Category Archives: Art and artists

Artist-travellers in Egypt.

The art of Susan Weeks

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Poking around in the archives of the American University in Cairo the other week I came across a box labeled “Susan Weeks”. Susan was the wife of Egyptologist Kent Weeks, rediscoverer of the KV 5 tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Susan worked with Kent as part of the Theban Mapping Project, for which she was ceramics expert, registrar, headquarters supervisor, project archivist and chief architect until her tragically premature death in December 2009. The box contained some of her pencil and ink sketches and watercolours. If you’ve ever seen a copy of Kent’s book The Lost Tomb, then you will have seen Susan’s sketches, one of which heads each chapter. Unfortunately, the reproductions in the book are not very good – not in the paperback, anyway – so to see the original pieces is a thrill. Plus the book is in black and white and doesn’t have any colour pieces. Below is a selection of some of the work from the archive, only two of which feature in the book. It’s just a small sampling, pieces I particularly liked, and there is much, much more. It’s a shame the work is so little seen. Maybe one day we’ll get to see it published in a book.

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An early aviation meet

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I bought the wonderful poster that in a slightly Photoshopped form features on the cover of Grand Hotels of Egypt from an auction house in New York. I’ve been on its mailing list ever since. The latest online catalogue pinged into my inbox yesterday and one of the items in a forthcoming 25 February sale caught my eye (see above). According to the catalogue description it is a poster promoting the first aviation meet held in Africa, which was organized by Baron Édouard Empain and took place at Heliopolis. This poster doesn’t include the date, but it was 6–13 February 1910. In other words, just seven years after the historic Wright Brothers flight that marked the birth of powered aviation.

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For the purpose of the meet an Egyptian Aero Club was created, and the event was also supported by the Automobile Club of Egypt, the Egyptian Tourism Association and the French Ligue National Aérienne. The head of the organising committee was Prince Ahmed Fouad, who would in 1922 become King Fouad I. A five-kilometre course was laid out in the desert, overlooked by two grandstands, and 12 pilots and 18 planes were entered in the competition. The flyers arrived by ship from France. Several had their planes damaged en route. Among the pilots was the Baroness Raymonde de Laroche, real name Élise Deroche, and the first woman ever to enter an aviation meeting. A total prize fund of 212,000 francs was raised for what would be several days of competitions for distance, speed and altitude. One of the events was the Prix Boghos Pacha Nubar, offering 10,000 francs for a flight from Heliopolis around the Cheops pyramid and back.

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The organising committee for the meet

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One of the flyers and the Heliopolis meet

The official opening day was Sunday 6 February, a perfect day for flying with a clear sky and no wind. Several pilots went up and made test hops. One landing caused a horse to take fright and it ran over a Mr Tarihaki, who had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Flying was a new and enormous novelty and the first day of the event drew 40,000 people. The following days were a bit hit and miss: at this time the planes were little more than string and canvas, and any bad weather meant they stayed grounded. One day’s flying was cancelled because of a sandstorm, while heavy winds on another day caused the race to the Pyramids to be called off. Mechanical mishaps and crashes – one pilot crashed four times – kept other aircraft grounded but at least there were no deaths (death being a common occupational hazard for early aviators). You can find out more about the meet here.

As for the poster, it was painted by French artist Marguerite Montaut, who was the wife of a famous French automobile illustrator Ernest Montaut. She specialised in aviation subjects, which she sometimes painted under the pseudonym Gamy, an anagram of her nickname Magy. Here’s some more of her work:

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Vedrines flying his 'Borel' monoplane, c 1911.

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The Heliopolis poster is being sold by Poster Auctions International of New York; the estimate is $1,200 to $1,500, which strikes me as very reasonable given its rarity and historical significance, not to mention its beauty.

