This curious structure with its three-arched and vaulted portico was vividly described by the French Orientalist painter, Benjamin Constant following a diplomatic mission in 1873. In the vestibule he encountered the jailer smoking ‘kiff’, an opiated tobacco substitute. Women were weeping by the grated door and when he looked through the iron grille it was to ‘distinguish a vast foul-smelling and sombre room, without air, in which are human forms crowding and crouching, with the noise of chains …’ These criminals depended totally on food brought to them by family or visitors.3 By the turn of the century this ‘black hell’ had become a tourist spectacle, and Constant’s colourful description was embellished by others. By the time of Alfred J Weston’s visit, for example, the jailor had become ‘a dozen lazy Moorish soldiers, armed to the teeth’,
For a proper consideration one of the soldiers will withdraw the heavy bolts and allow the visitor to look into a large oblong apartment entirely … empty, save for a score of criminals who flock to the opening … the soldier unconcernedly looks on – treating the occurrence precisely as a showman would treat the inspection of his monkey cage.4
Others concurred. Selwyn Brinton, recalling the present work in an essay on Lavery’s recent Moroccan pictures for The Connoisseur declared that ‘those eyes behind bars – staring, imploring, wolfish, desperate – have never faded from my memory’.5 Not surprisingly this curious structure attracted other artists after Constant, notably the Scots painter, Robert Brough. However, with the dramatic zig-zag shadow of the Palace of Justice thrown across the foreground of the present study, few declared its form with such definition as Lavery.
Professor Kenneth McConkey
1 Kenneth McConkey, John Lavery, A Painter and his World, 2010 (Atelier Books), pp.54-6.
2Only once in 1913, was Lavery compelled to alter his plans to accommodate sittings with the Royal Family, for the large group portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery.
3 Benjamin Constant, ‘Tangier and Morocco. Leaves from a Painter’s Note-Book’, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol 78, April 1889, p.756.
4 Alfred Jerome Weston, ‘From Spanish Light to Moorish Shadow’, Scribner’s Magazine, vol.13, no.2, February 1893, pp.193-207.
5 Selwyn Brinton MA, ‘An English Artist in Morocco’, The Connoisseur, vol XIX, no.73, September 1907, p.38.
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