Category Archives: Art and artists

Artist-travellers in Egypt.

The Cataract aka the ‘Grand Hotel’


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.

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.

Thomas_Cook-Thebes at Aswan

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.

02_floor plan

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.


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.


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.


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.

09. Shabaan_Zaki-Aswan-1948_small

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


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


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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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Burger classics

We reproduced the postcard above in Grand Hotels of Egypt. It shows Cairo’s Opera Square seen from one of the terraces of the Continental-Savoy. It dates, I’m guessing, judging from the cars, from some time in the 1930s. Over on the far left is the old Khedivial Opera House, where Verdi’s opera Aida had its world premiere on 24 December 1871, with costumes and accessories designed by Egypt’s Director of Antiquities Auguste Mariette. (Just two months short of the opera’s centenary, on 28 October 1971, the opera house was completely destroyed by a fire.) It’s a lovely little painting, interesting because artists of the time rarely painted the modern city, saving their canvases instead for more picturesque (ie saleable) subjects like ancient temples and medieval mosques. The painter in this case was the Swiss Willy Friedrich Burger (1882-1964), a graphic artist of some talent, responsible for numerous beautiful posters advertising the attractions of his homeland, such as the one below, which sell for a fortune these days at auction.

It was only after Grand Hotels had gone to print that I discovered the Continental-Savoy wasn’t the only hotel Burger painted and that it was, in fact, part of a set. I now have four more Burger cards and they are all equally lovely. All employ the same dusky, Cairo-sunset palette of pinks and purples. The Semiramis card (top one, below) is the only representation I’ve ever seen of that old hotel’s Nile terrace. The really intriguing card though is the one below it, which unlike the others (the third card shows the Moorish Hall at Shepheard’s, the bottom the pool at the Grand Hotel Helwan) is not a Cairo hotel. It is the view of the Dormition Abbey at Mount Zion from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Why include a Jerusalem hotel in a set of postcards showing Cairo hotels? Because the postcards were put out by Egyptian Hotels Ltd, owned by Charles Baehler, which in 1929 extended its activities into Palestine with the building of the King David. At what point the King David ceased being owned by an Egyptian company I don’t know, but it’s pretty unlikely this arrangement extended beyond 1948 and the creation of Israel. If anybody knows more, I’d love to hear from you.

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How did I not know about the Marianne North Gallery?

A warning: Every now and again this blog is going to veer completely off subject. There are occasions when you come across some thing you feel compelled to shout about, and given that this blog is where I generally write about matters that interest me, here’s where that sort of thing is going to have to go.

So yesterday I went to Kew Gardens. It’s only a 10-minute walk from where I live and my wife has recently taken up membership, meaning we can drop by whenever the mood takes us. This was the second visit in three weeks and we explored parts of the gardens we hadn’t seen previously. This included the small red-brick building that is the Marianne North Gallery. How did I not know about this place before? It’s not much more than a single room and annex, but what a room. It has to be one of the most wonderful small places in all London.

Marianne North, was the daughter of the Liberal member of parliament for Hastings. On her father’s death in 1869, at the age of 40, she decided to pursue a long-standing ambition of painting the flora of distant countries. She began her travels in 1871-72, going first to Canada, the US and Jamaica, and then Brazil. In 1875, after a few months in Tenerife, she travelled on to Japan, Borneo, Jaca, Ceylon, India, Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania. (She also visited Egypt but painted very little there – that’s one of her rare Egypt pieces, heading this post.)

She travelled alone (she found companions tiresome) and used her time to record primarily plants, but also animals, architecture and landscapes. She offered the works to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, along with a proposal for a gallery to house them to be built at her own expense. The new building was designed looking partly like a Greek temple, partly like a plantation lodge, and it was completed in 1882. North died at Alderley in Gloucestershire in August 1890.

