Saturday, 16 October 2010

Julia Mavrogordato sets sail

In September, 1935, the SS Orion left Tilbury Docks in London on its first voyage to Sydney with hundreds of these menu cards on board. Passengers requisitioned these examples during the August, 1937, voyage. All were from a set of eight linocuts designed for the Orient Line by Mavrogordato (1903 - 1992). The card in reality is pale buff rather than the dull pink you see here.

She was something of an exotic bird herself. Born on the Isle of Wight, she was educated at Headington School and St Hilda's, Oxford, her mother the artist and illustrator Elsie Napier Bell and her father from a well-known and wealthy Chios family some of whom had moved to London by way of Pera in Constantinople. (They were patrons of the Orthodox church in Bayswater's Moscow Rd).

Whether or not she drew from life is open to question. Her mother certainly had New Zealand connections before her marriage. Mavrogordato herself graduated in 1925 but there appears to be no record of art school training. Perhaps having a mother an artist was enough. But I am sure having Ottoman grandparents to hand would make you feel different, certainly cosmopolitan. The subdued sophistication of these menu cards would have acted as both incentive and reminder as diners worked their way through ptarmigan, turkey and peppermint fondants (my favourites!)

I used to find the cards oddly unexciting but there's a finesse and gentleness about them that I've grown to like. They are also a good example of the increasing use of intelligent graphic design by companies and a nicely pitched blend of elegance and exclusivity. Something tells me she knew her market. (Speaking of the market, there should be lots of them out there; they were in use into the 1950s).


  1. Several interesting things here. Are your cards dated 1935 and marked SS Orion? Are they printed with menus, or are they blank cards? Do you have the complete set? Are they signed?

    I'm not sure any of the Mavrogordato family would appreciate being called Ottomans! They were proudly Greek, from Chios as you say.

    Tim Jones
    New Zealand

  2. They are complete menu cards with different dates for August, 1937. They have a panel on the back about the artist but they are unsigned. Unfortunately, I only have the four. They were bought in London around 1985, probably for not very much.

    The idea of Ottoman identity is a fascinating one. Like it or not, the Chios Mavrogordatos were Ottoman subjects but I completely accept what you say about the way they viewed themselves.

    Do you have anything on Elsie Napier Bell and her New Zealand connection? She illustrated a childrens book for a New Zealand or Australian friend of hers.

    I am about to post scans of one of the cards for you but please do ensure I have your order for dinner by 6.30 pm GMT.

  3. Long delay in replying - apologies for that. I would be extremely interested in seeing the "panel about the artist" so if you could send a copy of that I would be very pleased.

    I wrote an article for Print Quarterly (vol 27 no 2) on Mavrogordato which essentially gives all the information I had at the time. But new stuff pops up quite often and I have a large paper file on her here in Christchurch. A set of these cards is held at the State Library of Victoria in Melbourne

  4. The panel is very simple. It just says they are linocuts by her.

  5. Hi Haji,

    nice blog ! I publish a free monthly pdf arts magazine (for the sheer pleasure of it) & wondered if you'd be willing to let me use one or two of your articles in a forthcoming issue on print / woodblock artists ?