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Edward Ardizzone in Cairo

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So, more about that Parade cover I posted before Christmas. Or, more specifically, more about the person who drew it. Edward Ardizzone (1900–79) was once a hugely popular English artist and illustrator, revered in particular for his series of Little Tim children’s books. During World War II he worked as a war artist, documenting the experiences of soldiers and civilians in England and across Europe. While sketching the devastation caused by the ongoing Blitz in London he was arrested by the Home Guard as a spy. In 1942, the War Office sent Ardizzone to the Middle East. He arrived in Cairo in May during preparations for the Allied offensive at El Alamein. He was given lodgings in Garden City, in a room above the offices of the soldiers’ magazine Parade, for which he did illustrations and that special Christmas cover.

Even before I discovered his Cairo connection, I’d always been an Ardizzone fan. For me, it is his love of the intimate and ordinary, along with his humour. While in Egypt he went out into the desert, attached to the mechanized Second Battalion of the Rifle Brigade, and dutifully recorded scenes of warfare, but I suspect he was much more at home in Cairo. He followed the soldiers into the bazaars and drew them having their photographs taken or shopping for silks and other luxuries to send back home to England where such things were unavailable. In London he was an avid frequenter of pubs, which he celebrated in a wonderful little book called The Local, which is full of his drawings of humble public barrooms and their gossipy, boozy clientele. In Cairo he sought out similar places. He frequented places like Badia’s Casino, Groppi’s and the Gezira Club, which he drew, leaving us tantalizing sketches of the city’s wartime nightlife as experienced by off-duty British officers (all such places were off-limits to common soldiers, of course).

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Badia’s Casino

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The Bar at Badia’s Casino

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The Gezira Club

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Light Horse at Groppi’s

Ardizzone also drew a nightclub called Dolls. One of the posts on this site last year featured pages from Schindler’s Guide to Cairo, from 1942/43, and on one of those pages is an ad for ‘Dolls music hall and cabaret’. It’s not somewhere I know anything about but from the guide’s description it sounds quite a joint: on Sharia Malika Farida (these days Abdel Khalek Sarwat), it is described as one of Cairo’s leading cabarets, with a hundred tables and entertainment nightly by the “well-known” Black and White Band. When the cabaret began the dance floor was automatically raised to give everyone the best view.

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Dolls Nightclub

Ardizzone was in Egypt for just a few months before moving on to Sicily, mainland Italy and Normandy before being discharged from the army in 1945. He lived until 1979 producing masses of work, mostly illustrations for books, but also pieces of commercial advertising and other odd commissions such as an altar piece. Sadly, he is very much out of fashion these days, although there was an excellent exhibition devoted to his work and life here in London last year and, to tie in with it, a superb book Edward Ardizzone: Artist and Illustrator by Alan Powers (Lund Humphries, £40).

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Compliments of the season, Mrs ‘Arris

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The cover of Parade magazine, 19 December 1942, entitled “The Soldiers Dream” or “Christmas Eve at the Local” and drawn by Edward Ardizzone. Parade was published in Cairo and distributed to the Allied forces in Egypt and around the Mediterranean. More on Ardizzone and Egypt to come in the New Year. Meanwhile, my own compliments of the season to you.

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Schindler of Cairo

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It is a name usually associated with lifts and lists, but in Cairo in the 1930s and ’40s the most prominent Schindler was a printer and publisher of English- and French-language books. From a Downtown office at 41 Sharia Madabegh (now Sharia Sherif), E & R Schindler put out a variety of books on Egyptian subjects, including regularly updated guides to Cairo and Alexandria, along with what were possibly the company’s best-selling titles, Rambles in Cairo and Moslem Builders of Cairo, both by Mrs RL Devonshire. Mrs Devonshire was a rather formidable French lady, born Henriette Caroline Vulliamy, who married a British lawyer, Robert Llewellyn Devonshire, and who was a great expert in Islamic architecture. According to Artemis Cooper in Cairo in the War 1939–1945, a tour of the city’s mosques in her company was a must for any cultivated visitor to Cairo. Mrs RLD was a historic monument in her own right, like Gertrude Stein in Paris. On three afternoons a week, in both world wars, she took members of the armed forces round the major Islamic monuments free of charge.

