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Jocasta Innes, Writer, Cook & Paint Specialist

March 8, 2012
by the gentle author

Even before I met her, Jocasta Innes had been part of my life. I shall never forget the moment in my childhood, shortly after my father lost his job, when my mother came home with a copy of “The Pauper’s Cookbook” by Jocasta Innes, engendering a sinking feeling as I contemplated the earthenware casserole upon the cover – which conjured a Dickensian vision of life sustained upon gruel. Yet the irony was that this book, now a classic of its kind, contains a lively variety of recipes which although frugal in ingredients are far from mundane.

Imagine my surprise when I went round to Jocasta’s kitchen in the magnificent hidden eighteenth century house in Spitalfields where she has lived since 1979 and there was the same pot upon the draining board in her kitchen. I opened the lid in wonder, fascinated to come upon this humble object after all these years – an image I have carried in my mind for half a lifetime and now an icon of twentieth century culture. It was full of a tomato sauce, not so different from photograph upon the famous book cover. Here was evidence – if it should ever be needed – that Jocasta has remained consistent to her belief in the beauty of modest resourcefulness, just as the world has recognised that her thrifty philosophy of make-do-and-mend is not just economic in straightened times but also allows people the opportunity to take creative possession of their personal environment – as well as being a responsible use of limited resources.

“That was the one that made me famous,’” Jocasta admitted to me as we sat down at her scrubbed kitchen table with a copy of “The Pauper’s Cook Book,” “I continually meet people who say, ‘I had that book when I was a student and left home to live on my own for the first time.’” And then, contemplating the trusty hand-turned casserole, she confided, “A lot of people didn’t like the slug of gravy running down the side on the cover.”

Yet “The Pauper’s Cookbook,” was just the beginning for Jocasta. It became one of a string of successful titles upon cookery and interior design – especially paint effects –  that came to define the era and which created a business empire of paint ranges and shops at one point. Today, Jocasta still lives in the house that she used to try out her ideas, where you can find almost every paint effect illustrated, and where I visited her to learn the story of this resourceful woman who made a career out of encouraging resourcefulness in others.

“It all started when I was living in this tiny backstreet cottage in Swanage which was only fourteen foot six inches wide and I wanted to give it a bit of style. I got a book of American Folk Art from the library and plundered it for designs, cutting my own stencils out of cereal boxes. And I did a design on the walls of my little girls’ bedroom with tulips up the walls, it was so incredibly pretty.

I thought my parents had unbelievably bad taste, although I realise now it was part of the taste of their time. They loved the colours of rust and brown which I loathe but what captured my imagination was that they had some beautiful Chinese things. My father worked for Shell in China and I was born in Nanjing, one of four children. It was very lonely in a way. There were only about a dozen other children who weren’t Chinese and there wasn’t much mixing in those days. My mother taught eight to ten of us in a dame’s school with an age range of eight to thirteen. I don’t know how she did it. We had exams and there was a lot of rivalry, because if your younger sister did better than you it was pretty painful. She was a Girton Girl and must have taught us pretty well because we all went to Cambridge and so did my daughters.

I worked for the Evening Standard for a while but I was very bad journalist because I was too timid. I’ve always lived by writing and because I had done French and Spanish at Girton, I could do translations. I was desperately poor when I left my first husband and lived in Swanage, so I grabbed any translation work I could and I translated five bodice rippers from French to English, about a tedious girl called Caroline. I got so I could do it automatically and, me and my second husband, we lived on that. We just made ends meet.

“The Pauper’s Cookbook” was my first book and I had a lot of fun doing it. I planned it on two and sixpence per person per meal which would now be about 50p. And I followed it with “The Pauper’s Homemaking Book.” My mother did the embroidery and I covered a chair, it was tremendously home made and full of innocent delight in being a bit clever.

