A recently recovered group of letters indicates that the painter, his wife, Hazel, and step-daughter, Alice, had arrived in the city by 7 December 1919, and were staying in the villa of Lavery’s old friend, the Times correspondent, Walter Harris. Lavery’s house, Dar-el-Midfah, had been rented throughout the war to another old comrade, the Glasgow School painter, William Kennedy. Sadly Kennedy had died in the previous year, and the house had yet to be cleared. Not only was access to Lavery’s studio impossible, but, to make matters worse, his car containing his painting materials was yet to be shipped, and he needed to secure the services of a chauffeur who was also a Ford mechanic, if he wished to travel beyond the confines of the city.
To compound matters, the group of friends he had known in those halcyon days before the Great War had been scattered and some, alas, were no more. On 6 February 1920 for instance, he recorded the funeral procession of ‘Kaid’ Sir Harry Aubrey de Vere Maclean, the colourful Scots emissary to the Sultan who he had known since his early visits to the city. Before that he had witnessed the sweep of history in the raising of the Moroccan flag over the German Legation in a colourful ceremony with a contingent of troops in bright red uniforms, on 15 January 1920 (sold Sotheby’s London, 7 May 2008).
If those first weeks in ‘the White City’ were tinged with sadness, Lavery remained optimistic. With an exhibition in mind, he planned painting trips to the ‘imperial cities’ of Marrakech and Fez when all of his practical difficulties were solved. Letters to his daughter, Eileen, and his son-in-law, the Master of Sempill, indicate that he was not ready to leave until mid-March, when Hazel, Alice and he, accompanied by Nora Clark-Kerr, daughter of one of the Legation officials, set off in two cars from Rabat, first to Marrakech and then to Fez where they arrived on 10 April 1920. Earlier suggestions that the present work must have been painted in December 1919, supported by Lavery’s mis-dating of it, can now be discounted. It was in fact Lavery’s second visit to Fez.
Back in 1906-7 he, Harris and RB Cunninghame Graham had made the journey from Tangier on horseback, narrowly avoiding capture by brigands. It had been a time of corruption and misrule when courtiers vied for control over a weak young Sultan. Now the situation was vastly different. A French government imposed by General Lyautey in 1912, had stabilized the country and during the Great War, German prisoners had been employed in road building. The price for this was the tightening of French and Spanish control that generated a mood of hostility, and encouraged British expatriates to leave.
As had been the case on his first visit, the sight of this ancient settlement in the plain of Oued, as one approached from the hills was so striking that it merited a roadside stop – the result of which is the present canvas-board. Established in 791 by Idris I, it is encircled by fortifications, nine miles in diameter – a section of which are clearly visible in the picture’s foreground. At the turn of the twentieth century no more than eight Europeans were permitted to live within its walls, although in 1916 the French had begun to construct the Ville Nouvelle with a modern boulevard beyond the royal palace along the bank of the Oued el-Adham. The artist’s view over the old city largely excludes this development. After a brief stay of a couple of days at the house of the former Sultan’s vizier, El Menebhi, the painter and his “harem” returned to Tangier.
On such on-the-road occasions, Lavery favoured the use of large 25x30 inch canvas-boards, partly because they were easier to store than standard canvases. For this purpose he had a large slotted box with a stout leather strap into which he could slide no less than five freshly painted boards, with no danger that they would smear one another. The same cabinet-maker produced for him a large collapsible easel that took the boards. So convenient was this kit that a duplicate set was made for his pupil, Winston Churchill.
Unlike the small City of Fez 1907, seen from a housetop viewpoint, here we are given a magnificent sweep of country looking into the distance to the sharp crystalline peaks of the Middle Atlas range. The Andalusian white architecture of the north meets the red fortresses of the southern Maghreb. The ancient Fez-el-Bali Medina, the northern market destination for the gold traders of Timbuktu, lay before him like a dream of Xanadu – but one recorded with superb executive skill. This was no mere topography but un coup de foudre.
Professor Kenneth McConkey
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