Patience Gray

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Patience Jean Gray (31 October 1917 – 10 March 2005) was a British cookery and travel writer of the mid-20th century. Her most popular books were Plats Du Jour (1957), written with Primrose Boyd about French cooking, and Honey From A Weed (1986), an account of the Mediterranean way of life.[1]

Beginning life as Patience Jean Stanham at Shackleford, near Godalming, Surrey, she was the second of the three daughters of Hermann Stanham, a major in the Royal Field Artillery[2] and his wife Olive Florence, née Colgate, daughter of a Lincolnshire farmer. She spent her childhood in Surrey and on the Sussex coast. As a teenager she lived with her uncle and aunt in London, attending Queen's College, a school for girls in Harley Street, a prelude to the London School of Economics and a degree under the tutelage of the future Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.


Patience discovered late in life that her father, at various times a surgeon, a pig farmer, and finally a photographer, was the son of a Polish rabbi called Warschavski, who had arrived in England in 1861 and become a Unitarian minister. During her childhood at Mitchen Hall, "a grand but rather isolated house of peach-coloured brick", her father's moods dominated family life: "I have listened to other people's accounts of their happy childhoods with sadness mingled with disbelief," Patience wrote. "I recognised mine as a snuffing out of every spontaneous impulse, to the point where one might have been said to be walking on tiptoe to avoid the detonations."[3]

Her father's poor business sense (his pig farm had failed) put strain on the family finances and her parent's marriage. Patience was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in London where she attended Queen's College, Harley Street with her cousin. She was an excellent student and passed her university entrance exams at the age of 16. However, her father thought she was too young to start university and she spent a year in Bonn, Germany, studying first economics, then switching to history of art, living in what she called a "kind of prison": a 17th-century observatory in the Poppelsdorfer Allee, with a professor of astronomy and his wife and child. A desire to escape the oppressive atmosphere of her lodgings led her out walking in the city, where she discovered a love of Baroque architecture."[1][3][4]

Life and work[edit]

In 1938, after graduating, Patience travelled with her sister Tania to Eastern Europe, under a grant from the Quakers, who wanted to promote friendships with the Romanians.[1][3][4] The sisters were there when Queen Marie, a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, died in July.

The lavishness of the funeral rites prompted Patience to write her first piece of journalism, which appeared in a Bucharest paper. Its editor became infatuated by Patience, filling her hotel room with tuberoses, the scent of which, she said, always filled her with remembered horror. Tania and Patience escaped his attentions by fleeing to the Black Sea in a monoplane piloted by a Romanian prince.[4] She returned to London in 1939 and took up a job at the Foreign office. When the Second World War broke out Patience was dismissed from the new job, she claimed, for "having too many foreign contacts".[5] She went instead to the Arts Council, where she began an affair with Thomas Gray, although he was already married with two children. He was the brother of the industrial designer Milner Gray, founder of the Design Research Institute. Patience and Thomas had two children, a son Nicholas and a daughter Miranda, and she took his name by deed poll in the London Gazette of 17 January 1941.[4] During the war, Patience moved to a primitive cottage on the South Downs, which had no electricity and no running water. Thomas was conscripted.

Patience's career then followed a peripatetic course, through "temporary jobs for literary and artistic folk"[1] that fitted in with single motherhood. She worked with the designer FHK Henrion, responsible for the displays inside the Country Pavilion at the 1951 Festival of Britain. There she met Primrose Boyd, with whom she later set up their own freelance research partnership.

Patience Gray's first book was as an editor and was not food-related: Indoor Plants and Gardens, published in 1952, is a practical guide to the growing, maintenance, and use as decoration in the modernistic interiors of 1950s homes.[6]

In the mid-1950s, she was one of a group of translators who worked on a new edition of Larousse Gastronomique. She went on to collaborate with a friend, Primrose Boyd, at first on Plats du Jour, illustrated by the renowned David Gentlemen, which was reprinted by Persephone Books in 2006. A bestseller for its time, it sold 50,000 copies in its first year.

In 1958 Patience Gray beat over a thousand applicants to become the first editor of The Observer women's page. With little agreement over what should be on it, Patience had free rein. Women, she felt, did not want to acquire, but to learn. She supplied them with articles on European art, design, thought and habits up to 1961, when new superior, George Seddon, decided women were interested in more down-to-earth subjects such as shopping and cooking.[1]

In the early 1960s her life changed again when she fell in love with the Belgian artist and sculptor Norman Mommens. They embarked on a journey round the Mediterranean following a vein of stone from Provence, Carrara, Catalonia, the Greek island of Naxos, and finally southern Italy, where in 1970 they settled in a farmhouse in Apulia. She writes of this journey in Honey From a Weed, a book about rural life, folklore and cookery, full of recipes featuring peasant food.[7] She refused to have such modern conveniences as the refrigerator, telephone or electric light. Ring Doves And Snakes (1989) was a much darker book about their time on the Greek island of Naxos.[1] In 1994 she eventually married Mommens, who died in 2000.

Patience wrote two other books: The Centaur's Kitchen (1964, published only posthumously in 2005), a set of recipes for the Chinese cooks of the Blue Funnel Shipping Line aboard the newly launched cargo liner, the Centaur, plying from western Australia to Singapore, and Work Adventures, Childhood Dreams (self-published, 1999), a collection of autobiographical essays.[1][4]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Jaine, Tom (18 March 2005). "The Guardian". Retrieved 21 March 2016. 
  2. ^ Cooke, Rachel (2013). Her Brilliant Career - Ten Extraordinary Women of the 1950's. Great Britain: Virago. p. 8. ISBN 9781844087402. 
  3. ^ a b c Cooke, Rachel, Her Brilliant Career, Virago 2013
  4. ^ a b c d e Paul Levy, "Gray, Patience Jean (1917–2005)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, UK: OUP 2009) Retrieved 22 March 2016
  5. ^ Levy, Paul. "The Independent". 
  6. ^ Jones, Margaret.E. (1952). Gray, Patience, ed. Indoor Plants and Gardens. Hertford, Great Britain: Architectural Press. 
  7. ^ Behr, Edward. "Patience Gray". The Art of Eating. Retrieved 27 September 2012.