Obituary: Marguerite McBey

Nicolas Barker
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:04

MARGUERITE MCBEY was a strikingly beautiful woman; born to wealth and married to a famous painter, she might have asked no more of life. But she had an untiring curiosity, a determination to do good (but always on her own terms), and a spring of creativity, pent up during her husband's life, that made her a remarkable artist in her own right, a gift that lasted into extreme old age.

She was born Marguerite Loeb in 1905; her father had emigrated to America from Germany at the age of 16 to join his uncle's tobacco business, and married a Philadelphia girl. Marguerite went to school there, before going on to a finishing school in Switzerland.

From there she went to Paris, where she studied bookbinding at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs. She had grown up to become an exotic beauty, with raven hair, high cheek-bones and dark, deep-set eyes, and at Biarritz in April 1925 caught the eye of Oscar Kokoschka, 20 years older and travelling after his father's death. They had a brief affair (punctuated by an accident in which Kokoschka broke his nose), and in August he proposed to her. Her mother liked him, but papa was unconvinced; she went home, and Kokoschka back to Anna Kallin, to whom he had turned after Alma Mahler had left him for Walter Gropius in 1915.

Back in New York, Marguerite learnt photography and took a studio on West 57th Street; she continued to bind books, and her work was exhibited at the Golden Gate International Exhibition in San Francisco. In 1929 she decided to move her bindery back to Philadelphia. She was still only 23 when another famous painter, James McBey, arrived at the end of 1930 and met her at dinner with the Sesslers, who ran the gallery and bookshop that sold his work there.

He had been there a year before, just after the Wall Street crash that was to put an end to the market for etchings, which had brought him fame and fortune. Both were so far unshaken, and portrait commissions were still waiting for him in Philadelphia. He was a ruggedly handsome figure, more than 20 years older than she, but they were instantly attracted to each other.

McBey had risen from the humblest beginnings, born illegitimate in Aberdeen 47 years earlier. As a bank-clerk, he had had no ambition to become an artist, and the impulse had welled up, like water through his native granite. He taught himself etching out of a book, and printed his first plates on the kitchen mangle. His first exhibition in 1911 was a runaway success, and when the war came he was appointed an Official War Artist with Allenby in the desert. This had resulted in one of his most famous prints, Dawn: the camel patrol setting out, which once sold at auction for the huge sum of pounds 445. He himself did not benefit from these extravagances of the market, but had done well enough through Colnaghi's and Reid and Lefevre to buy a handsome studio house in London, at the foot of Campden Hill. Despite previous affairs, he was still unmarried.

Early in 1931, McBey went with Marguerite and her mother, recently widowed, to Bermuda, and two weeks later, on the boat back to New York, he asked her to marry him. Others had found his character overpowering, but Marguerite was equally strong and independent; each offered the other a challenge, to both irresistible. They were married quietly in New York on Friday 13 March 1931 and sailed the same day for England. Both shy and disliking publicity, they kept their marriage a secret. McBey had not even told his housekeeper, and Marguerite's appearance startled his circle, until the truth leaked out in the press.

Next year they set off together for Spain. For McBey it was a return; he had been there in 1911, and some of the most powerful prints in his first exhibition were Spanish scenes. But Marguerite had never been there, and exploring the country al fresco with a car and a tent was a new excitement. They made their way south from Seville to Cadiz and Algeciras where, abandoning the car, they crossed over to Morocco.

If Spain had delighted her, she was overwhelmed by Morocco. It became her favourite place on earth. They went first to Tetuan, then Alcazarquivir, and then took a bus up the coast, stopping at the little fishing village of Asilah. They were captivated by the graveyard with its polychrome tile tombs, and the old Portuguese fort, cannon still pointing seaward. They tried to buy a ruinous building overlooking it, but failing went on to Tangier, reaching it after dark. Woken at 4.30 next morning, Marguerite walked through the still dark streets to the Marshan, whence she saw, for the first time, the sun rise over the Straits of Gibraltar.

Next year they returned and bought a forgotten garden on a hillside two miles east of Tangier, surrounding the dilapidated remains of a summer- house built in the 1890s by the Sharif of Wazan for his English bride, the redoubtable Emily Keene. They restored the house, adding a studio for McBey. He encouraged Marguerite to paint, but she was diffident, preferring to watch him.

Increasingly they divided their time between London and Morocco. McBey's Spanish drawings were a great success in 1933, and he painted portraits in both places, including the widowed Sharidfa and the Sultan's uncle Moulay Larbi el Alaoui. Through him they bought another house in the kasbah at Marrakesh, and became part of the international set that enjoyed its cosmopolitan society, a world whose end was depicted in Casablanca. But they also explored farther afield; with Lord Rowallan they crossed the Tizi-n-Tichka pass to Ouarzazarte. This was the subject of another painting, as well as a breathtaking likeness of Marguerite herself.

The outbreak of war found them by chance in America, visiting Marguerite's family. They had planned to return to Morocco, but the authorities impounded her passport, and they were marooned. McBey painted portraits for a living, they journeyed by car to the West Coast and back, which produced an exhibition at the Smithsonian, and finally settled in a small studio house in Macdougal Alley, off Washington Square. But they could not wait to get back to Morocco. When they finally returned in 1946, all the pent-up longing induced artist's block, and as a diversion Marguerite persuaded her husband to begin his autobiography (finally published in 1977, The Early Life of James McBey has recently been reissued by Canongate Books). Slowly, life got on an even keel again.

By now they were certain that Tangier was where they wanted to live. In 1947 they bought another, larger house on the Vieux Montagne west of the town, El Foolk. Strangely, James had first visited it in 1912, and it became his last home. They enlarged it and Marguerite made a lavender- fringed garden of great beauty. There James died in 1959, and for a long time the motive force went out of Marguerite's life. But Tangier had begun to regain some of the pre-war charm of Marrakesh; an odd collection of diverting and sometimes famous visitors and residents, under the benevolent eye of David Herbert, gave it a new celebrity.

Into this new world Marguerite McBey slipped easily. She began to paint, discovering a style of quick-spreading watercolour that suited portraiture, landscape and still-life equally. It was her own, and quite unlike her husband's calligraphic outline drawing. She became a major benefactress of the Aberdeen Art Gallery, making their collection of McBey's work the best in the world, and the Fogg Museum and Houghton Library at Harvard, to which she gave not only prints but McBey's unique collection of old paper. Dearest and closest of all these good causes was the American School at Tangier, under Joe MacPhillips.

As she grew older she travelled further afield than ever, with her special friend Caroline Duff, whose death in 1973 was a second blow. She continued to paint, still passing most of her time at El Foolk, but coming to London every year, where her exhibitions had a remarkable success (the American School benefiting from the proceeds). Her face hardly changed, and her hair was as copious and dark as ever. Only in the last year or two did her vitality fail. While El Foolk remained her home, reasons of health brought her back to the old London house, where she was devotedly looked after by her housekeeper and visited by her friends. She was the last representative of that cosmopolitan group that first gave Morocco its special glamour, 60 years since.

Marguerite Huntsberry Loeb, painter: born Philadelphia 30 April 1905; married 1931 James McBey (died 1959); died London 21 October 1999.

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