Tag Archives: Shepheard’s

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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Shepheard’s in photographs

Although no physical trace of the original Shepheard’s hotel remains, it was well documented while it stood. It was the subject of several photo essays in international magazines including Life and, I think, Picture Post. The hotel’s earlier incarnation (before the 1890 rebuild) was captured by several of the pioneering Middle Eastern photographers including Bonfils and Sebah. When it came to selecting images for Grand Hotels, we were spoiled for choice, and we were only able to include the merest fraction of what was available. I thought I might post some of those images that did not make the cut here. This particular set, below, dates from 1948, so just four years before the hotel was burned down.

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The chap behind the counter here is bartender Joe Scialom: if you don’t know about Joe, then go here.

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Wonderful things

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I mentioned a few posts back that there had been some amends made for the paperback edition of Grand Hotels. Chief of these was correcting a big mistake of mine, which was to attribute the design of the 1890 rebuild of Shepheard’s hotel to the English architect George Somers Clarke. I was repeating a claim published elsewhere without testing the truth of it. In my defence, information on the architects of hotels built in the 19th century was and is hard to come by.

You’d imagine that for an institution as famous as Shepheard’s, everything about it would be thoroughly documented but this is not the case. Not even the daily newspapers of the time, which reported at length on the remodeling and relaunch of the hotel, bothered to credit the architect. Hats off then to Tarek Ibrahim, a researcher at the Humboldt University of Berlin who has succeeded where I failed and managed to identify the real architect. A name in an old Shepheard’s brochure led him to a castle in Bavaria where he gained confirmation that the architect was a German named Johann Adam Rennebaum. This is not a well known name. In fact, I think few architectural historians that specialise in 19th-century Cairo have even heard of him. But apparently he was a long-term resident of Egypt, who designed villas for members of the German community in Alexandria and a number of buildings for Belgian enterprises in Cairo. It appears he was also involved in restorations of some of Cairo’s most important mosques including Ibn Tulun, Sultan Hassan and Al-Azhar.

But Tarek’s real find was in Bavaria. He discovered that Rennebaum’s ancestors still had a dusty tower room filled with their ancestor’s belongings (he died in 1937). These include sketchbooks, photographs, and plans and preparatory drawings for details of the décor in Shepheard’s, as well as items of furniture that may possibly have come from the hotel. Tarek told me he felt like Carter discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb. The pictures in this post were sent to me by Tarek.

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Tarek is now hoping to find sponsors to fund the restoration of the furniture, which is in a fairly bad way, with a possible view to a future exhibition. He’s also hoping to write a book on Rennebaum and Shepheard’s. It’s amazing news.

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Shepheard’s of New York

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I recently saw the item above for sale. It’s a Shepheard’s ashtray but I’d never seen the design before. And even though it’s in an art deco style there’s also something quite modern about it. It’s a bit Sixties-ish. And so it turns out to be. After a bit of research it turns out that it is nothing to do with Cairo’s famed Shepheard’s hotel, either the original, which burned down in 1952, or the 1957 rebuild, but comes from Shepheard’s nightclub, which was part of the Drake hotel in New York.

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The Drake was one of New York’s grand old hotels, opened in 1926 on 21 floors. In the early 1960s, the hotel was acquired by entrepreneur William Zeckendorf, who added New York’s first ‘discotheque’, which he called Shepheard’s. Why Shepheard’s? Who knows, but it was obviously in homage to the Cairo hotel of that name because the interior was Egyptian themed; if you look at the cigarette ad below (click to enlarge), which depicts a scene at Shepheard’s disco, you can see the Mamluk-styled striped stonework through the doorway and a giant pharaonic head.

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According to a former manager of Drake’s, writing on the ‘Most Famous Hotels’ website, Shepheard’s was the hottest nightspot in Manhattan. It was open seven days a week for cocktails, dinner and supper with continuous dancing until 3am. The hotel printed a card entitled, ‘How to Do the Newest Discotheque Dances at Shepheard’s in New York’s Drake Hotel’ with step-by-step instructions to dance the Jerk, Watusi, Frug and the Monkey. Patrons apparently lined up on 56th Street and around the corner on Park Avenue. Maybe so, but it still doesn’t sound half as fun as the Cairo Shepheard’s in its 1920s heyday.

