The Idol of the Hour

“The Idol of the Hour” by Chevalier Fortunino Matania, The Sphere, Saturday, 30 March 1912.

8 April 2020

By Göran R Buckhorn

Here The Dry Season Bottom-of-the-Barrel Series continues. HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn finds an Adonis image of a Blue oarsman.

Above is a beautiful image of an oarsman, which was on the front cover of the London magazine The Sphere on Saturday, 30 March 1912, which was Boat Race Day. Below the drawing it states: ‘One of the Idols of the Hour – A Boat-Race Study by F. Matania’.

We do not know if it is an Oxford or a Cambridge man – perhaps he is more the ideal of an oarsman with his noble face and his eyes dreamily gazing into the distance. Two oars are being carried out to the water in the background; it seems the crew is getting ready to embark. The oarsman is unaffected by the hullabaloo going on among the spectators, who in the picture are just a blurry mob beneath him. Instead, he is showing great confidence. Maybe he would not be so unruffled if he knew what was waiting for him and the crews this blustery March day on the River Thames.

As we all know, the 1912 Boat Race would turn out to be a historic race as the Light Blues’ boat sank and the Dark Blues’ boat got waterlogged. The old Cambridge oarsman Frederick I. Pitman, who acted as umpire, stopped the race and declared the result as ‘No Race’. At the re-row, on 1 April, Robert ‘Bob’ Bourne stroked his Oxford crew to a win by six lengths. It was the Dark Blues’ fourth consecutive victory.

But who was the artist, who so wonderfully depicted this dignified creature of an oarsman?

Fortunino Matania, 1915

‘F. Matania’ stood for Chevalier Fortunino Matania, who was born in 1881 in Naples, Italy. Matania met success early in life. At 14, he helped his father, an artist, to illustrate books and magazines. Between 1895 and 1902, young Matania created works for the magazine L’Illustrazione Italiania. In 1902, he left for Paris, but was shortly thereafter invited by The Graphic to London for the Coronation of Edward VII, and so began the Italian’s ‘cooperation’ with the British Crown; he would cover royal events, marriages, christenings, funerals and coronations – the last one being the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953.

In 1904, Matania joined The Sphere, where some of his most famous illustrations would show up, among them the illustration of the handsome ‘Blue’ on top. One of his most famous illustrations before the First World War, actually appeared a few weeks after the one of the oarsman. On the late evening of 14 April 1912, the ‘unsinkable’ ocean liner Titanic hit an iceberg and sank a couple of hours later, on 15 April, which Matania later illustrated in The Sphere.

“Titanic” sinking

Some of his most celebrated and emotional works were produced during the First World War, when Matania became a war artist drawing realistic images from the trenches. His most acclaimed work was for the Blue Cross entitled “Goodbye, Old Man”. It shows a British soldier saying farewell to his horse, which is lying dying on the road.

“Good-bye, Old Man”

After the war, Matania started working for British and American magazines, and when the British woman’s magazine, Britannia and Eve, was launched in 1929 he became their artist for the next 19 years. He filled his studio with ‘stuff’ that would help him create realistic images for the magazines. Many of his illustrations were of semi-nude women, because the readers demanded it, he would say.

Fortunino Matania died in 1963.

Here is a news reel from 1932, showing Matania working in his studio:

A slightly different version of this article was published on HTBS on 11 September 2011.

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