Category Archives: Art and artists

Artist-travellers in Egypt.

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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The Cataract aka the ‘Grand Hotel’

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Nice to see Aswan’s Cataract hotel enjoying plenty of screen-time as it takes the lead role in the ritzy Ramadan TV series Grand Hotel. I have only seen the first two episodes so far but there are lots of scenes in the hotel’s Nile-side gardens and some on the terrace with its views of the river and desert beyond. But it seems the production wasn’t given permission to film inside the hotel because the interiors – at least in the first two episodes – were definitely not shot at the Cataract.

In honour of the series, here are a few things you may or may not know about the Cataract.

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It was built by Cook & Son

The hotel was financed by the English travel company Thomas Cook & Son. The railway had arrived in Aswan in 1898, bringing far more visitors to the town than the existing hotels could cope with. For a few seasons Cook & Son had been accommodating some of these tourists on one of its Nile cruisers, which was permanently moored on the Corniche at Aswan as a floating hotel. In 1899, the company decided to address the problem by commissioning a grand new hotel.

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Mummies were harmed in the construction
Construction began in 1899 on nine feddans bought from the state. There was considerable controversy when Al-Ahram reported that workmen leveling the driveway to the hotel had come upon two hundred mummies which they then destroyed with their picks.

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It was an immediate hit
The hotel opened to guests on 8 January 1900. It was two storeys high with 120 rooms, the majority south-facing with balconies overlooking the Nile. Forty more bedrooms were added later that year but the following season the number of visitors was so great that tents had to be erected in the grounds to house the overflow. So in 1902, the hotel gained a third story with an additional sixty rooms, bringing the total number of rooms to 220.

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It was critically acclaimed
The architect of the hotel was an Englishman with the very un-English name of Henri Favarger. He was the same architect responsible for the Mena House out by the Pyramids in Cairo. The highlight of the Mena House was Favarger’s Moorish dining hall and at the Cataract he created an even more dramatic dining space, a great octagonal, double-height hall topped by a central dome seventy-five feet high. The press described it as “unmatched even in Europe”. You can still see Favarger’s name etched into a stone at the foot of one of the columns.

…but not by everybody
Not everyone was a fan of the hotel. French travel writer Pierre Loti, who was generally appalled by the Europeanisation of Egypt. “Cook & Son have even gone so far as to conceive the idea that it would be original to give to their establishment a certain cachet of Islam. And the dining-room reproduces the interior of one of the mosques of Stamboul. At the luncheon hour,” he wrote with dripping sarcasm, “it is one of the prettiest sights in the world to see, under this imitation holy cupola, all the little tables crowded with Cook’s tourists of both sexes, while a concealed orchestra strikes up the Mattchiche.” English travel writer Douglas Sladen was almost as scathing: he thought the hotel looked like a county asylum.

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There is no evidence Agatha Christie stayed at the Cataract
Despite the claims of the hotel – and everybody else taking these claims as fact – there is no evidence Agatha Christie ever stayed at the Cataract. She holidayed in Egypt twice in the early 1930s and passed through Aswan on a Nile cruise. Her descriptions of the hotel in her twenty-second novel, Death on the Nile, prove that she certainly visited the hotel but passengers on Nile cruises tended to sleep in their cabins on the boats while in Upper Egypt. I’m not saying categorically she did not take a room at the Cataract, simply that there is no evidence to say she did.

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It attracted repeat visitors
A Lord Benbrook, a regular guest at the hotel, once arrived at the terrace to find his favorite table taken and informed the seated party that the table was reserved. “Since when,” asked the occupant. “Since twenty years,” Benbrook replied. Another regular was regular was Sultan Muhammad Shah, better known as Aga Khan III. After his first stay in 1937, when he and his new bride honeymooned at the Cataract, he reserved a suite at the hotel every year during the winter months. Before his death in 1957, he requested to be buried in Aswan and his mausoleum faces the Cataract from the top of a sandy hill across on the far side of the Nile.

…and repeat offenders
Egyptian royalty, on occasion, also favored the Cataract. King Farouk visiting for the 1941–42 season took an entire floor. According to stories doing the rounds at the time, the King enjoyed taking potshots from his balcony at the little Nubian boys paddling their boats on the river below. True or not, it says a lot about Farouk that such a story was so widely circulated.

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There is a painting of it in a Cairo museum
Maybe because it is so far from Cairo, but the Cataract was never written about or photographed as much as most of Egypt’s other grand hotels. It is, though, the only hotel to feature in a Cairo museum. This is a painting done in 1948 by Shaaban Zaky, a self-taught artist and railway employee, who travelled Egypt with his easel and brushes, and you’ll find it in the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art on Gezira.

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It’s Tony

Aha! Just received confirmation from Peter Kuonen that the painting in my post before last was indeed by Tony Binder. Thank you again, Peter.

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A Burger and a fancy dress invitation

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Another piece by the prolific Willy Burger, whose postcards and Egyptian Hotels Ltd brochure I’ve posted previously. In this case, it’s a single-sheet brochure for the Continental-Savoy dating from the late/early ’30s. The dealer I bought it from also threw in his’n’hers party invitations for a fancy dress ball at the hotel for the evening of 30 January 1932.

