Sometimes it seems the world has a brutish sense of humor.
Marian Acker Macpherson certainly must have thought so. After years spent sketching Mobile’s most beloved homes and buildings — a frantic race against the wrecking ball — Macpherson eventually found her own home trampled under the wheels of progress. The one-time Government Street residence of famed hostess Octavia LeVert, and where Macpherson raised her own young family, was disastrously shaken by the construction of the Bankhead Tunnel and subsequently bulldozed in 1965.
But luckily, Macpherson had the personality to counter the world’s sneering punchlines with her own sense of humor. “Oh, she was great,” remembers Macpherson’s daughter, Paula Watkins. “She was like a big balloon bursting all the time.”
The walls of Watkins’ home near Battles Wharf are dotted with her mother’s artwork. A faint rectangular spot on the wall marks where one of Macpherson’s illustrated maps of the Alabama beaches once hung; it and dozens of other works are currently on display in a special exhibition at the Mobile Carnival Museum. A copy of Macpherson’s map of Mobile Bay remains hanging at Watkins’ home, with the handwritten inscription: “For Paula, who was reared on Mobile Bay.”
“We spent almost every weekend over here,” Watkins remembers. “For heat — you know, people used to have hot water bottles? — Mama would fill up Daddy’s leftover ‘party bottles’ with hot water, roll them in a towel, and that’s how we would sleep.”
Watkins studies this map on the wall, a feast for Lower Alabamian eyes and chock-full of tiny details such as the shipwreck of the USS Tecumseh. She points out her favorite feature of the drawing, a mother and father oyster tucking 15 baby oysters into a long, skinny bed south of Weeks Bay. Oyster beds, the inscription reads.
“You asked what kind of personality Mama had — just cute,” she says, settling the point. Her mother was very social: Mardi Gras Queen 1925, charter member of both the Maids of Mirth and the Mobile Charity League (later renamed the Junior League of Mobile). “Well you can’t be everywhere and do everything,” Macpherson was known to quip, “but you can try.”
Watkins can still picture her mother, drawing at her workbench in a window of the old LeVert home. The natural light was good at this window, and Macpherson could keep one eye on her four children, playing in the yard below.
“There are funny things that you remember,” Watkins says. “One thing is that Mother had a metal box that was long, and the top would open up. And that’s where she kept all of her sacred pencils and things. And it was called her ‘work-work box.’ And you didn’t touch that work-work box.”
Mobile to Massachusetts
Macpherson was born in Mobile in 1906, the same year that her parents bought the LeVert home. She began taking art classes while a student at Barton Academy because “it was fun and it was easy,” she told a reporter for the Azalea City News & Review in 1980. She graduated in 1923 and later enrolled at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston.
“It was no joke,” Macpherson recounted in 1980. “It was hard … I think they took me because they never heard of Mobile and wanted to find out about this part of the country.”
After three years in Boston, Macpherson moved to Cape Cod to study under accomplished etcher W.H.W. Bicknell. Upon her return to Mobile, she was dismayed to discover that so many of the old buildings of her youth had disappeared, so she decided to put her artistic training to use by recording the structures that remained.
Macpherson would go on to publish two books of Mobile etchings, one in 1933 and another in 1940. A later guidebook she called “Glimpses of Old Mobile” would require at least six revisions between 1946 and 1983, as buildings fell into decay or were razed.
It was a hobby Macpherson could practice while raising a family. She met and married John Ritchie Macpherson, known as “Scottie,” who had run away from his home in Edinburgh at 16 to fight with the Gordon Highlanders in World War I. The couple would have four children.
Watkins, their third-born, remembers playing in the cool, soft grass surrounding the Oakleigh House as her mother sketched the mansion in pencil. From the paper, Macpherson would use a stylus to etch her drawings onto a copper plate, from which she could press copies of the engraving.
Macpherson had an ability to imbue the buildings she etched with a fanciful magic, complete with spiraling ironwork and curlicues of Spanish moss. She etched hundreds of the city’s structures, including the Chamberlin-Rapier House at 56 South Conception Street. The location would come to have a terrible significance for Macpherson. In 1955, while standing in the home’s distinctive carriage archway, Scottie suffered a fatal heart attack while watching his wife ride in a Mardi Gras parade. The responding ambulance fought against the parade traffic and lost.
“She raised all of us by herself,” Watkins says.
Preservation and Celebration
Art was her life’s constant, and it flowed in many forms from Macpherson: the aforementioned maps, more than 500 local watercolor vignettes and a wealth of Mardi Gras materials. She drew emblem designs for the majority of the area’s mystic societies founded before 1960, as well as scrolls, poster prints and place settings that today are highly sought after by collectors.
Upon her death in 1993, she left behind a body of work that preserved and celebrated the city she loved. And although it would have been easy to become dismayed by the disintegration of historic buildings or the tragedies that marked her own life, Macpherson retained an optimism that runs thick in her books. Describing the very building where her husband had died, the artist reflected: “Occasionally there is a flicker of life and interest about the old place — a window lights up — a curtain billows out on the soft warm air — an old potted plant bursts out in a wild enthusiasm of riotous blossom — and Old Mobile takes hope again. Perhaps someday this child of her early youth will come into tender hands that can restore it to the mellow richness and charm to which it is entitled.”
Now through October 2021, visit the Mobile Carnival Museum’s exhibit “An Artist, a Lady, and a Queen: The Life, Career and Impact of Marian Acker Macpherson.” 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. M, W, F, Sa; closed T, Th, Su.