Zohra, Moroccan girl sleeping

The Fine Art Society and Robert Simon Fine Art

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James McBey (1883-1959)
Zohra, Moroccan girl sleeping
oil on canvas
18 x 24 in. • 45.7 x 61 cm
28 1/2 x 34 1/2 in. • 72.4 x 87.6 cm


Private collection, Edinburgh

Further Information

McBey first visited Morocco in 1912 with Scottish-born Canadian artist James Kerr Lawson who he had met in London. Their journey was centred around Tangier and the market city of Tétouan, and the pair were captivated by the strong light, people and architecture. "It is really a wonderful place," wrote McBey. "From an artist's point of view the material is unlimited but it would take years to tap it, if it could be managed at all." On the final day of their trip, they took note of a hillside property overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar that would one day become McBey's home.

Twenty years after this first visit, James and Marguerite McBey crossed to Morocco during a visit to Spain and soon made arrangements to live there. They first stayed for the winter months but increasingly Morocco became their preferred country of residence. Their first properties at Tangier and Marrakesh served as preludes for 'El Foolk', the house McBey had seen in 1912 and purchased with 30 acres of garden in 1949. Much of the last decade of McBey's life was spent here working on the house and garden, which the two documented extensively through photographs and sketches.

Like Spain and the coasts of America, the light of Morocco was particularly suited to McBey's use of watercolour. Rather than using layers of pigment with free brushwork, his preference was to combine detailed pen and ink drawing with washes of pure pigment. The resulting works are light and clear, combining the draughtsmanship of his etching with the vibrancy of his surroundings. While the landscape served McBey well, Islamic teachings made it difficult to find sitters for his portraiture. He travelled to London and New York for Western commissions, while his Moroccan models were largely street vendors and prostitutes. In 1936 he convinced a young acrobatic performer and his five- year-old sister, Zohra, to sit for him, and the children became friends with the McBey family. Zohra would continue to sit for McBey for many years in some of his most sensitive paintings: a portrait of her hangs in The American Legation at Tangier, and another in this exhibition.