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Lost Treasure: The Birmingham Steel Series of Artist Roderick D. MacKenzie AS BIRMINGHAM PREPARED TO CELEBRATE ITS SEMI-CENTENNIAL in 1921, the New South city and the life of a Mobile painter intersected in an unexpected way. The night sky, lit by the flare of molten metal and flowing slag at the furnaces of Fairfield and Ensley, became the inspiration for “The Spirit of the Furnaces,” a series of more than fifty pastel paintings that captured the power and drama of iron and steel production. Magic City residents beheld an extraordinary view of their industrial environment, and the artist, Roderick Dempster MacKenzie, received national acclaim. He had made “works of art out of . . . the supposedly unlovely truth,” wrote a New York art critic in 1924.1 The Steel Series could have become the centerpiece of Birmingham’s historical documentation of its industrial heritage; instead, the outcome was one of tragedy for the artist and a lost treasure for the city. Born in London in 1865, John Roderick Dempster MacKenzie came to Mobile in 1872 with his Scottish parents, John Dempster M A R L E N E H U N T R I K A R D Marlene Hunt Rikard is a professor of history at Samford University. The author would like to thank Peter Allsop at U. S. Steel’s Birmingham headquarters and the following archivists and museum staff for their assistance in the research and identification of the extant paintings of the Steel Series: Paul Richelson and Kurtis Thomas at the Mobile Museum of Art; Shelly Berger at the Museum of Mobile; Graham Boettcher and Alexis Gould at the Birmingham Museum of Art; Karen Utz and Paige Wainwright at Sloss Furnaces Historic Landmark; Elizabeth Wells at Samford University Special Collection; and Yvonne Crumpler at the Tutwiler Collection of Southern History, Birmingham Public Library. This presidential address was read at the annual meeting of the Alabama Historical Association in Opelika, April 14, 2007. 1 Royal Cortissoz, “Random Impressions in Current Exhibitions,” New York Herald Tribune, May 25, 1924, in “Publicity Received from the Press on the MacKenzie Pastels, Work at Night in the Steel Mills,” file 05883.0210, Museum of Mobile (MOM), hereafter cited as “Scrapbook.” The scrapbook is a collection of newspaper articles and other items related to the Steel Series compiled by Roderick Dempster MacKenzie. T H E A L A B A M A R E V I E W 244 MacKenzie and Isabella Jane MacBean McLean MacKenzie, and his younger siblings, Charles Bradlaugh and Anna Bella Hane. Isabella gave birth to two more children in Mobile: Robert Burns, born January 1873, and John David, born January 1878.2 Roderick inherited artistic talent from both sides of his family. A painter of heraldry, scrolls, and carriages in Britain, John MacKenzie followed the same general line of decorative painting in Mobile as an employee of the railroad. Isabella’s brother, Robert McLean, was known as a promising painter in Scotland before his death at the age of twenty-seven.3 Growing up, Roderick watched his father paint landscapes and began painting himself by the age of nine; he supposedly sold paintings of dogs when he was twelve.4 2 John Dempster MacKenzie, born 1836, Glasgow, Scotland; Isabella MacKenzie, born 1838, Fortrose, Ross-shire, Scotland. John and Isabella married August 1864, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Eden Square, London, England. Roderick MacKenzie, born April 30, 1865, London. Charles Bradlaugh, born January 1868, London. Anna Bella Hane, born February 1871, Fortrose, Ross-shire, Scotland. Jacqueline Marie Southall Snow, “Family genealogy and information,” typescript, vertical file: “Roderick MacKenzie,” Alabama Artists-MacKenzie, Roderick, clipping file, Tutwiler Collection of Southern History, Birmingham Public Library, Birmingham, Alabama, hereafter cited as Tutwiler Collection; John Dempster MacKenzie to Dr. R. G. Southall, April 4, 1881, typescript copy, file 5883.193, MOM. See also, John Roderick Dempster MacKenzie, born 1865, Kensington, Greater London, London, Middlesex, in England & Wales, in Civil Registration Index of Births, Marriages and Deaths for England and Wales, 1837–1983 Record, “Births Registered in April, May, June 1865,” 749, accessed through the FreeBMD Web site, http://www.freebmd. org.uk. Jacqueline Snow, the grandniece of Roderick MacKenzie, met the artist when she...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-9961
Print ISSN
0002-4341
Pages
pp. 243-284
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-11
Open Access
No
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