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On Shepheard’s balcony

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Old timers may get tired of Shepheard’s Hotel, and find more repose and quieter pleasures at the Savoy, the Semiramis, or the latest architectural wonder, The Heliopolis, but it still remains the most popular hotel in the country. No tourist to Egypt fails to pay a visit to this old-established home. Americans are particularly attracted to it, and would just as soon cut out of their programme the Sphinx or Pyramids, as return home without having put in at least one night there. The balcony is a great feature of the hotel. Every afternoon in the season it is packed with people taking tea and enjoying the passing show. Nothing more interesting or amusing can be imagined than this strange medley of the East and West; nothing more fascinating than studying the picturesque types of the East as they move along the roadway in a ceaseless stream.

From ‘A Series of 10 Egyptian Sketches by Lance Thackeray’, a Players Navy Cut Cigarettes card, issued by John Player & Sons of Nottingham, England, in 1910 or thereabouts

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The marvelous Jules Guerin

There are a handful of artists whose names are familiar to anybody interested in travel in Egypt in the 19th and early 20th centuries: the David Roberts and Robert Hay, of course; the watercolourist Augustus Lamplough and orientalist R. Talbot Kelly; and the lesser known but more commercially minded Tony Binder, Willy Burger and Lance Thackeray, all of whom produced designs for postcards and advertising. I’ve posted on most of these artists before. Recently I came across a new (to me) and exciting addition to that list.

Jules Guerin (born in St Louis, Missouri in 1866) was an American illustrator who studied art in Chicago, where he shared a studio with cartoonist Winsor McCay of Little Nemo fame. He specialized in architectural illustration and provided spectacular birds-eye perspective drawings for the monumental Plan of Chicago in 1907. He produced competition drawings for Henry Bacon’s proposed Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, and when Bacon triumphed Guerin was asked to paint two large murals on its ceiling.

From 1909 to 1911 the painter travelled with British journalist Robert Hichens through Egypt, the Holy Land, and the Near East. The trip resulted in several books, including Egypt and its Monuments, published in 1908. Hichens text is negligible, but Guerin’s illustrations are astonishing. They manage to be both incredibly precise (as you’d expect from an architectural illustrator) but at the same time beguilingly romantic thanks to the dramatic perspectives and set-like design, and an Impressionistic colour palette.

 

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Thackeray at the hotels

Back last August, I blogged about the artist Lance Thackeray and promised to post more examples of his work. It’s a taken a while, but here we go – these sketches, all of which deal with hotel life, are taken from his 1908 book The Light Side of Egypt, along with the accompanying text.

 

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The Vultures
No one in Egypt gives you a more hearty welcome than the dragoman. He remembers his old friends, and beams upon the newcomers with childlike simplicity; he speaks English, and other languages, also American – sure! Put yourself in his hands and he will see you through. If you have money to burn he will fan the flame. His favourite hobby is collecting baksheesh, which includes a ten per cent commission on everything you purchase while in his company. This accounts for his passion for the bazaars.

 

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Cairo Curios, or the Shepheard’s Flock
No one could desire a more delightful way of spending an hour than to sit on the balcony of Shepheard’s Hotel and watch the curious crowd of natives who decorate the front in every imaginable costume. Millions of piastres must have passed through its balcony railings in exchange for the various articles which the natives hawk in the street below. Shawls, beads, scarabs, fly-whisks, stuffed snakes and crocodiles, and many other charms and horrors, are here bargained for and bought to decorate or disfigure our Western homes.

 

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Romeo and Juliet, or the Balcony Scene at Shepheard’s Hotel
The balcony of this famous hotel still remains the happy hunting ground of the tourist. It has been the scene of many delightful comedies, and more than one tragedy. The beginning of many a love story, and also the end. The arrival of some new beauty will send a flutter through the hearts of the male portion of the visitors, and arouse the susceptibilities of the resident soldier; she will be come the Juliet of the balcony, but with more than one Romeo; and when she at last boards her train at the station, a sigh of relief goes up from the mothers of rival daughters, and the pulse of the Turf Club returns to normal.

 

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The Parting Guest
Any lack of attention which may have shown itself during your stay at the hotel in this country is thoroughly made up for by the extraordinary amount of it which is wasted on you during the day of your departure. You will, no doubt, have provided yourself with a good handful of loose change for those servants who have become familiar obstacles; but you are not prepared for the sudden attack of civility which greets you around the hotel entrance. It is no use looking over their heads, or putting on a far-away expression, as they are sure to trip you up. So pay up and try to look pleasant.

 

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Globe Trotters
It is the hour of the departure. Men and women, from all quarters of the globe, are busy shaking hands, exchanging cards, and pressing cordial invitations upon each other to distant and impossible parts of the earth. The American blonde walks down to her ’bus with a supreme air of indifference and importance, holding fast to her bag, leaving along line of males guessing their chances of meeting on the steamer. The hotel manager stands deferentially by receiving the congratulations and au revoirs of his best customers, and the keen-eyed dragomans rush in for a farewell handshake with their old clients.

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More classic Burgers

Last month I blogged about a set of Cairo hotel postcards painted by Swiss artist Willy Friedrich Burger. I was intrigued that he’d choose to paint hotels rather than the usual desert scenes, temples or mosques. Now I know why. Last week, through the magic of eBay, I bought a vintage brochure put out by Egyptian Hotels Ltd. The seller’s description was vague and he posted only photos of the covers, but these were attractive enough that I bid with no idea what was inside. I was delighted to find, then, that the booklet is full of illustrations, and they are all by WF Burger. Included are the images that appear on my postcards. It’s a pretty sure bet that Egyptian Hotels Ltd commissioned Burger to do its booklet then, pleased with the results, put out some of the paintings as cards. Here are the pages in full:

 

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