With a starting bid of five million, the super rare letras y figuras Views of Manila must have sold for an eye-watering sum in last Saturday’s Leon Gallery auction. It was painted in the 1840s by José Honorato Lozano (ca. 1815-1885), surely either as a souvenir or as a going away gift to an expat with a Manila trading firm, probably American.
Damian Domingo (1796-1834), one of our earliest artists known by name, pioneered in painting figures as tipos del pais, i.e., indios and sangleyes of various occupations and social standings in typical costumes.
Lozano did him one better by positioning figures such as to form letters that spell out a name or in the auctioned object, a phrase. The galleon trade had just ended and non-Spanish traders were permitted to open shop in the Philippines. They were into exports (e.g., sugar, abaca, coffee), imports (e.g., household goods, textiles, wines), shipping, insurance, etc. Lozano’s works were great mementos and, soon enough, the local gentry commissioned them, too.
Views of Manila may have been made for someone like Boston brahmin Russell Sturgis (1805-1887), of Russell Sturgis & Co. that was at one point the largest US company in the Philippine and the China Trade. He arrived in Manila in the 1830s, rose to partner by 1842 and returned to the US in 1844. He later relocated to London and eventually became head of London’s Barings Bank. His younger brother Henry Parkman Sturgis was US consul in the Philippines.
Lozano’s works are painted in two or three registers. The letters are in the foreground and rendered in strong colors, against a background of lightly painted views of Manila and vignettes of daily life.
The top register of the subject work spells out views in all caps against three photo-op sites. At left is a street lined with impressive buildings of materiales fuertes. One flies an American flag and is possibly the offices of Russell Sturgis & Co. and the American Consulate. Large baskets in the middle register are labeled “Jolo No. 6” that could be the company address. Calle Jolo was a section of the present Juan Luna Street near Plazuela San Gabriel (now Plaza Cervantes). It was a choice address in Manila’s CBD, close to Calles Rosario and Escolta, and Puente de España and the Pasig.
The center scene shows grand homes along the busy Pasig (note their bathing pavilions). There is no indication of place, but it could be of Isla de Romero in Santa Cruz, upstream of the Puente de España. The rightmost vignette has an unusually large nipa house that could be the trading house casa de campo.
The letters are spelled out with tipos del pais: V – laborers positioning logs; I – fashionistas in colorful baro’t saya, one shaded with a red parasol; E – a Chinese noodle vendor surrounded by waiting customers; W – women with knee-length hair and a mason raising a stone wall; and S – a young family with a nursing baby in a cogon lean-to.
The middle register is a panorama of Manila Bay along the Tondo shore, busy with a steamship flying the American flag, sailing ships, paraos, and many small vessels. On the right is the lighthouse at the mouth of the Pasig River where painter Lozano’s father was vigia (lighthouse keeper). The letters O is a boatman awaiting passengers on his roofed and walled casco and F is a farm couple husking palay on a lusóng (wooden mortar).
In the bottom register are the selfie-worthy Paseo de Maria Cristina along the Pasig, showing Puente de España, the Magallanes Monument, and the part of the Intramuros wall by San Juan de Letrán; Plaza Mayor with the Cathedral, Casas Consistoriales and Palacio del Gobernador flying the Spanish flag, all crumbled by the 1863 earthquake and the still standing monument to King Carlos IV; and bustling Plaza de Binondo.
There was a tobacco factory off the Plaza (Fabrica de Meisig) with some 6,000 female workers mostly age 14-20. A mesmerized male expat wrote in his memoir about the unending parade of cigarreras at quitting time (the pheromones!). They are the long lines of women dressed in black and white branching left and right as they cross the plaza and walk up Calle Sacristia (now Ongpin).
The letters are M – a harp-playing lady and a young man with a guitar, serenading; A – a farmer with a load of sugar cane; N – a woman grooming a horse and another bearing a bundle of firewood on her head; I – top-hatted gentlemen and elegant ladies on paseo; L –a laborer at ease on a pile of sacks and baskets; A – an old woman on her haunches cooking what looks like puto bumbóng on a palayók,
Scattered here and there are snippets of daily life, an expat’s reminder of Manila days—the elite on horses (the señora riding sidesaddle), a cockfight, man and rooster on a carabao, a mother and dripping wet little boy by the seashore, a vendor carrying his inventory (maybe carabao milk) in large palayók, a woman daintily balancing a pot on her head, vendors carrying baskets and pots on pinggá (shoulder pole), principalia on promenade, a man busily grinding maize, and the equivalent of today’s Jollibee drive-in—a streetside vendor on her papag selling puto.
It would have been nice to reminisce about tropical Manila while in foggy London, freezing Edinburgh, or snowy New England.
Notes: (a) The painting is gouache, watercolor and ink on paper, 22” x 33”; (b) It was in the collection of the late economist and historian Dr. Benito J. Legarda, Jr. (1926-2020) who once told me he found it in a stack of prints in New York City’s Argosy Book Store; (c) The idea of painting figures on letters may have been inspired by the capitals of European medieval illuminated manuscripts; (d) Instituto Cervantes tried to revive the art in the 1990s; and (e) The artist Alan Jimenez of San Fernando, Pampanga is today’s major practitioner of letras y figuras, in watercolor on paper.
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