Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Mary Macrae White goes to Fez
Here is yet another colour print by a forgotten Scottish artist - this time Mary Macrae White, with a subject that is just as striking as the medium she is using. Her subject first. I am pretty confident that this is Morocco and fairly certain that her woodcut depicts the old city of Fez. Admittedly, it could be Tetouan or another of the Andalucian towns of northern Morocco but I think the tower you can see is the minaret of the Kairouine mosque and the green she uses suggests the tiles that decorate the corners. There are also still open spaces in the valley below the mosque and mules are commonly used as transport. To beef up the Moroccan connection, Macrae White came from Aberdeen. The link may be the etcher, James McBey (1883 - 1959) who was born in Aberdeenshire but spent a good deal of time in Morocco from 1912 onwards. In fact, he died in Tangier and I'm including one of his watercolours of the fine northern city of Tetouan, which obviously fascinated McBey.
You probably have to know Morocco and its colours to realise how observant an artist she was. I have her down as the same plein air generation as Ethel Kirkpatrick. Like her, Macrae White began as a watercolourist though I wouldn't say there was the same attempt to capture the effects of light that we find in Kirkpatrick. All the same, the dominant colours of the print - the cedar green and ginger on the mule - are commonly used for dyes in Morocco, like many other earth colours. (It was a common ploy for C19th painters to use a combination of turquoise and terracotta to signify the East). She is certainly interested in the effect of light and shadow, as you can see around the horses, so much so she must have made watercolours of the subject. But the artist she reminds me of most is SG Boxsius. The use of planes of colour is very much like him (although her reliance on the keyblock to articulate objects also puts me in mind of Frank Brangwyn). Nevertheless, I think we have here a trained artist who knew what she was about by the time she made this quite powerful colour woodcut. There is a refreshing lack of artiness about the print. It does tend to make me think of a C19th watercolour sketch but it's beautifully realised nevertheless - not something so easy to achieve in this demanding medium. I am just surprised we don't know of more prints by her. At some point she began to teach at the Greenwich House pottery in Greenwich Village, New York (presumably as a painter) but always kept a base for herself in Surrey, Kent or Sussex. She died aged 80 - I would have thought in about 1955.
I couldn't resist including this extraordinary photograph from 1916. It's a good example of the way cheaply-produced postcards often had more to tell about Morocco than fine etchings by artists like McBey - as much as he obviously liked both the country and its people. The men in the coarse djellabas and turbans on the left are countrymen, the ones in dark cloaks and fezzes are Jewish. So much work by Europeans tends to avoid real identity. Veiled or hooded figures are all too common. It gives local colour. I will say this for Macrae White: in this woodcut, at least, she does north Africa better justice than many do. There is an awareness and objectivity about her print that makes me feel it comes from the 1920s. The clothing, of course, offers no clues. But then everything surrounding this woodcut is generally frustrating! [I almost forgot to add that I lifted the Macrae White from Steven Bishop's blog. It may well be for sale at his site meridiangallery.co.uk/. I only wish I'd found it first.]