Fiona MacCarthy

Born(1940-01-23)23 January 1940
Sutton, Surrey
Died29 February 2020(2020-02-29) (aged 80)

Fiona MacCarthy OBE (23 January 1940 – 29 February 2020) was a British biographer and cultural historian best known for her studies of 19th- and 20th-century art and design.

Early life and education

Fiona MacCarthy was born in Sutton, Surrey into an upper-class background, from which she spent much of her life escaping. Her father, Gerald MacCarthy, was an officer in the Royal Artillery and was killed in action in North Africa during the Second World War in 1943.[1] Fiona MacCarthy, her sister and mother, Yolande, lived in London and then Scotland before returning to London.[2] Her grandmother, the Baroness de Belabre, was a daughter of Sir Robert McAlpine, 1st Baronet, who built and owned the Dorchester Hotel, and much of her childhood was spent in the hotel. Supposedly safe from bombing raids, her family took refuge there during The Blitz.[1]

MacCarthy was educated at Wycombe Abbey School.[3] In 1958, after a spell in Paris, she was a debutante being presented to the Queen at Queen Charlotte's Ball in the final year of the 200-year-old ritual, an experience MacCarthy recounted in her memoir, Last Curtsey: the End of the Debutantes (2007).[4] She was one of only four of that year's debutantes to go on to university, in her case studying for a degree in English literature at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.[2]


After graduation, MacCarthy's first job was as a merchandise editor and then journalist on House & Garden magazine.[2] MacCarthy joined The Guardian in 1963 initially as an assistant to the women's editor Mary Stott.[1] She was then appointed the newspaper's design correspondent, working as a features writer and columnist, sometimes using a pseudonymous byline to avoid two articles appearing in the same issue.[2] In this role, she interviewed David Hockney, Betty Friedan and John Lennon among others.[2] She left The Guardian in 1969, briefly becoming women's editor of the London Evening Standard, before settling in Sheffield.[2]

In Sheffield, MacCarthy became a biographer and critic. After writing a biography of the arts and crafts designer C. R. Ashbee, she came to wider attention as a biographer with a once-controversial study of the Roman Catholic craftsman and sculptor Eric Gill, first published in 1989.[2] Subsequent biographies of Stanley Spencer in 1997 and of Byron in 2002 enhanced her reputation for undertaking detailed research into her subjects.[2] MacCarthy was also known for her arts essays and reviews, which appeared in The Guardian,[5] The Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books. She contributed to TV and radio arts programmes.

Awards and honours

Fiona MacCarthy was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (1997),[6] an Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art.

She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature in the 2009 Birthday Honours.[7] She was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University and was awarded the Bicentenary Medal of the Royal Society of Arts.

Her biography William Morris: A Life for our Time (1994) was winner of the Wolfson History Prize and the Writers' Guild Non-fiction Award. The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination won the 2012 James Tait Black prize for Biography. Her life of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, was published in March 2019.

Personal life

Her first marriage to Ian White-Thompson ended in divorce. In 1966, she married the Sheffield-based silversmith and cutlery designer David Mellor.[4] She first met him when she went to interview him for The Guardian in 1964.[2] They had two children, Corin and Clare, both of whom have now become designers. After suffering from dementia for some years, Mellor died in May 2009.[8]

Fiona MacCarthy died on 29 February 2020, aged 80.[2]



She curated the following exhibitions:


  1. ^ a b c "Fiona MacCarthy, biographer who caused a sensation by revealing Eric Gill's sexual quirks – obituary". The Daily Telegraph. 6 March 2020. Retrieved 6 March 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Horwell, Veronica (29 February 2020). "Fiona MacCarthy obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 February 2020.
  3. ^ Paul Laity (2 September 2011). "A life in writing: Fiona MacCarthy". The Guardian.
  4. ^ a b Matthew J. Reisz. (6 October 2006). "Fiona MacCarthy: The Last Debutante"". The Independent.
  5. ^ Profile on The Guardian site
  6. ^ "Royal Society of Literature All Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Archived from the original on 5 March 2010. Retrieved 10 August 2010.
  7. ^ "No. 59090". The London Gazette (Supplement). 13 June 2009. p. 11.
  8. ^ "Remembering the cutlery master David Mellor, 1930-2009" (PDF). Newview. Sheffield Hallam University. August 2009. p. 22.