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Schindler’s most curious book, though, was something called From Siwa to Cairo: Across the Libyan Desert with Armoured Cars by Major MTI Dun, dso, mc, ramc. It is not so much the subject matter – a drive across the desert to Siwa and back that took place in late 1932 – as the presentation. An officer in the XIIth Royal Lancers, Major Dun was also a man of culture. His book is part travelogue, part art book. Packaged between golden covers, the pages are embellished with deco-style page ornamentations, woodcuts by members of Cairo’s School of Fine Arts and, running along the bottom of the text, small pen-and-ink sketches of the convoy of 10 Rolls Royce armoured cars, one Leyland radio truck, three Austin Seven cars and a motorcycle making its way across the sands.

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The charming convoy drawings are credited to N Strekalowsky, but the book offers no further information about the artist. The expedition was completely uneventful, with no accidents or emergencies – the only action was a football match between the British soldiers and their Egyptian counterparts at Sollum. It’s all a bit of wheeze.

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Cairo to Siwa also contains this excellent map (click to enlarge). As the text rightly points out, ‘We know a town better by its buildings and shops than by the names of its streets’ and this map is heavily annotated with all the landmarks that played a role in the lives of many foreign residents in Cairo in the 1930s. You can reconstruct those lives from it: the restaurants Groppi’s, Gattegno, Aval de Venise; Shepheard’s, the Continental-Savoy and National hotels; Davies Bryan, Circurel and Chemla department stores; the bars and restaurants on Alfi Bey Street; and the branches of P&O, Cox & Kings and Thomas Cook for tickets home again. There are a few mysteries too: the lady with her legs astride a building that is being torn apart at the corner of Suleiman Pasha and Fouad al-Awal streets, what’s that about? And the squatting chap with a beard and turban on the corner of Emad ad-Din and Fouad al-Awal? I can get lost for hours here.

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Horeau show

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Hector Horeau, born in Versailles in 1801, had little luck as an architect. He won the competition for a covered market in Versailles in 1839 and for the design of the main building for the 1851 Great Exhibition of London (pictured above). Neither of these projects was realized with Horeau’s designs. The same happened with his 1849 proposals for Les Halles, the main market of Paris. He came up with a scheme for the construction of a railway tunnel under the Channel, connecting France and Britain (pictured below) – needless to say it never happened, not for another 150 years, anyway. None of his completed projects exists or can be identified. Horeau remains known only to architectural historians, who regard him as a pioneer in cast-iron, even if most of his work went unbuilt.

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There is another body of work by Horeau, which is equally unheralded, although highly regarded by those who know about it. During the first part of his life he travelled extensively around Europe and also in Egypt. He was in Egypt in 1838, the same year David Roberts arrived, and like the Scot, Horeau explored the country with paintbrush in hand, producing a great many watercolours and sketches. Some of these were published in a portfolio with the snappy title Panorama d’Égypte et de Nubie, avec un Portrait de Méhémet-Ali et un Texte Orné de Vignettes. Rare copies of this sell for upwards of US$1,200 and, as far as I know, there have never been any reprints. Happily and quite amazingly, Horeau’s original watercolours survive and are held by the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, which has conserved, scanned and put them on line. Here are a few:

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In all, the institute has some 130 paintings and they are magnificent. They show Egypt and its monuments as they would have been seen by early travellers, before they were fully excavated or cleared of debris. For my money, they have far more life and colour to them than Roberts’ far better known but bloodless drawings. To see more, go here.

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Opera Square in the 1940s

h4145-l103686233The painting above (click to enlarge) is of Opera Square from a balcony at the Continental-Savoy. It’s by François Krige (1913–1994), an artist I had never heard of, but a quick Google reveals he was a South African who painted in a ‘Post-Impressionist style which formed early in his career, influenced by his travels and studies in Europe’. He was in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Italy as a wartime artist during the Second World War, which is possibly when this painting dates from. I love the vitality and life about it, and the fact that there across the square, you can make out the terrace of the legendary Madam Badia’s casino.

