Archive of Acclaimed Biographer Fiona MacCarthy Acquired

  • 10 January 2024

Following recent changes to the Centre’s Archive Collection Development policy, we are excited to announce the acquisition of a second collection which further explores our new collecting criteria: the Fiona MacCarthy Archive and selected Library items were acquired in August 2023.

MacCarthy (1940–2020) was a cultural historian and one of the most distinguished biographers of the late twentieth century. A meticulous researcher of her subjects and author of a series of publications that received great critical acclaim. Her archive, which comprises predominantly extensive original correspondence, presents an incredibly rich resource, holding appeal across a wide range of disciplines.

Starting her career as a journalist in the 1960s, MacCarthy is best known for her studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art and design. Turning her hand to biography, she published her first book, The Simple Life: C.R. Ashbee in the Cotswolds in 1981. Her biography of Eric Gill, published in 1989, was both controversial and groundbreaking. Her next work, a magisterial biography of William Morris, was universally acclaimed. Works on Edward Burne-Jones and Walter Gropius followed. Alongside her literary pursuits, MacCarthy continued to work as a journalist, critic and curator writing essays and reviews on a range of art and design concerns for a variety of publications including the Guardian and Times Literary Supplement. She curated exhibitions on the Omega Workshop, Stanley Spencer and William Morris.

The MacCarthy Archive is focused on the books she authored and exhibitions she curated. There are letters from a wide range of individuals, including scholars, art historians, authors, journalists, publishers, editors, designers, critics and friends. Given the nature of her work – the relationships established and the conversations held via letter were often extensive and deeply personal. In this regard, the correspondence exchanged with family members and individuals directly known to biographical subjects is extraordinarily rich. The files on Eric Gill, for example, include correspondence with Gill’s daughter Petra, his literary executor Walter Shewring and the Carmelite friar Brocard Sewell (who MacCarthy referred to as “a tower of strength in the furore that followed publication”). Such material presents an important resource, supporting difficult conversations around contemporary issues in the field – not least how to present and write about artists with controversial reputations. Similarly, correspondence with his daughters in the Stanley Spencer files provides a rich seam of information concerning the curation of artistic legacies. The collection also illuminates the landscape of an individual working on the fringes of what might previously have been considered academic art history. It reveals the networks involved and explores how MacCarthy executed her craft.

The MacCarthy Archive, then, presents a valuable research resource. Furthermore, it demonstrates the potential of the Centre’s revised archive collecting policy which recognises that the histories of British art have been created by people who might not necessarily have described themselves as professional “art historians” and now embraces individuals working in a diversity of roles. As does the Petherbridge Archive, publicised last month; they both address gaps in the Centre’s holdings. Not only is it the second of three collections, created by women, to have been acquired by the Centre in the last twelve months, correspondence with family members and individuals directly known to biographical subjects surfaces voices that may have been marginalised in previous art-historical narratives. The MacCarthy Archive has not yet been catalogued but a boxlist is available and the material is open for consultation.

To accompany the Archive, the Centre was offered Fiona MacCarthy’s library. The collection contains books acquired by the author to support the wide-ranging and in-depth research she undertook for her publications. There is considerable overlap with existing holdings but, as her collections are so rich and so deep, it has been possible to augment the Centre’s holdings on various subjects. Key among these are books and exhibition catalogues on William Morris, including some nineteenth-century publications and political pamphlets. There are also a number of books on the history of bookbinding and fine press publishing, an area that the Centre has not previously collected extensively. To add to the library, numerous published pamphlets have been extracted from MacCarthy’s Archive files. These reflect her many publishing projects and the collection is particularly strong on individual artists and designers and the history of design. So far, more than one hundred and fifty books have been added to the library catalogue and there are in addition two bankers’ boxes of pamphlets, yet to be logged.

We are grateful to Corin Mellor for donating the Archive and Library, and to Richard Calvocoressi who helped facilitate the acquisition.

For more information on the Paul Mellon Centre’s collections see here.  

The Centre’s revised Archive Collection Development policy is available here.