Fortunino Matania

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A few years ago I started a topic about the Italian illustrator, Fortunino Matania, which mostly received a positive response.  I served in the Irish Guards (a regiment within the Household Division) during the 1970s and over the course of the past few years was delighted to discover that during the period of the First World War (when Matania was employed as an official war artist) the illustrator had actually depicted one of my regiment's proudest moments in one of his wartime drawings for a 1915 edition of the UK magazine, The Sphere.

In recent weeks I decided to make a written contribution to my regiment's yearly journal (a high-quality magazine that gets circulated amongst army personnel, past and present).  I've no claims on being any kind of gifted writer, but I'd like to think it's both readable and interesting.

As it's highly-unlikely that few outside our circle of comrades will get to see my piece, I'm including a copy of my draft article together with representative illustrations I've requested populate my piece herewith.  Hope it's of interest to some of you.

This is not a story about superhero types in spandex doing impossible things . . . it's about ordinary men doing extraordinary things in the face of real-life danger.

Here ya go . . .


by Terry Doyle

The Great War of 1914 - 1918 was a bit of a mixed bag In terms of pictorial representation in the news media.  Although photography was certainly an available option, strict government controls had been put in place from the outbreak of hostilities to censor what the public got to see.  Starkly-graphic imagery was avoided in favour of carefully selected material for use as a propaganda tool.  More common in the newspapers and magazines of the time was the use of artwork for pictorial content.  In August 1914, Britain's War Propaganda Office was a department brought into being to specifically organise the creation of official photographic material. Photographs were first to be censored in the field by the military and then sent to the London-based Press Bureau for final censorship and distribution.

As the war raged on, these strict censorship controls would gradually be relaxed and the use of photography as a record of the events unfolding became more widespread.  It was not, however, until March 1916 before the first official war photographer was sent onto the Western Front.  In line with the need for good propaganda content as previously noted, the horrors of trench warfare were mostly circumvented in favour of toned-down  imagery that promoted successful front line campaigns.

To augment the initial paucity of wartime photographs being made available for public consumption, the print media would rely heavily on artwork representations by popular artists to convey life on both the front line and also of  the civilian war effort back home.  The use of artwork for publication was actually a favoured medium as not all available photographs provided suitable imagery to complement the news items for which they might be used.  Armed with imagination and the skills of their trade, experienced artists could quickly cut to the chase and create the kinds of  illustration specifically requested by a publisher. 

One of the best of these wartime illustrators working for the press was a man named Fortunino Matania (1881 - 1963).  Matania, born in Naples, Italy, was the son of a well-respected commercial artist and from an early age Fortunino clearly demonstrated an artistic talent inherited from and nurtured by his father, Eduardo.

In 1902, aged only 20, Matania travelled to London to begin working as an illustrator for one of the (then) leading British publications, The Graphic.  Here, the artist's genius for presenting an almost photographic-like quality to his artwork began to build him a legion of admirers amongst peers and public alike.

Following a spell of national service back home in Italy, Matania later returned to England where he was offered work for another prominent magazine, The Sphere, quickly becoming its star attraction.  Notable assignments included portraying the Coronation of George V in 1911 and, sadly a year later in 1912, he produced a series of illustrations for the magazine depicting visualizations of the sinking of the Titanic.  To research his assignment, Matania was granted interviews with survivors of the tragedy so as to enable his subsequent drawings be as true-to-life as possible, as based on the personal accounts and detailed descriptions given him.

With the advent of the Great War, Matania's skills as a graphic artist, at a time when periodicals were slow to fully-embrace the use of available photographs, would become much in demand.  Throughout 1914, armed with a sketch pad, Matania would interview soldiers returning from the front line and would begin to depict (in his highly realistic style) visualizations based on the detailed descriptions and accounts provided by those who were there.

In the Spring of 1915 all this was to change for Matania as he was given the opportunity, in his capacity as an official war artist, to make the first of several trips to the front line to personally witness events directly as they were happening. Of the circumstances leading up to his visits Matania would later recall, "Realising that this war of 1914 was different from previous wars, and that only a man who had seen something of it himself could hope to portray it, I chose the latter of course.  For me the transference, from civilian life and the peaceful atmosphere of the studio to the most infernal horror that history has ever recorded, took place in a mere 24 hours."

