littedale of Yorkshire) since it was made. Mrs B said glibly,  “I suppose it was made by the estate carpenter.”

I first saw it in B’s cellar on a winter afternoon. She said, “Here’s something that might interest you, Denton,” and shined a torch into a grey oblong box, amazingly dilapidated, on a stand. There were windows out in it, but I hardly would have believed it was old, until she opened the doors and showed me the charming mantelpiece in each room, every one subtly different, with perfect mouldings. Then I saw that the tiny doors were two-panelled and that each room was wainscoted halfway up, just as eighteenth century rooms should be.

But it was all daubed and coated with so much thick paint and there were so many sordid remains of Edwardian doll’s furniture, together with moth eaten curtains and pieces of felt that it had clearly become something to be avoided and forgotten.”

Denton Welch is not well known and many of his books are out of print but he is the kind of writer that you discover and take to your heart as you would a new, fascinating and sometimes alarming friend. You quickly find yourself reading all of his works. He is a writer much loved by other writers for the vivid and intimate way he is able to narrate the circumstances of his adolescence and later his painful convalescence. The circumstances of his life were tragic but they combined to produce a writer with a singular voice.

Welch was born in Shanghai to an English father and American mother but from the age of eleven he was educated in England. His mother died around this time. After running away from school at sixteen, he took a journey with his father in China and then enrolled in art school at aged seventeen. When still a student at Goldsmith’s Art School, Welch was knocked down by a motorist while cycling to his uncle’s house. He was badly injured, his spine was fractured and he spent three years recovering in a nursing home. His fractured spine, caused inflammation of the bladder and kidney failure, which left him partly impotent.

The effects of the injury would greatly curtail his life, leading eventually to tuberculosis of the spine and frequent and severe headaches and high temperatures. He was often confined to bed, but it was during this time that he also produced his intense and arresting works of autobiographical fiction. His first two books In Youth is Pleasure and Maiden Voyage both recall his teenage years when he was in full health but beset by terrible anxiety about his inability to fit in with school and his conventional family. He had a great ear for dialogue and an ability to create a distinctive sense of place. Despite his frequent bouts of extreme ill health, before his premature death at the age of thirty-three, he managed to produce a significant amount of work. Several of his books and his journals were published posthumously. His last journal entry, written just a few months before his death is a detailed and very funny account of tea with Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson at Sissinghurst.

Because of his accident Denton Welch was isolated and lived in a world of memory and imagination, recreating past events both painful and pleasurable. The writer is often miserable but the books are far from that. Sometimes his books are painful to read but whatever he is writing about whether it is food, architecture, sexuality, churches, antiques, the behaviour of his relatives, his own impulsive and sometimes selfish actions, he makes it compelling.

The writer Edmund White has said of Welch that he is:

one of those writers who is always interesting. The more his world is reduced to a hospital room and a handful of human contacts the more fascinating he becomes.  Is it the precision of his observations, the fierce but gentle strangeness of his personality or his love of nature that captivates the reader? Like Colette and Jean Rhys, Welch has the power to generate interest out of even the most meagre materials. He had this gift from the beginning but suffering and illness refined it into a white hot flame.”

Welch’s novels are compressed pieces of recalled life. His journals are more discursive, during the times he was well he would cycle or walk to churches and ruins, visit antique shops and picnic. He often recalls conversations with those he meets along the way. He also writes at length about the restoration of the dolls house. Writing in March 1945, he recalls the acquisition of the house four years earlier.

“At last it arrived one morning when I was still in bed, having written Maiden Voyage for several hours. My head and eyes were tired, and I was almost trembling with excitement as the men climbed up the outside staircase with it and plumped it down in the middle of the studio. In my pyjamas I began to poke and peer and examine it.

First I tore away all the repulsive curtains and carpets which had been nailed on. The moths’ eggs were thick as fish roe and the dust was like bat’s fur. Gradually I emptied every room (dining, drawing, bed and kitchen). There were only two bits of Georgian furniture left. A charming dark mahogany Pembroke table with one flap, and two tapering legs missing, and a little chest, also very dark mahogany, but quite plain, with little brass knobs. I forgot the little oak stool for the kitchen. There was a tiny, perfect old brass saucepan, two good little pewter platters and some little Victorian dish covers.

