So Long, Jocasta Innes
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.
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