Augmented by personal experiences encountered during his visits to the front line, Matania's subsequent illustrations spanning the duration of the war would go on to record the kind of pictorial accuracy that only someone who had experienced it all first-hand could hope to portray and the resulting body of work encompassing these war years serves as a remarkable testimony to the artist's achievements in providing the public with a series of authentic images showcasing the horrors of the conflict.

At the end of the Great War, Matania would go on to enjoy a long and successful professional career as an artist spanning decades though, in a cruel twist-of-fate, he would later spend time in an internment camp during the Second World War due to his Italian origins . . .

On a personal level, although I'd no doubt encountered Matania's later work for things like the early 1960s editions of Look & Learn magazine up until the artist's death in 1963 (my father used to buy the publication for his offspring), it wasn't until the late 1980s that I learned the name of this remarkable artist which, in turn, would lead to a retrospective admiration for the great body of work that he had left behind him.  The more I delved into this artist's formidable career, the more enamoured I became of his exquisite artwork and achievements.

As a collector of original artworks for many years (mostly popular-culture based . . . I'm currently into collecting movie poster paintings), opportunities to acquire some of Matania's original illustrations came my way during the course of my collecting pursuits.  Several years ago I was fortunate enough to be given the chance of purchasing two of the artist's depictions of army life in London's Wellington Barracks, both of which date from around 1902.  Colonel Tim Purdon has recently advised me that the regiment depicted in my Matania illustrations would have been the Grenadier Guards.  Hand-written notations on the reverse of these two artworks describe both as being 'Wellington Barracks' and one is entitled, 'The Men's Coffee Bar', even though it looks as if the serving of coffee is conspicuous by its absence and has been replaced by alcohol!  Both illustrations saw print in an edition of The Graphic magazine.

*** ( NOTE:  See artwork attachments for 'Wellington Barracks' illustrations)

Naturally, as an ex-Guardsman, I was delighted with my acquisition of two of Matania's original drawings that tie-in directly to the Household Division.  Curiosity aroused by these illustrations, I began to wonder if Matania had ever used the Irish Guards as subject matter for any of his military works?  Unfortunately, the artist's London studio had been bombed during the blitz of World War II and much of his original artwork and personal records had been destroyed in the resulting damage.  What remained for further scrutiny and research was internet sources.  The wealth of periodicals of the time are now very difficult and expensive to locate, bearing in mind we're now somewhere in the region of one hundred years since they originally appeared on the news-stands!

Despite frequent internet searches, trying to discover if Matania had ever used the Irish Guards as subject matter in any of his assignments had slowly grinded to a halt.  During this time I'd heard that our regiment's most senior officer, Major General Sir Sebastian Roberts KCVO OBE, had an interest in drawing his own cartoons.  Intrigued, I contacted Sir Sebastian to ask him if during the course of his military service, coupled with a personal interest in illustration, he had ever come across any of Fortunino Matania's wartime artworks that featured any Irish Guards content?  Replying to me, Sir Sebastian advised that he was unaware of any such works but that he would consult his friend, Colonel Sir William Mahon Bt LVO, who had a passion for such things . . .

Unfortunately, whilst no Irish Guards material was unearthed at this time, Colonel Mahon did flag-up for my attention Matania's famous First World War painting of  'The last general absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois'.  This painting, with its Irish connection, had been commissioned at the request of the widow of the battalion's commanding officer and would later see print in an edition of the Sphere magazine dated 27 November 1916.  Matania's hauntingly-beautiful painting showcases a somewhat sombre gathering of troops at a roadside shrine as army chaplain Francis Gleeson addresses the assembled battalion to give absolution on the eve of the Battle of Aubers Ridge.  This sedate gathering, as depicted by Matania, eerily presages what we can only imagine to have been a soon-to-be horrific action that would result in a heavy loss of human life.  When paraded again on the aftermath of the battle, some 200 survivors of the 2nd battalion Munster Fusiliers re-grouped . . .