Publisher Frances Lincoln thought the chapter on paint effects could become its own book and that was “Paint Magic.” I fell in with some rich relations who had estate painters trained by Colefax & Fowler and I watched them dragging a lilac wall with pale grey and it was riveting. I didn’t know about glazes, my attempts were primitive compared to theirs. One of John Fowler’s young men, Graham Shire, he taught me how to do tortoiseshell effect and when he showed me the finished result, he said, “Magic!” Nobody liked the title at first. We had a book launch at Harrods and I thought it was going to be a handful of hard-up couples who wanted to decorate their bedsits but half the audience were rich American ladies who had flown over specially and we sold three hundred copies, pretty good for a book about paint.

I was offered a job by Cosmopolitan as Cookery and Design Editor. It was the only time I earned what I would call big money and I sent my girls to college and put my youngest daughter through Westminster School. Once I turned my back on it, I found all the debutantes in London were learning paint finishes and starting little colleges to teach it, and the bottom fell out of the paint finish market. A friend showed me a book called “Shaker Style” and I thought, ‘The writing’s on the wall.”

When I sold the house in Swanage and came to London in 1979, I only had a small amount of money. I was a single parent and my children were six and four. Friends told me to look for a house at the end of the tube lines. But I came on a tour around Spitalfields and Douglas Blaine of the Spitalfields Trust said to me, sotto voce, “I think this one might interest you.” It was part of a derelict brewing complex and the windows were covered with corrugated iron. I climbed onto the roof of what is now my larder and got in through an upper window, I prised apart the corrugated iron to let in the light and saw the room was waist deep in old televisions, mattresses, fridges and cookers. Later, I pulled up five layers of lino with bottletops between them that nobody had bothered to remove. It was tremendously mad, but fun and exciting. I said to Douglas, “I’m up for this!”

I’ve always been a gifted amateur and I think I do best in adversity.”

The Pauper’s Cookbook, first published 1971.

Jocasta’s casserole is an icon of twentieth century culture.

“The Pauper’s Cookbook” made me famous but I am more fond of my “Country Kitchen.”

Jocasta shows you how to do it yourself in her Spitalfields house in the nineteen eighties.

Portrait of Jocasta Innes © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

18 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    March 8, 2012

    I really enjoyed this post, thank you Gentle Author. Loved the bottletops!

  2. jeannette permalink
    March 8, 2012

    oh! she is my hero and i have a copy of the pauper’s cookbook right here at the rancho atomico in albuquerque! hooray!

  3. March 8, 2012

    Oooh, I loved that book – which I still have, battered and shabby beyond belief. It chimes in with all I’d been taught at home about making the best of cheap, but good ingredients. I’ve never been as creative as Jocasta as a decorator, but I have several of her other books too. You could say that she’s accompanied me through my adult life. Thank you, Jocasta, and thank you, Gentle Author, for introducing her.

  4. JerryW permalink
    March 8, 2012

    Ah, Jocasta! I have the Paupers Cookbook and two others besides.. thank you so much for providing a bit of enjoyable, sensible, and above all stylish economy in this otherwise mad, wasteful, tasteless world of ours (this website excepted, of course :-)

  5. Anne Forster permalink
    March 8, 2012

    Loved this GH I was well into stencils in the 80s and scattered them about with wild abandon throughout an old cottage in Worcestershire that I used to live in whilst I was married. There were fleur de lys and roses everywhere but that was the fashion and i loved it.

  6. March 8, 2012

    I have wonderful memories of “paint magic” for that was the book we all used as painter & decorator apprentices (Hackney building college) c1980.

    I was captivated by all the finishes & would spend all my spare time perfecting my new found skills much to the delight of my tutor But not to my family because i would marblise most surfaces & grain most of the woodwork.
    unfortunately these effects are in decline & I rarely get a call for decorative effects. I conclude with a big thank you Jocasta Innes

  7. March 8, 2012

    Oh, how I remember the badger hair brushes, the jam jars of glaze, the stippling, the dragging, the ragging…. and then we all charged over to minimalism, embracing it as if it were the New Salvation. I got so sick of that eventually that I got up one morning and painted vast great lilies in my lavatory, all falling down the walls on top of one. I still have the softest spot for Jocasta Innes and her derring-do attitude. Thank you for this Gentle Author. The voyeur in me would have loved pictures of her house as it is today, but hearing about China, her mother and the discovery of her house in Spitalfields was delicious. Like catching up with an old friend.
    PP@pimpmybricks.wordpress.com