The gallery remains today as she intended it (her bequest stipulated it could not be changed). Its walls are tightly packed with 832 of her studies, which are framed to exactly fit and fill all available spaces. She favoured oil paints, rather than the watercolours most botanical painters used, which means her paintings have remained as bright and vivid as when they were first done. The lower parts of the gallery’s walls are clad in no fewer than 246 different types of wood brought back by North from her travels. Around the top of the walls is a gallery and high windows.

Individually the paintings are beautiful, rich with details and life; taken all together they are dazzling and overwhelming. Just as well there are a couple of benches in the hall, because you need to sit and take it all in – and then you can turn and examine the backs of the benches which are embellished by groups of Cinemascopic landscapes.

You can see more paintings at Kew’s online gallery. Alternatively, if you happen to be in London and have a liking for Victorian art and architecture, or a passion for travel and exploration, or are just partial to a bit of full-on willful eccentricity, then go along and see the Marianne North Gallery at Kew for yourself.


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The Light Side of Egypt

Of all the books I accumulated while researching Grand Hotels of Egypt (and, boy, did I accumulate some books), the desert island book – the one item you’d save from the wave that sweeps your library out to sea – is something called The Light Side of Egypt by Lance Thackeray. Published in 1908 it contains 36 painted plates, each with a single paragraph of commentary. A big reason I’m fond of it is that the subject matter is the same as my book, which, despite the title, is not really hotels but the experiences of early(ish) travellers in Egypt. Another reason is that it makes me laugh.

Thackeray was a satirical artist of immense, if never fully realised, talent. In England he made his living drawing for humorous postcards. He worked for a company called Raphael Tuck & Sons of London, producing his first postcard for them in 1900 and going on to dash out around 800 further designs over the next 15 years. He was a terrific draughtsman with a simple but beautiful line and a good eye for the comedic.

His subjects were toffs in top hats on the town, gents at the snooker table, rotund cricketers, gangly beachgoers and manic enthusiasts indulging in the new-fangled fad of motoring. He gently poked fun at the lot, using his drawing skills to lampoon the mannerisms of Edwardian English Society. He drew for Punch and was a founder member of the London Sketch Club.

Whether on commission or on a whim, in 1906/07 Thackeray went out to Egypt. He was probably there for several months, accumulating enough material not just for The Light Side of Egypt but also for another book, The People of Egypt, which was published in 1910. Unlike most artists who spent their time on the Nile sketching temples, mosques and desert scenery, Thackeray was more interested in observing his fellow travellers. He drew them climbing pyramids, haggling in the souk, flirting on the hotel terrace and snoozing in the shade of pharaonic masonry. He also drew them looking foolish in their mounds of inappropriate clothing, laid out by the heat, outsmarted by local traders, and defeated by the willfullness of donkeys and camels. Most Western writers who visited Egypt at this time were at best condescending towards the country and its people, if not outright racist, but Thackeray saw the pomposity of the Westerner in Egypt and punctured it with his pencil.

So who was Lance Thackeray? That I don’t really know. Public records offer a sort of biographical skeleton: he was born in 1867 in Darlington, County Durham, the fifth child of ten (five boys, five girls). His father was a railway porter and one of Lance’s first jobs was as a clerk for the railways. However, in 1897 he was making his living as an artist down in London with a studio at 169 Ebury Street – where he came by his training or the money to pay for London lodgings, I don’t know. In 1904 he spent two months in America, returning to take up lodgings in Notting Hill, where he lived for the next ten years.

In November 1915, he signed up to join the British Army’s Artists’ Rifles Regiment 28th Battalion. He never saw action: he died on 10 August the following year in Brighton, age 52, of pernicious anemia. He never married (I have a suspicion he was gay) and the little money he left went to a sister.

Beyond that, Lance is a bit of a mystery. His work is coveted by postcard collectors and his two books fetch good prices on antiquarian book sites, otherwise he’s forgotten. In the coming months I’ll be posting some of the plates from his books with commentary, but I’ll begin here with a bunch of postcards that resulted from his trip to Egypt. Meanwhile, if anyone knows anything about this favourite artist of mine, I’d love to hear from you.


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