As the tidal currents recede from the beach to the east of the Medina at Tangier, figures descend to the sands. Many observers at the turn to the twentieth century noted that at low tide, this became the city’s main highway, bringing herders of flocks, farmers with produce and traders of all sorts to and from market at the Grand Soko. Here one might also encounter expatriate Europeans and Americans, as the North African port, with its foreign Legations, was regarded as an international protectorate. For its variety of views, east to Cape Malabata, across the Straits of Gibraltar to southern Spain, or as here, to the splendid profile of the city, it was John Lavery’s favourite sketching location over the thirty-year period he visited Tangier.
By January 1891, when he made his first exploratory visit, other artists, French, British and American, had of course been there before him. Benjamin-Constant, the Salon Orientalist, for instance, declared Tangier on arrival, ‘the town of my dreams’, while for Lavery’s good friend, R.B. Cunninghame Graham, the radical Scottish writer, ‘La Blanca’, the white city, ‘sits smiling, imperturbably, out on the Straits’. Its strategic position is obvious from the present canvas. Facing the narrow passage where two oceans meet, the city commanded views of all ships entering or leaving the Mediterranean, and for the European Powers, its continuing neutrality was essential. Even in those days, fear of the Russian Navy, extending its influence beyond the Black Sea, and the expansionist ambitions of the German Kaiser were the cornerstones of foreign policy. For the British and French, unimpeded access through the Suez Canal to colonies in the Far East must be maintained.
When Lavery first arrived, his experience was exactly as we see it in the present canvas. In those days Peninsular & Oriental steamers had no deep harbour at the city’s port and weighed anchor in the bay. Passengers who wished to disembark must do so by means of a flotilla of small craft which would convey them and their luggage to the shore. It was then a short walk or donkey ride to the custom house. Looking up from the beach, the city sparkled in the sunlight, and, as the writer H.D. Traill noted, ‘nothing in Tangier, it must be honestly admitted, will compare to the approach to it by its incomparable bay’. Venturing into its narrow streets, one delved into an instant Orient, and even though the city lies to the west of the Greenwich Meridian, in 1891, this was unlike anything the artist had ever experienced.
At this point Lavery had a growing reputation as a painter; he had been a student in Paris, was a follower of Bastien-Lepage, had worked with American Impressionists, Alexander Harrison, Gaines Ruger Donoho and Frederick Waugh at Grez-sur-Loing, and by 1885 was one of the leading artists of the Glasgow School – painters who were bringing plein air naturalism and Impressionism to Britain. His preeminent role in this was confirmed when in 1888, The Tennis Party (Aberdeen Art Gallery), was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon, and having just completed a large group portrait of Queen Victoria’s State Visit to the Glasgow International Exhibition (Glasgow Museums), he was in search of new inspiration.
So entranced was he by this Moroccan experience, and by the success of his work produced on that first visit, that Lavery returned each year for the next three, painting the ‘white city’ from a viewpoint overlooking the beach, for the first time in 1893. This does not mean that the present work, some eighteen years later was a mere recapitulation. In the interim, Lavery’s growing reputation took him to Rome, Berlin and Paris, and when The Bridge at Grez, 1883 (private collection) was awarded First Prize at the first Carnegie International Exhibition in 1896, he found himself invited to Pittsburgh as a juror. By this stage, he was acting as Vice-President to the ailing Whistler, in the celebrated International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, a role he held until 1908. Annual winter visits to Tangier had resumed in these years, he had purchased a house and studio on Mount Washington, to the west of the city and was well-known in expatriate communities, riding on the bay sands with his step-daughter, Alice, where many seascapes were painted.
In the present work we can see that, since his first panorama, a long jetty has been constructed to take small vessels plying between the city and Cadiz and Algeciras in Andalusia. On top of the Kasbah, barely visible, is the tower of Djama-el-Kebir, the so-called ‘Green Mosque’, that Lavery and fellow Orientalists, Benjamin-Constant and Arthur Melville had painted. However, details like these merely contribute to an overall impression of warm evening light that throws indigo shadows across the dune on the left, reddens the sands, and deepens the tones of turquoise on a flat and faultless sea. As Lavery confided to his first biographer Walter Shaw Sparrow, in 1911:
'…a curious thing happens when an artist sits down before his subject; material things vanish, only colour and its plots remain, and they look visionary.'
These peaceful harmonies of 1911 were, nevertheless, won at a price. For Lavery, the respite captured here, quickly ended with the report that his wife’s younger sister, back in Chicago, was taken ill, and urgent Atlantic crossings became necessary before their next Moroccan winter. At the same time, Morocco, with a weak and immature Sultan, was becoming increasingly lawless. The hills around Tangier were controlled by the notorious brigand, El Raisuli, and two of Lavery’s friends, the wealthy Greek-American, Ion Perdicaris, and Times correspondent, Walter Burton Harris, had, in recent years, been kidnapped and held to ransom. Such was the tension in his winter retreat, that Hazel, Lavery’s American wife, would not let her daughter out of her sight. Order was only restored during their 1912 sojourn, when French forces under Marshal Lyautey invaded.
None of the debacles of a failing state, nor life’s vicissitudes, are evident here – as sea pulls away from sand, its surface enlivened by Berbers, Arabs or Moors, picking their way over the wet surface. They and their mounts are noted in Lavery’s characteristic shorthand. Each touch of the brush has character – a man guides his laden donkey, two others on horseback, stop to talk, oblivious that beyond them, an ancient fortified town tumbles down to the water’s edge, and beyond it flow the calm, pellucid waters of the Gibraltar Straits.
We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue essay.