I don’t know how long the nightclub Shepheard’s lasted but the Drake hotel was demolished in 2007 and the site redeveloped as 432 Park Avenue, which is currently the tallest residential building in the Western Hemisphere.

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Looking for the heirs of Samuel Shepheard

I’ve posted many times here on Shepheard’s hotel, which, until it was burned down in 1952, was not only the most famous hotel in Egypt but one of the most famous in the world. But what about its founder, the man who gave his name to the hotel, Samuel Shepheard?

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He was born on 21 January 1816 in the village of Preston Capes, Northamptonshire, in the English Midlands. As a young man he was apprenticed to a pastry cook but chose instead to abandon the parochialism of country life and run off in search of adventure at sea. He found more of it than he bargained for when, in January 1842, serving as a junior officer aboard a P&O mail ship he took the crew’s side in a mutiny and was charged by the captain with insubordination and thrown off at Suez. From here he made his way overland to Cairo. He may have been intending heading up to Alexandria where he could board another ship for England, but he never got that far, instead he found employment in Cairo with a Mr Hill who ran the British Hotel.

Although still only in his twenties the marooned sailor proved himself capable enough that by 1846, when English social reformer and journalist Harriet Martineau passed through Cairo on a tour of the East, Hill’s hotel was already being referred to as “Shepheard’s”.

Officially though, it was still the British Hotel. We know this for sure because a couple of years later, in 1848, it moved premises to a new location on the Ezbekiya and there’s an image of it with the name clearly painted above the door (click on the image below to enlarge).

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Business must have been good because within just another couple of years Shepheard was looking for somewhere bigger again. The opportunity came through a chance meeting between Shepheard and Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive Abbas, in which the two discovered shared a love of hunting. Soon afterwards, in November 1849, Shepheard wrote to his brother that the Pasha “has given me a grant of a large college to build an Hotel on the site. I am busy making a plan” (the letter is reproduced in Michael Bird’s 1957 biography of Shepheard).

The site granted was the Palace of Alfi Bey, which overlooked the recently created Ezbekiya Gardens. This was the residence commandeered by Napoleon when he rode into Cairo in July 1798. Following the departure of the French, the building was occupied by a daughter of Muhammad Ali and later became a school of languages, which was closed during the reign of Abbas, leaving the premises empty and free to gift to Samuel Shepheard. The new establishment (pictured below), the first to bear the name of Shepheard’s Hotel, opened its rooms to guests in July 1851.

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Samuel Shepheard would stay on in Cairo for just another nine years before selling up in 1860 and returning to England. There, he retired to the Midlands, not far from where he grew up, buying a grand Georgian house called Eathorpe Hall. For all that, he was not a lucky man: no less than four of his children died in infancy in Cairo, and another at the age of ten. One possible reason he sold up so early in his career was that he feared to lose any more children to illness in Egypt. But ill luck followed him to England and he hardly had time to enjoy his bucolic surroundings before he also died, in 1866 at the age of 50.

He was survived by three daughters, but only one of them went on to marry, the other two dying as spinsters. She married a man called Arthur Bird and I’m presuming the Michael Bird who wrote the Samuel Shepheard book in 1957 is a descendent. I have managed, or rather my mother, who is good at this sort of thing, has managed to piece together a Shepheard family tree.

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If we’ve got this right then it seems there are definitely some descendents of Samuel Shepheard out there – if so, and if any of them ever come across this blog post, I would dearly love to hear from you. In the past I have had emails from descendents of other Egyptian hoteliers I’ve blogged about, so fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, Samuel Shepheard’s old home Eathorpe Hall still survives. It remains a beautiful place, as can be seen in the photographs below which were posted on an estate agent’s site last year when the property came up for sale. The asking price was £2,750,000, which is one historic hotels of Egypt souvenir I couldn’t stretch to.

