In recent weeks, there has been something of a buzz about an artist who, in his day, could be said to have captured the Great War more comprehensively, more eloquently and more accurately than any other. His name is Fortunino Matania and I've got to know him well over the years. More so of late as I've been compiling a book of his First World War illustrations, due to be published by The History Press on 3 November 2014 in association with the library.
'Goodbye, Old Man: Matania's Vision of the First World War' brings together around 120 of Matania's illustrations from The Sphere magazine, which is part of the archive owned by Illustrated London News Ltd but housed and managed here at the library. Some extra pictures are included courtesy of David Cohen Fine Art and I am able to also add in a particularly fine reproduction of the colour oil painting of 'Neuve Chapelle, 1915' which Matania exhibited at the Royal Academy, courtesy of the Royal Worcestershire Regimental Museum who own the original. The majority of images however, are gleaned from the pages of The Sphere of which ILN has a complete run. Matania was their star 'special artist', having worked for the magazine since 1904 following a sparkling career trajectory that saw him train in his father's Naples studio, illustrate his first advertisement at the tender age of 9, his first book at the age of 14 and become an artist for prestigious Italian journal, L'Illustrazione Italiana soon after. In 1902, he covered the coronation of King Edward VII for The Graphic (another magazine we have here).
Art ran in Matania's blood - his father Eduardo was a respected magazine artist, and his cousin Ugo would also contribute regularly to The Sphere - but Matania was blessed with a number of almost superhuman gifts. He had a photographic memory (genuinely - no sketchbooks were allowed in the Abbey at the 1902 Coronation but Matania memorised everything). He was able to work at great speed, producing pictures that were unnervingly photographic in their realism. Furthermore, he combined skill and artistry with a strong streak of journalistic tenacity. Matania believed wholeheartedly in portraying the truth, and producing pictures that were accurate and authentic. He went to some incredible lengths to achieve this. During the war, he visited the Front on several occasions, often putting himself in danger to gather material for his pictures. When not able to do this, he would interview eyewitnesses and take along toy soldiers when he spoke to recovering men in hospital to ensure battle positions were recorded faithfully. Back at his studio, he had an enormous collection of uniforms, weapons and other props to ensure every last detail of his finished picture was correct.
This breathtaking detail I was privileged to enjoy first-hand while I was manager of the Illustrated London News Picture Library (before it moved here, to its new home at Mary Evans). The ILN were in possession of a number of originals, miraculously so since there had been sales of his work for The Sphere in 1971 and again, in the 1980s. Nevertheless, among the originals remained some real crackers. The R.A.M.C. bringing in the wounded from the battlefield is one, British soldiers firing flares from Very guns from a trench over No Man's Land is another, while an image of a soldier returning home to his family for Christmas, his bulky form bathed in light from his opening front door is enough to melt the most cynical heart. No wonder The Sphere printed it on their cover on 1 January 1916. These pictures, painted with gouache on board 'en grisaille' (the majority of his pictures were reproduced in black and white so it made sense to paint only in this colourway - all magazine artists of the period did so), were stored, wrapped in acid-free tissue paper in the plans chest in the basement archive where our small team worked. Now and again, I would get them out and pour over them, marvelling at the detail, the three-dimensionality of the figures and at the atmosphere or emotion Matania was able to conjure with his brush.
A number of scans of these originals will appear in 'Goodbye, Old Man' and I hope the book will not only represent the breadth and scale of his work during the period, but also give some sense of how famous and how revered he was in his time. Although retained in England as an 'official War artist' in fact, post-war, Matania was shunned by the art establishment. The Imperial War Museum declined one picture he had hoped to donate to them. He was, in the words of journalists and museum officials, 'a mere illustrator'. A mere illustrator perhaps but one of unique genius, and one whose pictures, which, either through The Sphere's circulation or through their syndication to other illustrated journals around the world, reached and influenced millions more people than artists such as Nash and Nevinson. Certainly, to our 21st century eyes, he was embarrassingly biased in his portrayal of the war and no amount of authentic detail could disguise the fiercely pro-Allied message - the Allies were the goodies; the Germans most definitely the baddies (even a picture of a British soldier remaining with a dying German, is accompanied by a report that the German died admitting the British were the superior force). Some felt so uncomfortably anti-German, I omitted them from the book. But as a magazine artist, he had a role to play and it was expected he would present the protagonists as such. They are pictures that must be judged within the context of the time.
Regarded as unfashionable for decades, it seems however, with the centenary of the Great War that Matania's time has come round again. Last year, Illustrators magazine devoted an in-depth article to him and the same publishers have long been planning a large art book covering his prolific career and exceptional body of work. Our book, which I've written, researched and compiled, focuses predominantly on his WW1 era illustrations and his relationship with The Sphere. It is due for publication at the beginning of November.
Before that, in October, the remaining ILN Matania paintings will go under the hammer at Christie's and the resulting press interest in the paintings has already been seen in features on Matania in the Mail Online and this Monday's issue of The Times. There are some very fine paintings to be had (though not an original of 'Goodbye, Old Man' as the Times article intimates); it would be nice to see some of them end up in public collections for everyone to enjoy. In the meantime, for anyone interested in viewing them, they are on display in the Lower Gallery at Christie's in South Kensington until 30 July. It seems very likely that Signor Matania is about to have a renaissance, as a new audience discovers the brilliance of his work for the first time.
Of course, there are some of us who always knew it.
View a selection of Matanias here.
Hundreds more online at www.maryevans.com
'Goodbye, Old Man: Matania's Vision of the First World War' is published in November. Pre-order a copy via the link here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Goodbye-Old-Man-Matanias-Vision/dp/075095597X
See many images by Matania featured in The Illustrated First World War bookazine out now at good high street retailers or available to order via this link https://www.illustratedfirstworldwar.com/magazine/