The rest was muck, except perhaps for the curious little chair and chiffonier, perhaps 1880-90.

When I had stripped the rooms I saw how coated with ugly pink and green paint each delicate moulding was. Even the floors were painted pink and green. Perhaps by some child with two pots of bright enamel.)”

With great care Welch restores the exterior paintwork.

As I looked closer at the body of the dolls’ house, I saw that under the grim unfeeling coat of battleship-grey was a lighter fawn paint, and on this paint were the signs of bricks painted in black.

This excited me and I began to scrape. I soon found that under the fawn were two other coats of yellower, bigger bricks with white outlines, and that right at the bottom the original coat was tiny red bricks. I longed to get down to this first coat, but it was impossible without ruining it in the process, so I contented myself with the first beige bricks, which by the texture and the quality of the paint seemed to date from at least the early nineteenth century.”

After many months work he strips off the different patterned wallpapers and uncovers the original colours of the rooms that you can see in the dolls house now (drawing, pink – dining, white – bed, blue – and kitchen, white and ochre).

I painfully scraped down to these, stripped the floor to its original plain wood, and found that the doors were meant to be bare mahogany and white surrounds.”

He also discovers that the draws of the stand were originally painted with a Chinese Chippendale fret design, “very pretty but quite ruined by age and stripping. I carefully ruled out the shape of it, then painted nearly all of that in to preserve it.”

He makes a new handle out of odd bits of an old brass handle, but a bomb landed in the garden of his rented cottage in Kent and later on it caught fire, destroying many of his treasures and so he has to move. This time to damp, cramped rooms above a garage. The dolls house languishes for three years before he takes it up again in 1945.

Then came the awful stupid scenes and troubles before I left Pond Farm, and again the dolls’ house had to go, this time to Mays’ outhouse studio where it was stored from 1942 until last month, when I suddenly had a passion for it again, unaccountable, unless it was just looking at it in its ruined condition and seeing again how lovely it could be.

And with May’s tools I started on it, never having done any carpentry since the age of eleven.”

He remakes the stand and repairs the big doors, and then turns to remaking the tiny tapered legs of the Pemroke table, the missing windows, front door steps and the pediment and tops of the columns, “The fanlight I made all of matches and putty, and it was good.”

He carves a tiny cedar newel post and remakes the chimneys, the balustrade he finds (part of a bracket) in a junkshop in Tonbridge.

Nothing will look grander than the dolls’ house, with its perfect classical door, window proportions, heavy Palladian coigning, cornice, and then the pediment and the reconstructed balustrade, all standing on the stand with the fret pattern revived.

All these weeks I have been doing it every afternoon (after writing) in May’s garden. One has the feeling that slowly the house is coming to life again.”

Denton Welch never owned a home. He lived precariously in rented rooms but he always longed to restore a ruin, perhaps a grotto or a medieval chapel and live in it. He had a great love of old and beautiful things and a horror of poor restoration or alteration. The contemplation of ancient and fine things gave him great comfort. In his journal dated 21st of January 1945, a page or two before the entry about the dolls house, he recalls the eighteenth century house in which he rented a room at 34 Croom’s Hill, Greenwich whilst he an art student. He thinks back to the time when he was young and lonely, waiting for something to happen but still in perfect health.

And the old eighteenth century room with everything just thicker, wider, more generous than absolutely necessary, seemed to hold me within its walls as if I were valuable, worth taking care of.”

It is tempting to believe that in restoring this eighteenth century home to its original, elegant beauty he was able to fulfill his ambition to make a permanent home of his own, even if only in miniature.

Drawing Room


Dining Room



MJD, 1783

Photographs copyright © Victoria & Albert Museum

Portrait copyright © National Portrait Gallery

Self Portrait by (Maurice) Denton Welch (29th March 1915 – 30th December 1948)

Jojo Tulloh’s books include The Modern Peasant and East End Paradise

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At The Dolls House Festival