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So Long, Jocasta Innes

April 23, 2013
by the gentle author

Jocasta Innes died at home in Spitalfields over the weekend and today I am republishing my profile as a tribute to a talented woman who enriched so many people’s lives through her creative thinking.

Jocasta Innes

Even before I met her, Jocasta Innes had been part of my life. I shall never forget the moment, 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 a future sustained upon gruel. Yet the irony was that this book, now a classic of its kind, contained a lively variety of recipes which although frugal were 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 had lived since 1979 and there was the same pot upon the draining board. 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 the photograph upon the famous book cover. Here was evidence – if it should ever be needed – that Jocasta had remained consistent to her belief in the beauty of modest resourcefulness, just as the world had recognised that her thrifty philosophy of make-do-and-mend was not merely economic in straightened times but also allowed 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 when we sat down together 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. Forty years later, Jocasta was still living in the house that she used to try out her ideas, where you could find almost every paint effect illustrated, and where I visited to learn the story of this superlatively 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 became an icon of twentieth century culture.

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

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

Portrait of Jocasta Innes © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

28 Responses leave one →
  1. William permalink
    April 23, 2013

    So sad to learn this.

  2. April 23, 2013

    oh how sad – what a lovely person. my hubby and i had her country kitchen book when we were first married. i’m not sure we cooked a lot out of it but it made for very good reading. it still has a soft spot in our hearts. i’ve always kept it just in case we needed to go all Tom-and-Barbara one day.

  3. John Norton permalink
    April 23, 2013

    I think I only survived Uni with “The Pauper’s Cookbook”!! Sad to see her go!! R.I.P.!

  4. April 23, 2013

    Oh so sad. I hadn’t heard this piece of news. Your image of the cover of ‘The Pauper’s Cookbook’ reminded me, like John Norton, of my student days : and while that book’s somehow gone AWOL, I have several of her others. I loved her enthusiasm for well, not make-do-and mend. But certainly making something wonderful from unconsidered trifles.

  5. Greg Tingey permalink
    April 23, 2013

    Me too!
    What a shame – she will be missed.

  6. April 23, 2013

    That’s sad to hear, she was a pioneer & an inspiration in so many ways.

  7. Jane permalink
    April 23, 2013

    Sad news.

  8. Dianne permalink
    April 23, 2013

    So sad to hear this news. Jocasta’s paint books were and are a great source of inspiration to me and I’ve had great enjoyment from following her lead in applying various paint finishes. For some reason she had stayed the way she appears in your portrait and she’ll remain that way in my mind. Thanks for your inspiration Jocasta – your talent will be missed!

  9. Susan Devlin permalink
    April 23, 2013

    So very sad… RIP Jocasta

  10. April 23, 2013

    Very sad to hear this but a lovely post on a remarkable woman.

  11. April 23, 2013

    I was another student who headed off with a copy of ‘The Pauper’s Cookbook’ in my case. I’ve still got it – battered and food-splattered. Thank you, Jocasta.

  12. Jackie Cardy permalink
    April 23, 2013

    RIP Jocasta. The Paupers Homemaking book was my favourite ‘how to’ read in the early days of my marriage.

  13. April 23, 2013

    Her style & talent will be missed. With her informative decorating books she inspired you to have ago – with her knowledge I learnt to cut & make my own Stencils – even our shop bags are hand stencilled!

  14. April 23, 2013

    What sad news. I was give this by my mother and 30 years on it is sitting in the bathroom as part of my essential reading. The pages are yellowed and the cover has a scorch mark and I treasure it to this day. Thank you and rest in peace.

  15. April 23, 2013

    Paint Magic started me on a whole new creative career – I never looked back RIP

  16. Hannah Hill permalink
    April 23, 2013

    My daughter has just sent me this link..a sad day..one full of memories… from the riches of The Paupers’ Cookbook to the noise of paint finishes made with a lump of plasticine on wet paint..as we transformed a bookcase from the skip find to a thing of beauty..thank you from an ex Bedford High girl in memory of another.

