The following winter visit of 1911-12 was auspicious for very different reasons in that the Laverys would be joined in the new year by Eileen, the painter’s twenty-one-year-old daughter, who was due to marry her fiancé, the young solicitor, James Dickinson, in March. For the occasion, all the important members of the expatriate community gathered in the garden of Dar-el-Midfah, the painter’s house. That month also saw the invasion of Morocco by French forces under Marshall Lyautey – an incursion designed, so all were led to believe, to bring stability to an increasingly volatile state.
However, not long after the Laverys arrival, on the night of 11th December, the SS Delhi ran aground off Cap Spartel and a rescue mission involving French and British warships was mounted. After attempts were made to refloat the vessel, it began to break up and it took several days for all passengers and crew to be ferried to safety. Lavery rushed to the scene to record the broken vessel. Although the exact circumstances of the creation of Sunset, The Caravan remain obscure, it is probable that the picture represents a section of the more thickly wooded bays around the Cap with a group of survivors being led to safety in the ‘White City’. It is equally possible that the canvas represents the escort of the Princess Royal and her husband, the Duke of Fife, who had been subjected to a second rescue when their longboat capsized during the disembarkation. Unlike other passengers who were ferried to Gibraltar on Naval vessels, they were taken to the British Legation at Tangier for recovery.
Other paintings of the disaster reveal choppy seas around the entrance to the Straits where rocks and sandbanks lie hidden. At this time of day however, the colours deepen, the palette darkens and the eye struggles with detail. It was only just possible to discern a column of horses, led by an out-rider, making their way along a sandy shelf at the water’s edge. At this distance from Tangier, all travellers were in peril, even though the notorious villain, El Raisuli, and his gang had been tamed. As they make their way to safety, the heavens are streaked with fiery clouds, and the sun sinks to the Atlantic horizon. The day’s end is surely as dramatic as the rescue.
Professor Kenneth McConkey
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