Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: Goodbye Old Man

In the spring of 1915, Fortunino Matania traveled to the front lines of the Great War to research his illustrations for the British illustrated journal The Sphere. 

Neuve Chapelle, 1915, by Fortunino Matania, Royal Worcestershire Regiment Museum
He sketched the positions of the dead and the the layout of the defenses, reconstructing the battle that had just taken place. But the battlefield was still hot, and his attempts to sketch were interrupted by machine gun fire. Ducking into a trench, he bobbed his head up for a few seconds to take in the view of the nearby village and the debris—a battered teakettle, a discarded bottle, and a sardine can.

A shell exploded just five yards away, covering him and his sketchbook with dirt. He escaped to the relative safety of a field hospital, where he interviewed survivors. Returning to his studio in England, he dug a trench in his own garden to reconstruct the scene in real life, where he could study the effects in safety.

This story is just one of many contained in a new book called Goodbye, Old Man: Matania's Vision of the First World War about the Italian-born illustrator Fortunino Matania (1881-1963). The title is a reference to his most famous image, showing a soldier saying farewell to his dying horse as his buddies urge him on.

The book is softcover, 6 3/4 x 7 1/2 inches with over 100 illustrations, more than 30 of which are in color. The images are reproduced both from original art and from tearsheets. Because of the petite size of the book, the illustrations are unfortunately disappointingly small, but they're well captioned, and larger files can often be found online. List price is U.S. $18.95, but it can be found on Amazon for less than $15.00. 

The book does much to fill the gap in published information about this underappreciated artist whom I've written about many times before on this blog. It's an especially good resource for anyone interested in the documentation of World War I. I hope that someone will produce another book covering his vast output of historical illustrations after the war.

Book: Goodbye, Old Man: Matania's Vision of the First World War by Lucinda Gosling
Previous GJ posts on Matania


Mitch said...

Matania seems to have had an almost superhuman visual memory, especially when I see (in the preview of the book on Amazon) the drawing of a goat he did when he was three! His baby drawing shows all the skill of an adult. My mother saved my first drawing, a few scribbled lines that I called a rabbit, and I have to say, Matania was light years ahead.
Thanks for the post.

Jonathan said...

Thank you for this great post on such a fascinating Artist. To me I find it hard to draw the line between a Painter like Rubens who "illustrated" Marie de' Medici Cycle and an Illustrator like Fortunino Matania who depicted many historical themes. Can we say Michelangelo was an Illustrator since he was commissioned by the Pope to illustrated stories from the Bible in the Sistine Chapel? Why do we call some artist painters and others illustrators?

James Gurney said...

Jonathan, why bother drawing lines between painter and artist and illustrator? Most great artists through history have been illustrators, and to my way of thinking, all illustrators are artists. By the way, one of Matania's greatest fans was Sargent, who owned one of his originals.

Mitch, yes, Matania started early, partly because his dad was an artist too and trained him young. At age 14 he arrived at an event with an official press pass. When the guard questioned him, he did a stunning drawing on the spot to prove he was the real thing.

Glenn Tait said...

The BBC has an interesting web site called "Your Paintings"; there is a page showing three of Matania's works, along with their locations.

Totally with you on the artist/illustrator issue. N.C. Wyeth struggled with these distinctions in his own life, yet everything he did exemplifies, to myself at least, that there is no difference.

All his paintings told stories that I could become part of whether it was in a book or on a gallery wall. I remember seeing a still life at the Brandywine museum that Wyeth had painted in 3 hours, yet even this told a story. Maybe that is where the distinction and longevity really lies; those who can convey great stories in paint (or any media).

Rich said...

The great art of all these illustrators shines out even more nowadays; in contrast to all those pretentious self-proclaimed Non-Artists calling themselves "artists".

Julieartist said...

Thank you for this lovely review. I work for Blue Cross animal charity in UK and the painting 'goodbye old man' is owned by the charity. It is a very moving work of art and I have often wanted to know more about the man who painted it. Blue Cross started by rescuing war wounded horses (Red Cross for people, blue for animals)

Gavin said...

Hard to find that level of dedication these days, but they were extraordinary times.

Here is a higher resolution photograph of the painting :

Luci Gosling said...

Hello there - it's the author here. Thanks for your kind review. I very much agree with you on the size of the pictures. I argued this with the publisher at the very outset, but they wanted to produce something affordable and accessible rather than a big, coffee table book and there are two other books on WW1 artists I've done (Bairnsfather & Heath Robinson)which are the same size and format and so as a trio were meant as a sort of mini-series. A much larger format Matania book is in the pipeline, published by the Book Palace. Look out for that though it will be a lot more expensive!

I first came across Matania when I became picture library manager at the Illustrated London News archive (owners of the Sphere for whom Matania was special artist). Back then, around 60 or so original Matanias were hung on the walls, or, in the case of the WW1 images, tucked away in a plans chest. I would get them out occasionally and marvel over them. They were sold last October at Christies (in my mind, an act akin to selling the family silver), but we're pleased to have scanned all the originals before they went, many of which have ended up in the book.
I particularly enjoyed writing Matania's story. He was an exceptional man - a true talent with a flamboyant character to match. I hope whoever buys and reads the book finds themselves similarly captivated.
Luci Gosling

James Gurney said...

Thank you, Luci. I appreciate hearing how the book came to be, and learning what the fate of his originals was. We're all so grateful you wrote this one, and can't wait for the new book, too.

LDRB said...

Great article! I am looking to buy a print of (not the Sphere printed illustration in the May issue of 1915) Fortunino Matania's Neuve Chapelle, 1915 after the painting he did IF THIS WAS ONE PRINTED?

I am looking for a number of other WW1 prints by other artists (not ones from the Illustrated London News, Sphere, The Graphic, but published by places such as Eyre Spottiswoode, Ltd., British Art Company, certain prints issued by Oxo in exchange for coupons on bottles of OXO and Fine Art Society printed from 1914 to 1919.

If anyone has one or more of these prints, (or knows someone who has) please contact me my email at or phone at 1 905 680-8115.

Thank you