Monthly Archives: August 2012

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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Sophia and the sphinx

I don’t know what the background to this image is, I just chanced on it today while doing some internet research. The only information on the site where I found the photo was that it was taken possibly in 1954. That’s the same year Two Nights with Cleopatra was released with Loren as Cleo, and the year after her first big break, playing the title role in Aida. Hence, probably, the sphinx. What I can add is the location – that’s one of the pair of sphinxes that flank the obelisk on London’s Thames Embankment. I should know, I pass it a couple of times a week heading to or from Waterloo station. So what, you might ask, is the relevance to the grand hotels of Egypt. None at all. It’s just Sophia Loren and a sphinx. Isn’t that reason enough?

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The loss of Liberty

The view from the sea-facing rooms of Port Said’s Casino Palace hotel must have been dramatic. The building occupied prime real estate on the seafront beside the mouth of the Suez Canal. Guests would have been able to look out over the Mediterranean and watch the liners approaching and exiting the famous waterway. Those not staying at the hotel could enjoy the same view from a broad canopied veranda, over afternoon tea or drinks.

The mouth of the canal was marked out by a narrow stone breakwater that ran out into the sea and which was punctuated at its mid point by a statue on a high stone pedestal (you can just make this out on the luggage label above and on the postcard below). The statue is of French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, and while it’s appropriate that the man who brought the canal into being should be celebrated here, whenever I see pictures of the statue like the one below, I feel a sense of loss for what could have been had a talented French sculptor had his way.

In October 1855, 21-year-old Auguste Bartholdi was part of a group of Orientalist painters, including Jean-Léon Gérôme, travelling up the Nile. On his return to France he began to make a name for himself with a series of small-scale projects, many in his hometown of Colmar, but Egypt, and particularly the monumental sculptures of Luxor and Abu Simbel, had left an impression. In 1867, Bartholdi secured a meeting with Ismail Pasha, ruler of Egypt, who was visiting Paris for the Exposition Universelle, and proposed a colossal statue, like those of ancient Egypt, be erected at the entrance of the Suez Canal, then nearing completion. His idea was that it would take the form of an Egyptian woman holding aloft a lantern. The statue was to symbolise Ismail’s efforts to modernise Egypt and would be called ‘Egypt Bringing Light to Asia’ or ‘Egypt Enlightening the Orient’. The lantern would be metaphorical but also practical, as the statue would also double as a lighthouse – recalling the ancient Pharos of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Ismail was encouraging and over the next two years Bartholdi submitted various designs for the project and was present at the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869.

Sadly, in the end, over-spending Ismail could not afford a new colossus and Bartholdi’s grand Egyptian project came to nothing. The only indication of what might have been is a series of one foot-high clay models he made to present to Ismail, which are displayed in the Colmar museumdedicated to Bartholdi’s work.

Courtesy of the Musee Bartholdi, Colmar

Or you can look at this.

'La statue de la Liberté de Bartholdi dans l'atelier du fondeur Gayet, rue de Chazelles' by Victor Dargaud, currently hanging in the Musée Carnavalet, Paris

Bartholdi’s failure to get Ismail to commission him in Egypt was far from the end of his grand schemes. The sculptor was a member of a circle of French liberals led by Édouard Laboulaye, who had the idea of promoting the spirit of revolution and republicanism – which was at the time under threat in France from the autocratic regime of Napoleon III – by celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the American Republic. One way they proposed to do this was by the presentation of a great statue to the United States that would symbolise freedom and liberty.

So it was that ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, better known as the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on 28 October 1886, ten years and five months after the target date of 4 July 1876. Designed by Bartholdi, the statue was constructed in Paris around a skeletal frame engineered by Gustav Eiffel, before all 350 pieces were taken apart and shipped to New York to be reassembled on site.

Bartholdi always claimed that the two colossi were entirely unrelated projects. He probably didn’t want the Americans to feel they were being fobbed off with a secondhand design. But look at the models for his design for the Suez Canal and there is no question Liberty is a dusting off of the work he did for Ismail. And then there’s this sketch he made in 1869 of his proposed Egyptian statue in situ:

Courtesy of the Musee Bartholdi

Change the costume, add a crown and a tablet and it’s the same girl. Now instead of welcoming Western travellers to the East, she greets all nationalities to the city most emblematic of the West.

Perhaps it’s just as well she settled in America, particularly if the fate of De Lessep’s statue is anything to go by. Designed by Emmanuel Frémiet (also responsible for the equestrian statue of Jeanne d’Arc at the place des Pyramides in Paris) it was installed at the entrance to the Suez Canal in November 1899 and blasted off its plinth with TNT in December 1956 in the wake of the Suez Crisis. It now stands largely forgotten in a small garden in the Port Fuad shipyard across the canal from its vacant plinth.

Missing: one 10m-high bronze statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps

As for the Casino Palace, that too is gone. It survived the 1956 battles – despite being used as a barracks by the invading British soldiers – but succumbed to developers who ripped it down in the 1970s, erecting a modern hotel in its place, which is currently operated by the Helnan group.

