Cleopatra’s Needle – and a landmark in magazines

New Illustrated magazine cover from 1919 showing Cleopatra's Needle by Francisco Sancha

New Illustrated magazine cover from 1919 showing Cleopatra’s Needle by Francisco Sancha

Although New Illustrated magazine makes little mention of the subject of this cover painting, describing it simply as a ‘vivid impression of the Thames Embankment at nightfall’ it was about to become a topical choice. At the focus of the cover is Cleopatra’s Needle, the ancient Egyptian monument that had been brought to England and erected in 1878. This had been damaged in the first German night-time bombing raid of the First World War. On 5 September 1917, the raiders had also wrecked a passing tramcar, killing three passengers. The painting looks to be a direct reference to that incident.

In 1919, the London County Council was debating whether to repair the damage from the air raid. Three weeks after this issue of New Illustrated appeared, the council announced in The Times in an article titled ‘Lest We Forget’, that it would leave the damage in place and instead mount a plaque on the plinth (May 12, 1919). The damage and the plaque can be seen to this day.

The obelisk had been presented to the British by the viceroy of Egypt in 1819 to commemorate the victories of Lord Nelson and Sir Ralph Abercromby over Napoleon’s fleets. However, the government balked at the cost of bringing the 68-feet-high (20.9m) obelisk to Britain. The Imperial War Museum describes the £15,000 transportation costs in a specially-built ship from Alexandria to London, as being paid for by Sir WJ Erasmus Wilson.

This is a fine illustration in a distinctive modern style, and though it is not signed by the artist, he is identified inside as F. Sancha, a Spaniard who had been living in London for about six years and had recently joined the art staff of the New Illustrated. The cover design is a clear split from the art nouveau style that would have been familiar to readers of the many other Amalgamated Press magazines over the previous three decades. Francisco Sancha was a new name to me, but he drew for French magazines such as Le Rire and L’Assiette au Beurre and was the subject of an article by Herbert Furst, author of The Modern Woodcut (1921), in The Studio in 1922. ‘A Spanish Painter in London’ was illustrated by six of Sancha’s paintings and the full text is given at the end of this post. During the first world war, he drew a series of propaganda postcards, “Aesop’s Fables Up To Date”, with German leaders replacing fable characters. He also worked on other propaganda works. His earlier work appears to have been signed as ‘S. Lengo’, his full name being Francisco Sancha Lengo.

One of the Malaga-born artist’s commissions in 1920 was to decorate the reception rooms at the Centro Español in London’s Cavendish Square. This must have been a grand building, and hosted a banquet for the Prince of Wales in 1930. The Spanish Centre fell on hard times, however, having to be ‘rescued from financial difficulties’ in 1986 by the Spanish Chamber of Commerce.

The cover tells another story. For it was the first published using the photogravure printing process, which produces a much finer image than letterpress halftones. In an editorial item ‘How do you like our new cover?’, editor John Alexander Hammerton, one of the most prolific journalists of the era, writes:

I hope my old readers will like the new appearance of their favourite pictorial … That it costs vastly more must be obvious. But all good things are expensive, and in printing there is nothing quite so costly as the photogravure process which the New Illustrated is introducing for the first time to popular British journalism. Readers cannot complain, however, as no part of the extra expense is being passed on to them. But do not, good friends, ask me whether you ought to bind these wrappers in your volume!

The final sentence is a reference to the fact that the magazine was designed in two sections, so the middle 20 pages (numbered in this issue 153-172) could be lifted out and bound into book-like volumes. In the process, the surrounding editorial and advertising pages – and the covers – would be discarded.

Photogravure would be developed in the 1920s and become the foundation for Britain’s photograph-driven weeklies such as Picture Post and Illustrated in the 1930s.

‘A Spanish Painter in London’ by Herbert Furst, The Studio, vol 84, July-December, pp146-151. The six illustrations were: ‘The Wood’, ‘The Boat-House’ (watercolour), Decorations for the Centro Español, ‘Rag and Bone Merchants’ Shanty, Madrid’. The text was taken from the Internet Archive.

To anyone anxious to make his first excursion into what is commonly called modern art, I should strongly recommend the “Sancha” route ; it will lead him comfortably into the regions he desires to explore without the jars, jolts, knocks and buffetings he must surely experience via the famous Cezanne — and the nerve-racking, or wrecking, Vorticist — Lines.