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Marka Twain

Many of the items used to illustrate Grand Hotels of Egypt (and the forthcoming On the Nile) I’ve bought at auction. I’m on the mailing list of several auction sites, which notify me when they have something that may be of interest. Which is how this came to my attention:

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It’s a postcard of Cairo and it’s autographed by Mark Twain.

As part of a tour of Europe and the Holy Lands, he travelled to Egypt in 1867 aboard the steamship Quaker City. He had convinced a San Francisco newspaper to pay for his ‘Great Pleasure Excursion’ in exchange for a series of articles, later edited and published as Innocents Abroad (1869).

On arrival at Egypt, he and his fellow travellers alighted at Alexandria where they proceeded in picturesque procession to the American Consul’s residence, the public gardens at Nuzha, Ras al-Tin Palace, and to Cleopatra’s Needles and Pompey’s Pillar where, in keeping with the attitude to antiquities at the time, one of the party took a hammer to the Roman-era column and attempted to smash off fragments for a souvenir. Twain thought Alexandria was too much like a European city to be of any interest, and soon got tired of it.

He liked Cairo more because it came closer to fulfilling his expectations of the ‘Orient’. But not his hotel. As an outpost of Europe in Cairo, Shepheard’s was never going to find much favour. Twain was acerbic about the place, writing that it was ‘the worst [hotel] on earth except the one I stopped at once in a small town in the United States. It is pleasant to read this sketch in my note-book, now, and know that I can stand Shepheard’s Hotel, sure, because I have been in one just like it in America and survived.’ Specific objects of his ire included the hotel’s threadbare carpeting, sagging floorboards and poor lighting.

Why Twain should be signing postcards of Cairo in 1908, more than 40 years after visiting is a bit of a mystery. But if after all this time Twain still remembered Egypt, the country hadn’t forgotten him either. Philip Marden was sightseeing at the Pyramids just a year or two after Twain signed that postcard when he was given a donkey to ride named ‘Marka Twain’: it was, he reported, ‘the name of more than half the donkeys of Egypt’.

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The Visitors

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A new novel that might be of interest to readers of this site is The Visitors by Sally Beauman. It’s set in Egypt in 1922, where a young English girl has been sent in care of a chaperone to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother. The opening chapters largely play out in the salons and on the terrace of Shepheard’s in Cairo, which is beautifully brought to life. The supporting cast of characters include familiar names such as Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert, Arthur Mace, Harry Burton, Pierre Lacau, James Breasted, Arthur Weigall and a host of other real-life people, all of whom were involved in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun – the event that provides the novel’s dramatic backdrop. Beauman does a good job of putting flesh on the biographical bones of her historical cast and succeeds in bringing the characters to life. How accurate and fair she is, I can’t say – it would take someone better read in Egyptology than me to comment. Her descriptions of Shepheard’s and Winter Palace are generally spot on though, right down to describing the bathrooms of the former as being vast and echoing, like mausoleums – one 19th century journalist said sitting in one of them was like being in a chamber at the centre of a pyramid. If I were being picky I might mention that the Continental hotel isn’t across the Ezbekiya Gardens from Shepheard’s but just up the street, and the Winter Palace is not designed in a Baroque style – far from it – but that’s minor stuff. A bigger problem, I found, is the voice of the protagonist, Lucy, whose inner thoughts run to things like, “In the fustian Cambridge circles in which I’d grown up, divorce equaled disgrace”. She’s supposed to be eleven years old, for god’s sake. I found this such a problem I gave up on the book a quarter of the way in. Now I’ll never know whether Howard Carter found that tomb or not.

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Fire in Cairo

I knew that Shepheard’s was severely damaged by fire in 1868 from a dramatic illustration that ran in the London Illustrated News, below. But I was never able to find any further details, so the event only receives a passing mention in my book Grand Hotels of Egypt. Recently, however, I managed to find not one but two newspaper accounts of the event, one of which, from the 21st August 1868 edition of The Coventry Herald and Free Press, and Midland Express I’m going to post in full because it’s full of interesting detail. For instance, in 1868 Shepheard’s had a stock of wine that was worth fully half as much as the entire hotel?