*** ( NOTE:  See artwork attachment for 'The last general absolution of the Munsters at Rue Du Bois').

At this point in my search for possible Irish Guards content by Matania, I was beginning to think that no illustrations were likely to surface, if at all any existed in the first place.  Internet searches became less frequent for me, though I would make periodic visits to the world-wide-web to take an occasional look.

One day, to my great surprise and delight, a random internet search provided me with such an image I'd spent the last few years trying to track-down . . . and what a magnificent image this turned out to be . . . portraying one of our regiment's most historic and proudest moments with a caption that read:


Bingo!  Matania's illustration had appeared on an interior page of the Sphere dated 13 March 1915, with accompanying descriptive text that read:

The story of the gallantry and daring bravery of Lance Corporal O'Leary, which earned him the VC and promotion, adds yet another chapter to the splendid history of the British Army.  How he "practically captured the enemy's position by himself" was told recently in the Daily Mail by Company Quartermaster Sergeant JG Lowry of the Irish Guards, who was actually present at the time.  He states, "My company was ordered from our trench to keep up a hot rifle and machine gun fire across the German trenches and points of cover.  After the rain of bullets and shrapnel had been kept up for twenty minutes No. 1 Company was let loose on our left.  They came out of the trenches with a yell, bayonets fixed, and went for the enemy at the double.  They had from 100 to 150 yards to travel, and they went at a tidy pace, but were easily outstripped by Lance Corporal O'Leary, as he then was.  He never looked to see if his mates were coming, and he must have done pretty near even time over that patch of ground.  When he got near the end of one of the German trenches he dropped, and so did many others a long way behind him.  The enemy had discovered what was up.  A machine gun was O'Leary's mark.  Before the Germans could manage to slew it round and meet the charging men, O'Leary picked off the whole of the five of the machine gun crew and, leaving some of his mates to come up and capture the gun, he dashed forward to the second barricade, which the Germans were quitting in a hurry, and shot three more.  O'Leary came back from his killing as cool as if he had been for a walk in the park, and accompanied by two prisoners he had taken."

Needless to say, it would be a redundant exercise for me to attempt to offer a detailed discussion of Matania's illustration - as readers here can judge for themselves the composition and quality of the artwork, which pretty much captures the essence of O'Leary's supreme act of bravery in the face of heavy danger.  As with most artistic visualizations by Matania, he brings his strong imagination to the fore, consolidated by a highly-photographic true-to-life style, in the depiction of a deadly skirmish he was never there to experience first-hand.  Clearly, the artist closely follows CQMS Lowry's eye-witness account to ensure an accurately-researched portrayal of this remarkable feat of action by one of our regiment's most-revered heroes is brought stunningly back to life.

*** ( NOTE:  See artwork attachment of 'How sergeant O'Leary of the Irish Guards won the VC').

Matania's highly elusive Irish Guards illustration was actually located and turned-up by a guy named Geoff West, publisher of the recently released book, DRAWING FROM HISTORY, THE FORGOTTEN ART OF FORTUNINO MATANIA, a lavishly illustrated hardback release with a lengthy and fascinating introductory essay written by Lucinda Gosling.  Hundreds of illustrations spanning Matania's career as an artist (many reproduced directly from surviving original artworks) are featured in this handsome publication that is currently in print and available from the Book Palace web-site at:

Naturally, it comes with my highest of recommendations!

1 Matania - Wellington Baracks 1.jpg

2 Matania - Wellington Barracks 2.jpg

3 Matania - Last Absolution.jpg

4 Matania - O'Leary (large file) revised.jpg

Edited by The Voord

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43,048 posts

Those are GREAT! 

I own a few Matania pieces and his illustration skills are amazing. 

I'd love to find some of his WW I work. 

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3,598 posts

That man could draw!

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Posted (edited)

Fantastic stuff. His precision with pen and ink is amazing. Do you know if Roy Krenkel ever studied under or worked with him?

Edited by ThothAmon

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On 6/11/2019 at 12:30 AM, ThothAmon said:

Fantastic stuff. His precision with pen and ink is amazing. Do you know if Roy Krenkel ever studied under or worked with him?

From what I seem to recall, Krenkel, Frazetta and Williamson were all aware of Matania and admired him.  As Matania was based in the UK (London), I doubt that Krenkel would have had any direct contact with the artist.

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