Early life and education
Fiona MacCarthy was born into an upper class background, from which she spent much of her life escaping. Her father, an army officer, was killed in World War II when she was a child of three. She was brought up in London. Her grandmother, the Baroness de Belabre, was a daughter of Sir Robert McAlpine who built and owned the Dorchester Hotel and much of her childhood was spent in the hotel. The concrete construction of the Dorchester was said to make it bomb-proof and her whole family, as well as leading politicians, socialites and military commanders, took refuge in the Dorchester during the Blitz.
She was educated at Wycombe Abbey School. In 1958, she was a debutante (presented to the Queen), the final year of this 200-year-old ritual, an experience she recounts in her 2007 memoir, Last Curtsey: the End of the Debutantes. 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.
She began her career on The Guardian in the 1960s as a features writer and columnist before becoming a biographer and critic. 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. MacCarthy is known for her arts essays and reviews, appearing regularly in The Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books. She has contributed to TV and radio arts programmes.
Her first marriage ended in divorce. In 1966 she married the Sheffield-based silversmith and cutlery designer David Mellor. She first met him when she went to interview him for The Guardian. They had two children Corin and Clare, both of whom have now become designers. After suffering for some years from dementia, David Mellor died in May 2009.
Awards and honours
She was appointed OBE for services to literature in the 2009 Birthday Honours. She holds honorary doctorates from the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University and was awarded the Bicentenary Medal of the Royal Society of Arts.
Her 1994 biography William Morris: A Life for our Time 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. She is now writing a life of Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus.
She has always been especially interested in the meeting point between the visual and verbal. Counter-culture movements have fascinated her and she has written widely on the idealistic arts and crafts communities that followed on from William Morris. Her approach to biography has been in concentrating on a single central figure as a means to opening out a whole, richly complex social and intellectual scene.
- 1972 All Things Bright and Beautiful: British Design 1830 to Today
- 1981 The Simple Life: C. R. Ashbee in the Cotswolds
- 1984 The Omega Workshops: Decorative Arts of Bloomsbury
- 1989 Eric Gill (ISBN 0-571-13754-7)
- 1994 William Morris: A Life for our Time (ISBN 0-394-58531-3)
- 1997 Stanley Spencer: An English Vision (ISBN 978-0300073379)
- 2002 Byron: Life and Legend (ISBN 0-7195-5621-X)
- 2007 Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes (ISBN 0-571-22859-3)
- 2011 The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (ISBN 978-0-571-22861-4)
She has curated the following exhibitions:
- Homespun to Highspeed: British Design 1860 to 1960 for Sheffield Museums and Art Galleries, 1979
- The Omega Workshops: Decorative Arts of Bloomsbury for the Crafts Council, 1984
- Eye for Industry: retrospective of the Royal Designers for the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1986
- Byron for the National Portrait Gallery, 2002
- Anarchy and Beauty, William Morris and his Legacy for the National Portrait Gallery, 2014
- Paul Laity. The Guardian, 2 Sept 2011. "A life in writing: Fiona MacCarthy"
- Matthew J. Reisz. The Independent. 6 Oct 2006. "Fiona MacCarthy: The Last Debutante"
- Profile on The Guardian site
- "Royal Society of Literature All Fellows". Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 10 August 2010.
- The London Gazette: . 13 June 2009.