  8. March 9, 2012

    Dear Gentle Author

    Wonderful article about Jocasta! I’m one of her daughters and she is selling signed copies of her book Country Kitchen exclusively through my website so if anyone would like to buy one, here’s the link http://www.mimimyne.com/country-kitchen-p-268.html. We’re hoping to collaborate on some designs for children soon as well, so I’ll keep you posted!

    Many thanks, Tabitha

  9. March 10, 2012

    When I left home in the early 70s for a succession of rather gloomy damp basements in some of the more rackety parts of central London, a combination of frequent ‘phone calls to my mother & the friendly encouragement of the Pauper’s Cookbook held my hand as I learned to cook. Alas the gravy stained brittle pages of my copy have long ago crumbled away, so seeing the original Penguin and even the actual casserole(!) was deeply evocative for me. I have the revised version, but somehow it’s just not the same. Quite simply I owe Jocasta a great debt of gratitude, and in my notional kitchen shrine to my household gods of Grigson, David, Marcella Hazan & Hopkinson, Jocasta is, if not a god herself, at the very least a temple attendant.

    Thank you Gentle Author, and a big big thank you to Jocasta too.

  10. March 10, 2012

    What a wonderful recollection and story, an inspiration to many.

  11. March 19, 2012

    Hope you don’t mind but I was doing a quick tip on my blog and wanted a link to a Jocasta Innes story, so I’ve linked to you here. http://marmadukescarlet.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/tip-tinned-tomatoes.html didn’t think you would mind!

  12. the gentle author permalink*
    March 19, 2012

    be my guest!

  13. March 29, 2012

    Hi, Its fair to say Jocasta was brill, as the times are harking back to all things Jocasta will her talents and style , come to the fore again we could all learn from her second time around, she was the queen of painted everything back then and as this style reemerges, I for one welcome it and Im back in charity shops looking for her books.

  14. Dr. Adrian Medina, MD., MBA permalink
    May 18, 2012

    Hello Jocasta
    I have always loved your paint works and used many of the techniques with the many homes i have had over the years and i was wondering if anyone still makes your paints like pottery barn i think used to in those little plastic jugs :)
    Thanks and am glad you are continuing your amazing artistic talent for the good of all :)
    Hugs and Blessings
    Doc
    sportsdoc,adrian@gmail.com

  15. Caroline permalink
    October 15, 2012

    Thank you so much for this article. It would be such a treat if you could persuade Jocasta to let you photograph her beautiful house for a future blog – my great great grandfather lived there in the 1840s, and I would love to see what it looks like. It’s the only family home I have found that is still in existence.
    All the best,
    Caroline.

  16. Hazel Parker permalink
    December 30, 2012

    I’ve just linked to this and love the article. Around my terraced cottage in Staffordshire I have some paint effects done by my sister Phyl in 1988, they’re great! When I decorate I never touch these because I consider them to be a work of art and ageless also the quality of her painting is excellent! Thanks Phyl, I hope you read this and know how much I appreciate your talent.
    Needless to say I also love Jocasta Innes’ paint effects and philosophy of “Make, Do and Mend’
    Because I’m a Patchworker.

  17. January 8, 2014

    Thank you for this lovely story. I have admired the talents of Jocasta Innes ever since I purchased her book Paint Magic 30 years ago. It helped me decorate rooms, pieces of furniture and even an old rocking horse.
    I have lost the book somehow, so with a new task – to paint seven cabinet doors made by my son – I am now going to buy the book again! It’s a treasure.

  18. Catherine permalink
    February 18, 2014

    Re Caroline’s comment above Oct 15th. There is a feature on Jocasta Innes’ house in World of Interiors march 2014 issue with some great pictures. Xxx C

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