  17. Cherub permalink
    April 23, 2013

    How many of us who had our first home in the 80s experimented with things like stencils and rag rolling? I am sure I still have a copy of Jocasta’s interiors book somewhere. We had a go at everything because we didn’t have much money (and I still have photos of some of my 80s decorating disasters), but it was fun and people like Jocasta pointed us in the right direction. In recent years everything has gone back to being so very beige. Sad to hear she has passed away.

  18. April 23, 2013

    So sad to hear Jocasta has gone. She was my stencils and effects guru. She will be missed. x

  19. Jeannette permalink
    April 23, 2013

    the determination to live a beautiful life by turning broken things and offal into a luminous home and a bountiful table really is a kind of — resurrection.

    thank you, jocasta innes.

  20. phyn barr permalink
    April 24, 2013

    I found her book in the library when I was first married over 30 years ago and it’s still on my shelf yellowed, torn but determined. I found my vegetable christmas pudding here and it became a staple every year. Thank you

  21. Judy Stevens permalink
    April 24, 2013

    she’ll live on .. on my shelf in the kitchen -

  22. April 26, 2013

    I met Jocasta in 1979 and she was a revelation and an inspiration. I’ll always remember chats over dinner and the realisation that you can do anything with paint. All played a part in my approach to decoration at the time. Never forget ‘it’s only paint’ and anything can be changed so don’t be afraid.
    Such sad news.

  23. Crickette permalink
    April 29, 2013

    So sad to hear this. She was such an inspriration to me as a young housewife and mother at 19 years old…. in the early 1970s. From her I learn how to decorate a home…how to cook a danm good pot of beans, feed a crowd and add art into your home. A large part of who I have become in my life is because of this lovely, creative woman. Bless your heart.

  24. April 29, 2013

    I was so sorry to hear this. I met Jocasta in Swanage when she was with Joe Potts and like everyone else ‘The Pauper’s Cook book was invaluable when I moved into a flat in Covent Garden. I was lucky to have a good butcher and often did the venison recipe, another favourite was the kipper pate. I last saw her in 1981, in her house in Spitalfields, I was expecting my daughter and she said ‘How delightful, I love babies’. She will be missed by so many people for her enthusiasm, creativity and love of life. I am so glad to have known her and send all good wishes to her family, the girls were small & will not remember but I remember them all & happy days in Swanage.

  25. Thea Jocasta Sparkes permalink
    May 9, 2013

    I am very sad to hear this news as I was named after her, a truly inspiring woman. rest in peace.

  26. Linda Leyble permalink
    May 26, 2013

    I was so sad to her of Jocasta’s passing. She is the reason I eventually became a faux finisher. I remember buying her first Paint Magic book while I was living in my first home in Seattle – trying out her recipes for beer glazes etc. She made me realize that so much beauty could come out of humble things. I also developed a fondness for Swedish decor and, of course, for stenciling because of her. She paved the way for successful women like Annie Sloan. I only wish that Jocasta would have made more money with her paint business. Perhaps she was a bit too early in doing this, I don’t know.

    I had always wanted to write a blogpost about her and I wanted to interview her and thank her for her inspiration. Alas, I am now too late. But I will still write the post. Can I email you for some quotes/content? It would be much appreciated.

    Thanks for your post,

    Linda

  27. mark permalink
    June 1, 2013

    she was my most outstanding client. i loved working with her
    she pissed off al the right people
    and her masseratti jammed my road
    last of the true brits
    massively missed
    and sympathy to richard
    xxx
    mark

  28. October 19, 2014

    I was very surprised to hear about Jocasta’s demise. As is evident, Jocasta and I share the same name, even if I spell my name with a Y. She and I also shared the same profession – interior design and book author. When I read “Paint Magic” I was still living in New York. I wrote Jocasta to tell her how much I had enjoyed it and mentioned the coincidence of sharing the same name and profession. About one year later, I moved to London to work and when I saw she was writing for Cosmopolitan, I wrote her a note asking her if we could meet to exchange ideas. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a reply. It’s too bad we didn’t meet as I think that we would have enjoyed each other’s company. Perhaps we will meet in the afterlife, where there must be a place up there where interior designers can exchange stories.

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