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A correspondent at Cairo, in a letter dared the 7th furnishes some particulars of the burning if Shepheard’s Hotel, which occurred on the previous night: “The building was constructed by Mohamed Ali for a school of languages on the site of a former building occupied by Napoleon as his headquarters while in command of the French expedition in Egypt; and a well now subsisting in the garden of the hotel is said to be the identical well in which the assassin of General Kleber momentarily concealed himself after stabbing the general and those who were in the company walking up and down one of the garden paths. On the breaking up of Mohamed Ali’s schools the building passed to Kamal Pasha, his son-in-law, and now one of the Sultan’s ministers. In 1850 Abbas Pasha, then Viceroy of Egypt, rented it from Kamil Pasha, and granted it, at the suggestion of Sir Charles Murray, then Her Majesty’s agent and consul-general in Egypt, for a nominal rent, to the late Mr. Shepheard (who resided until his death at Eathorpe, near Leamington), for the purpose of a hotel. In a few years Mr. Shepheard was enabled to retire, and in 1859 he transferred the hotel for a premium, it was understood of £12,000 to its present proprietor, Mr. Zech, who has further laid out much money upon it. It is said he is insured in French offices to the amount of £14,000. The building was of two floors in height, and in plan in the form of a hollow square round an inner quadrangle, which was laid out as a garden. On the lower floor was a wine closet containing a stock of wine valued at between £6,000 and £7,000.

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The fire began at half-past eleven last night, the first alarm preceeding from an explosion from a store closet containing parafine – or, as it called in Cairo, gas – candles, and other combustible matters. The servants were at the moment preparing to close the house. In an instant flames shot forth in several directions at once. The people of the house could do nothing, there having been no fire-extinguishing apparatus of any kind on the premises. The preparations against fires are so ineffectual in Cairo that it was stated to be two hours before an instrument, consisting of a hand-carried box with a pump in it, which passes for a fire engine, arrived. The stream projected by such a pump is certainly not thicker than an ordinary hand garden pump. Fortunately there was no wind. Had the northerly wind which had been blowing for some nights previously continued, Kamil Pasha’s house must have gone, and very probably the new hotel, constructed and furnished at a cost of £120,000, and not yet completely finished. On visiting the scene at eight O’clock this morning, I found the east and south fronts a roofless burnt-out ruin – thin columns of smoke curling up here and there from the materials which had fallen in between the walls. The north and west blocks are uninjured, but the furniture they contained having been thrown as best it could, out of the windows, will yield little salvage.

Some suspicions are entertained that the fire may have been the act of an incendiary. Fires are of rare occurrence in Cairo; but it so happens that for the last nine days a fire has been reported in different parts of the town every evening. There is a great discontent among the people at the arbitrary exactions to which they have been subjected in order to satisfy the Pasha’s requirements for meeting his liabilities at home and abroad, while at the same time they hear of his wasting enormous sums of money at Constantinople. A firdeh or trade tax of 8 1/3 per cent per annum on the profits from trade, calculated in many instances much in excess of the true profits, and weighing with excessive hardship on a large class of the inhabitants of the town, has lately been imposed.

The Glasgow Daily Herald of Wednesday 2nd September 1868 ran a very similar story, probably from the same correspondent, but it chose to include this excellent detail:

I am told of one guest in the hotel putting an appearance, in sorry plight, at one of the windows flanked by flames from others on either side of it, and by aid of extemporised ladders and mattresses and things for his to jump on, he was got out in safety and nudity.

The hotel was not out of commission for too long because just a few months later, in January 1869, travel impresario Thomas Cook was in Cairo leading his very first Egyptian tour party, and from a diary left by one of its number, we know that Shepheard’s was up and running again by this time.

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Victor Kuonen 1875-1949

I was recently contacted by Peter Kuonen of Urdorf in Switzerland, who wondered if I would be interested in seeing some photographs of his grand-uncle, Victor, who spent more than 20 years employed at Luxor’s Winter Palace, and before that Shepheard’s, in the early years of the 20th century. Of course I was interested. So Peter sent me the photographs and they are wonderful – he’s permitted me to post some of them, below. I also asked Peter if he could tell me a little about Victor, and he responded with the text that follows.