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Shepheard’s Hotel: British Base in Cairo

The photo that headed up the last post shows Shepheard’s streetfront terrace. It’s an evocative scene, full of character and detail, such as the officer in shorts and knee-length socks with the bandaged ear at right, the slightly sinister slim guy in round shades consulting his watch at left, and, centre, the violinist who is the only one to have noticed the photographer. He’s across the street using a telephoto lens, not wanting to be too obvious because it’s 1942, right in the middle of the Desert War, and the military in Cairo is getting a bit touchy over comments about the battle for Egypt being ‘fought from Shepheard’s terrace’. The time is just after 12:30pm, which is the time dictated by local licensing laws after which alcoholic drinks are permitted to be served. Among the sprinkling of military types and civilians here might well be a spy or two. (Cairo’s favorite bellydancer, Hekmet, has lately been arrested as a spy.)

How do we know all this? Because the photo is part of a set that ran in the 14 December 1942 issue of LIFE magazine (pictured above) accompanying a story with the same title as this post. I managed to track down a copy and buy it; here’s the text and some more images with their captions:

‘The well-to-do British officers in Egypt, the ambassadors with letters plenipotentiary, the Americans with fat purses, the glamor girls of the Middle East, the Russian commissars the famous war correspondents and the civilian tank experts, all stay at just one hotel in Cairo: Shepheard’s. When the war in the desert went really badly, a favorite criticism back home was that it was being fought from the terrace at Shepheard’s. The high officers did not stay there because it was too conspicuous, but nearly everyone else did.

‘The first impression of Shepheard’s is that for a renowned a hotel it looks dowdy and down-at-heel. The second is that behind this artful effect of musty Victorianism is concealed a massive outlay of money and attention to detail. The food is as good as anything at Paris’ Ritz, or Berlin’s Adlon or Rome’s Grand. The service, by silent slippered Egyptians and the Swiss elite of hotel experts, is unmatched. Solid money has gone into the Oriental rugs and tapestries, the silver service, the imported grouse, the Khartoum ducks, the vast wine cellars.

‘Against the last fantastic century of Egypt’s history, Shepheard’s gas stood where it is today just over 100 years. It was found as a caravan tavern in 1841 [not true] by one Samuel Shepheard before Cairo had a railway or the Suez Canal had been built. It has remained a neutral island of Swiss hotel keeping through the conquest of Egypt, and World Wars I ad II. Here came Kitchener form Khartoum, Stanley after he had found Livingstone and Theodore Roosevelt who told the British, “Rule or get out”. When Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps army was victoriously nearing Cairo it was said that Rommel had already picked out his room at Shepheard’s. LIFE photographer Robert Landry, who took these pictures, got it instead.’

The letters of the name on the façade have fallen apart. Notice two Egyptian flags, one roosting bird and the “S.H.” monogram, which looks like a dollar sign

Tourist shops line the front of Shepheard’s, south of the terrace entrance, including railroad and airline offices, antique shops, etc. Beyond is Cook’s tourist office, which still does a rushing business in wartime. The hotel has a 456-ft frontage, a maximum of six stories, contains 400 and 180 baths

Wounded from the desert fighting are usual at Shepheard’s these days. Here three Free Frenchmen go down the front steps, past the customary dragoman guides

The American Bar is one of two bars open from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. and from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. British usually drink Scotch and plain water, colonials gin, lime juice and water, Americans Bourbon or rye and soda, everybody beer. Below is dining room where nightly dance is held after October

Nightly dance in garden behind the hotel is mostly in uniform. Saturday is the big night. If the man is in uniform, civilian women usually wears an evening dress. In white at left is a nurse; center, a South African WAAS. In foreground are two very high-priced bottles of Rhineland wine. The band is part female. Guests include Egyptians and Balkan refugees

The porters are picked from Nubian and Sudanese warrior stock and can carry enormous loads. The bellhops never carry anything. These men are theoretically not supposed to be tipped, but usually are


The man responsible for the words and pictures above, photographer Bob Landry (1913-1960), was a LIFE regular. He was on a cruiser in the Pacific when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and from then on he was in one important place after another during that long war. He was in Egypt to shoot the desert war; later he went in with the first wave at D-Day but all of his film was lost, and his shoes to boot. Despite braving combat, it was a peacetime picture he took in the summer of 1941 that he is most remembered for, a shot of Rita Hayworth in a negligee.

Robert ‘Bob’ Landry

Rita by Bob


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The hotel that history forgot

Alongside the Paris Ritz and London’s Savoy, Shepheard’s of Cairo was once one of the most famous hotels in the world. So how come you’ve never heard of it?

I’m stood at the side of the road on Gomhurriya Street in Downtown Cairo pointing my camera and clicking quickly. Quickly, because it is painful to step out of the shade and into the full burn of the afternoon sun. I must appear furtive because almost immediately a uniformed guard from a few doors up the street comes running towards me waving his arms and shouting, ‘No, no, no’. Why am I taking photographs of his bank he wants to know? Because, I tell him, the site where his bank now stands used to be the old Shepheard’s Hotel. ‘Yani eh Shepheard’s?’ (‘What is this Shepheard’s?’). I find it tragic that he has to ask.

You can read the rest of this feature here, in the August issue of bmi’s Voyager magazine. Apologies, this link no longer works as the website for bmi’s Voyager magazine is defunct (as is the airline bmi) – but there’s plenty more about Shepheard’s elsewhere on this site .

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