It is not quite easy to say where exactly “ancient ” art ceases and ” modern ” art begins : since the Great War there has been a good deal of frontier-shifting in the political, the scientific and the meta-physical world. One may, however, fairly safely contend that modern art begins where the artist has ceased to pretend that he is a purveyor of nature-substitutes.

At heart, of course, all artists, even the old-fashionedest, have known that they are nothing of the kind and that only the fulsome adulation of the lay mind lent colour to such pretension. The real difference between old and new in this respect is one of ethics rather than aesthetics : the modern artist is more candid. The only mistake he makes is to rub it in too fiercely

Sancha is certainly “modern,” but he does not rub it in. There is in his art no pretence of nature-substitution, but he is engagingly and insinuatingly polite in his candour. You look, for example, at his water-colour, The Boathouse, and think how natural it all is. You have experienced the oily ripple of quiet waters and the weeping of willows ; you have been struck many a time with the pleasant contrast of a red creeper-hung roof with just such a green setting, and just such a sky of autumnal pallor. You know it all. But it is not really like nature : it is like a picture, because it is one : i.e., a carefully thought-out arrangement of scrupulously selected lines and colours. So also with the landscape called The Wood. It is nothing like nature in looks, it is very like her in feeling. You know nature in just such a one of her sunny evening moods. Sancha has made a “record” which upon contact with the mind ” listening in” at the nerve end of your eyes evokes within you a familiar emotion.

Again, the ‘Rag and Bone Merchant’s Shanty’, Madrid, strikes you at a first glance as being photographically prosaic in its impartiality. It seems to record the brilliant sunlight and the sordid backyard aspect of modern civilisation with equal indifference. Suddenly you become aware that no camera could cope with the facts or deal with the message the picture conveys. It is a little gem of humour in a setting of naked realism, done in a penman’s rather than a brush-painter’s manner.

A visit to the Centro Español, the Spanish Club in Cavendish Square, which has been extensively decorated by Sancha, further confirms him as a draughtsman of sensibility and skill, of imagination and satire.

The dining room here is covered with a mural decoration drawn in sepia outline only, but with oil colour. It has for its subject-matter views of typical Spanish towns and scenery, Toledo, Burgos, Murcia and many others, all very skilfully done and with clever regard for essentials. I confess, however, that to me monochrome outline in mural decoration is like a drum and triangle “solo”. In the billiard and other rooms Sancha has painted decorative panels with added touches of colour which make real music of his rhythms. Here, he allows us to see him at his best. The canvases are all essentially drawings, and nearly always distinguished by a suggestion of satire or simple fun. Of these pictures, that of the Castilian donkey rider, here illustrated, gives a good idea.

Sancha was born in Malaga about forty-eight years ago. He began to earn his living, after his father’s death, at the early age of fifteen. Trained in Madrid and Paris, he drew for Paris papers such as Le Rire and L’Assiette au Beurre.

He came to London in 1901. England made him a painter; it was here that his eyes were opened to colour. “The Spanish painters,” he says, “know only tone, but nothing of colour.” One might feel inclined to dispute this perhaps, so much depends on the meaning of words.

I know not a few artists who would put Velasquez above Titian as a colourist. Sancha has become well known in this country as a caricaturist. He complains, nevertheless, that drawing for the press has handicapped him as a painter; affirms that he would have preferred architecture as a career, and rounds off this open confession with: “An artist with nothing to do would suit me wonderfully.”

Interpreted, this means that he regards all that part of his occupation which he must give to money-making as an injury to the freedom of his soul, as a despoiler of his art.

Nevertheless, he is, I think, mistaken. It is precisely the draughtsman-like quality of his painting which gives to his art a distinct and attractive individuality, and the philosophic humour of his temperament invests his pictures with a focal interest only too often lacking in modern art.

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3 Responses to “Cleopatra’s Needle – and a landmark in magazines”

  1. A happy end to a magazine | Magforum Says:

    […] good artists were always used, such as Harry Rodmell and Francisco Sancha, and the photographs would have looked amazing at the time. May saw a woman on a cover – […]

  2. Harry Rodmell’s Queen Elizabeth dreadnought | Magforum Says:

    […] more: New Illustrated – the first photogravure cover by Francisco […]

  3. Christmas in magazines: 1904-1980 | Magforum blog Says:

    […] a dirty word and this New Illustrated cover from December 6, 1919 shows a girl in snow fox fur. New Illustrated had adopted the photogravure printing process in April that year and, at the end of the war, had changed its name from War Illustrated. It was […]

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