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“Victor was born on May 4, 1875 in a small mountain village called Guttet in the picturesque canton of Wallis in Switzerland. He grew up together with five sisters and fourteen brothers. After completing his compulsory schooling he had to help to support the family. Therefore, he went to work in a hotel at the age of 16 years. As a young man, he already had jobs in different cities like San Remo, Basel and Lucerne. In 1897, aged 22, he travelled to Egypt for the first time. He sent back travel reports, which were published in a local Wallis newspaper Briger Anzeiger from February 1902 onwards. His first report described the trip from Switzerland via Genoa to Port Said. He not only wrote what he had experienced on the trip but also about the people and the land of Egypt. He continued to file reports right up until 1923 and his most interesting are now preserved in the archives of the Canton Valais.

“He found employment in Egypt in the first-class hotels, including Shepheard’s in Cairo and the Winter Palace in Luxor – both hotels owned by fellow Swiss Charles Baehler.

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Top, Victor, at Shepheard’s in 1905; bottom with the staff at the Winter Palace, c.1930

“Victor worked in Egypt during the winter (which was Egypt’s prime tourist season) and returned to Switzerland or Germany during the summer. In Switzerland, he worked in the Hotel Mont Cervin, Zermatt and in the Hotel Schweizerhof, Lucerne. In Germany, he was a concierge in the Hotel Europäischer Hof, Baden-Baden where he met his wife Sophie Mohl. They had three more sons and one daughter.

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Victor at the Winter Palace in 1932

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Victor outside the main entrance of the Winter Palace. The photo has been taken by Attaya Gaddis, who had one of the shops in front of the hotel; it’s now run by his grandson Ehab

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At the Winter Palace reception desk

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An illustration of Victor, presented to him as a gift. I can’t be sure but it looks like the work of Tony Binder, who I have posted about previously, here

“In 1927, after working 30 years for Charles Baehler, – during which time he was present in Luxor when Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered – Victor received a Diploma of the Swiss Hotelier Association and also a gold watch with a dedication from Baehler.

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Howard Carter and the former Spanish king Alfonso XIII in front of the Winter Palace

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Leopold and Elizabeth of Belgium at the Winter Palace

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Pioneering Swiss aviator Walter Mittelholzer dropping by the Winter Palace while making the first north-south flight across Africa in 1926

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“Victor said good-bye to Egypt in 1931. He moved with his family to Algeria, where his second-oldest son, Oscar, had a job in a hotel. They settled in the coastal town of Bône (today called Annaba), where Victor opened a restaurant, Au Rosbif. The family ran this for about 10 years but then World War II came along and they packed up and returned to Switzerland. Back in his homeland, Victor bought the Hotel Mont Cervin in Visp/Wallis in 1941 and was a successful hotelier for the next 8 years until he died on October 13, 1949.”

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Strange tales from Shepheard’s part 2

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From the Dundee Courier of Tuesday 25 August 1936:

A dissected corpse has been discovered inside a truck which had been left on the pavement outside Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo.

The trunk was left by a well-dressed young Egyptian in European clothes who dove to the hotel in a cab.

With the cabman’s help, he lifted the trunk out and placed on the pavement. People standing on the balconies of a large building opposite noticed the incident.

The cabman was then paid, but before he drove away the Egyptian shook out the mat on which the trunk had stood. Those watching thought he was shaking out water. It was later found to be blood.

The young man stood for a few minutes beside the brown battered truck, and then walked away. The trunk remained on the pavement for an hour.

Then Head Constable Wellbeloved, an Englishman in the Cairo City Police, noticed a small crowd outside the hotel. He was shown the trunk. A trickle of blood was emerging from the corner.

He opened the trunk. The first thing he saw was a naked human leg. He shut the trunk and took it to a police station.

Further examination revealed the dissected remains of a naked male body wrapped in sacking. The dissection had apparently been skillfully carried out by someone with a knowledge of anatomy. The head was missing but a gold wedding ring on one of the fingers was inscribed “B. Guriguis, 28/3/34”. A further clue was a wristwatch.

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