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Mystery Heliopolis pics

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I have had the images above and below sitting on my hard drive for several years now. Obviously, they are the Baron’s Palace in Heliopolis, but that’s all I know. Who painted them and when? And why? And where do they come from?

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If anyone has any information on the origins of these paintings I would love to hear from you.

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Fauvism comes to Shepheard’s

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The painting above is new to me – I stumbled across this image online only last week. It’s titled ‘At Shepheard’s Restaurant’ and it was painted in 1928 by Dutch-French artist Kees van Dongen. I’d only vaguely heard of van Dongen. I knew he was a Fauvist, part of that colourfully slapdash group that grasped the baton from Impressionism in France in the early years of the 20th century and whose leading light was Henri Matisse. What I didn’t know was that, like Matisse, who was majorly inspired by his travels in Morocco, van Dongen also went looking for inspiration in North Africa. Around the same time Matisse was in Tangier (1912–13), van Dongen was in Egypt. But whereas Matisse saw Morocco through Orientalist eyes, knocking out a series of bare-breasted odalisques, van Dongen carried with him his preoccupations from Paris, which notably included nightlife, partying, high society and pretty women. These he apparently found at Cairo’s hotels and also, it seems, cafes, judging by the painting below (titled ‘The Cairo Bar’).

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Van Dongen wasn’t totally immune to the temptations of Orientalism, however; he also produced a series of lurid illustrations for an edition of the Arabian Nights that would have titillated European readers with its significant nipple count.

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More light on Lance

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I’ve written about the artist Lance Thackeray before on this site – click on the link in the word cloud to the right. What I like about him – and, again, I have said this before – is not only was he a brilliantly talented draughtsman, but unlike most foreign visitors to Egypt in the early 20th century he seems refreshingly free of condescension toward the country and its people. Instead, he tended to poke fun at his fellow travellers, who in his drawings frequently appear as figures of ridicule, fat, out-of-breath, over-dressed, sunburnt, falling asleep in temples…

The man himself, though, has always been a bit of mystery. I managed to find out very little about him. That has recently changed a little with the appearance of a new book, Lance Thackeray: His Life & Art by historian Tom Askey.

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Askey’s interest is in Edwardian illustrators and the book is good at placing Thackeray in the context of his time. He was part of a busy London sketching-and-socialising scene that regularly met in upstairs rooms and boozed with ink brushes to hand. He was moderately successful, landing commissions to illustrate several books and being sent off to America by Tatler. How he ended up in Egypt isn’t quite explained but it may have something to do with the Orientalist painter Robert Talbot Kelly, who’d settled in Egypt in 1883 and published a book called Egypt Painted and Described in 1902. According to Askey, the two artists knew each other and it’s possible Talbot Kelly sold Thackeray on the idea of heading out to Cairo and doing a book of his own (that’s Lance, at the top of this post, sketching in Egypt). When Thackeray’s book, The Light Side of Egypt, appeared in 1907, it was with the same publisher that put out Talbot Kelly’s book.

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Askey’s book lacks any details of Thackeray’s time in Egypt. If the artist kept any journals, they haven’t survived. There are no letters, no diaries, no private papers. Thackeray never married and there are no descendants with any kind of archive. Askey has had to stitch together a life out of fragments scattered in public records and newspaper notices.

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One of his discoveries, though, was the catalogue to a July 1908 exhibition held at the Leicester Galleries on Leicester Square, London, shared between Thackeray and Talbot Kelly. Talbot Kelly had sixty watercolours in the show, Thackery had sixty-six. The catalogue lists the titles of the works and thirty-six of these paintings are included in The Light Side of Egypt. The other thirty are lost. It was a selling exhibition, so some of them could still be in private hands and may one day resurface. One of the pieces in the show, reproduced in the book, was a sketch of a mule throwing its guidebook-carrying rider, entitled ‘A Stopping Place on the Nile’. It turned up on ebay a few years ago. It now hangs above my desk.

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