b. 1940 – d. 2020
Fiona MacCarthy was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997.
Fiona MacCarthy was a design historian, biographer and cultural critic.
Fiona MacCarthy remembered – by Marina Warner
Fiona MacCarthy was made a Fellow of the RSL in 1997. Her work over more than fifty years describes a satisfyingly shapely arc, from incisive writings on design in the Sixties through to her intrepid biography of the architect Walter Gropius, published last year. They show her sustained commitment to the importance of aesthetics in ordinary surroundings, her deep knowledge of arts and crafts, and her sensitivity to the tastes and customs of this country. After many articles in the Guardian, House & Garden, and other papers, she wrote a biography of the utopian designer Victorian C.R. Ashbee (1981), striking a note of social idealism that would sound through all her subsequent work. Her major biographies, of Eric Gill (1989), William Morris (1994), Stanley Spencer (1997) and Edward Burne-Jones (2011) make up a magnificent quartet, filled with perceptive life-writing and sure-footed art critical judgement.
Her research was thorough and unflinching: when she found, in Gill’s private papers, the shocking chronicle of his incestuous relations with his children, she chose to disclose it, straightforwardly and without salaciousness. The revelations caused an uproar. Fiona stood firm, arguing that a biographer must own up to a subject’s life as it emerges from the archive, without cover up or protests. Her attitude tells us something unexpected and altogether admirable about her: although in person she was wry, often amused, deeply sympathetic and wise – I benefited again and again from her calm advice – she resisted conformity. In 2002, she made a detour from the visual arts to write Byron: Life and Legend, possibly her favourite among all her books. The dashing figure of the poet, the lover, and the revolutionary, called to her very profoundly.
Her upbringing was unusual, yet she was destined for a profoundly conventional life: her mother, who was widowed in 1943 (Fiona was just three, her sister younger), moved the family into the Dorchester Hotel, which was owned by Sir Robert MacAlpine, Fiona’s grandfather; she was sent to boarding school at Wycombe Abbey, and then, in 1958, she did ‘the season’. She was in the last cohort of young women to be presented at court and her memoir Last Curtsey (2007) vividly captures her experiences as a debutante. She then went to Oxford, and soon after made what was thought a ‘good marriage’ and quickly realised such a life was not for her. She broke free, fell in love with David Mellor (1930-2009), the charismatic Sheffield silversmith and designer whom she had gone to interview for the Guardian. In the British class system, David came from another world. Fiona would still recount – with a rueful twinkle – the dreadful shock she gave her mother.
The partnership with David was inspiring; together they commissioned, from the architect Mike Hopkins, some exceptionally fine modern work-spaces-cum-homes, including the Round Building in Hathersage where the design firm is still based, now run by their son Corin. They lived according to their ideals: he made things – from saucepans to traffic lights – which were beautiful as well as useful, and Fiona dug deep into the history of vernacular and democratic aesthetics in Britain. William Morris was their house philosopher, but their taste inclined to clear lines and subtle contrasts, Bauhaus rather than Victoriana, and her writing style reflects this emphasis. Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, an exhibition Fiona curated at the National Portrait Gallery in 2014, summed up her long view of a neglected strand in the English aesthetic environment.
It was however Walter Gropius, an international visionary, who inspired Fiona’s last book. The research took her far and wide and she enjoyed the travelling and the looking and the digging in archives. Before she had finished, however, she was diagnosed with lymphoma. Her determination to bring the book to fruition was extraordinary, and she succeeded, communicating new insights into this towering and complex twentieth- century figure. The last time she was able to come to London was for the publication in October last year.
As a writer, Fiona had enviably good habits, which I try but fail to emulate: every morning, she would go to her writing shed at some distance from the house and work steadily till lunchtime. And when she’d finished a book, she would clear away all the papers associated with it to start afresh on the next task. She had lovely handwriting, a true mirror of her mind. To see her making a meal, without fuss, without mess, was to realise that her artistry was woven into the whole fabric of her personality. Throughout her life and her friendships, she showed a disarming blend of gentle humour and serious, passionate vocation. I shall miss her very much, as will her many friends and family. But we can still read her, and we shall.
Fiona MacCarthy, OBE, FRSL, design historian, biographer and cultural critic (23 January 1940 – 29 February 2020) survived by her two children, Corin and Clare.