Rare Letras y Figuras is a look into 19th century Manila 2
The complete George Curits Letras y Figuras. Image courtesy of Leon Gallery

Auction-bound Letras y Figuras painting offers priceless glimpses into 19th century Manila life

This Letras y Figuras—up for auction this Saturday—is a kind of artistic status symbol of an elite few that profited from the trade between the Philippines and the US eastern seaboard.
EA Santamaria | Jun 15 2023

A remarkable artwork, the George M. Curtis in the style of ‘Letras y Figuras’, which employs the medieval technique of spelling out letters using human figures, is an important touchstone of a period of trade that mirrored the Spanish galleons. 

‘Letras y Figuras’ are particularly sought after since they are distinctly original and one of a kind, by definition bearing only a single patron’s name — as opposed to the other well-known kind of art of the same period known as ‘Tipos del Pais” which were created in recurring themes such as fishermen, mestizas bathing, and gentlemen farmers. 

The Cuartel del Fortin — where the Manila Post Office now stands
The Cuartel del Fortin — where the Manila Post Office now stands

Jose Honorato Lozano (1821- 1885) and Justiniano Asuncion (1816-1901) were well-known masters of both kinds of these exquisite artworks. Very few of their works extant, however, are signed. What makes this George M. Curtis—offered at auction this Saturday, June 17, at Leon Gallery’s The Spectacular Midyear Auction—even more distinct is that it bears the signature of the artist, Marcos Ortega y del Rosario. His name is written in the finest hand: “por M. Ortega” (by M. Ortega). 

One other work signed by him, with the name ‘Manuel Miramon’, is known to exist, as well as another in the Ynchausti Collection. Ortega was from Binondo and married a Spanish mestiza named Arcadia Torres. 

The Adana or Customs House of Manila
The Adana or Customs House of Manila stands within the walls of Fort Santiago, looking out to the Pasig River

Both the Letras y Figuras and the Tipos del Pais were collected as ‘trophies of trade’, a term originated by the scholar Florina Capistrano Baker who studied them closely as the artistic status symbols of an elite that profited from the trade between the Philippines and the eastern seaboard of the United States. Capistrano-Baker would call this the “Manila-Masachusetts Trade” and describe it as follows: “The Manila-Massachusetts trade is little known but had a significant impact on American aesthetics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries with the introduction of new materials, products, and art forms. 

American interest in the Asia-Pacific region sprang partly from whaling and the lucrative China Trade. Says Baker: “Two Massachusetts companies were firmly established in Manila by the 1820s. Peele, Hubbell & Co. supplied American and European markets with Philippine sugar, indigo, and hemp. The other firm, Russell & Sturgis, was bound by family ties to American businesses in Canton and shipped Philippine sugar and molasses to America for the rum distilleries. Most of Manila’s indigo went to New England textile factories. Philippine hides were exported for the American shoe industry, and the indigenous Manila hemp (abaca) used to manufacture marine cordage became the main staple of trade with Salem. 

The Manila Cathedral
The lighthouse of Manila, to the left is the Binondo Church

“Beyond the trade in hemp, art forms such as souvenir watercolors flourished with increased wealth at home and abroad. These luxury objects were of more limited distribution, restricted to a small circle of wealthy travelers, merchants, and elite Filipino families, and visually marked the status, wealth, accomplishments, and ambitions of their owners.” 

Fittingly, this George M. Curtis Letras y Figuras being auctioned this weekend, captures the maritime trade on the Bahia de Manila (or Manila Bay) and the Rio Pasig (Pasig River) which is alive with all manner of vessels, from ships flying the Spanish colors, a Chinese junk, as well as an American flag—all these references to the wide interests of the Russel Sturgis houses in Manila, Canton and Massachusetts. The Puente de España (Bridge of Spain) is also depicted. 

Inhabiting the painting are Filipinos busy at work, tending fields and pounding rice, hanging laundry and tending to the chickens, picking mangoes and hawking the fruit. There is a housewife cooking a meal and a young boy sleeping among the many domestic vignettes. The painting is extraordinarily detailed, showing the outlines of carriages and people crossing the Puente, the cargo of the tiny cascos on the river, and the forgotten monument on the Paseo, on a summer’s day in June 1877.

The Manila Cathedral
The Manila Cathedral

By tradition, the patron’s face and figure would be included in one of the Letras y Figuras scenes. There is one likely candidate, wreathed in the ‘O’ formed by verdant shrubbery and several wooden barrels (possibly of molasses, a prime export to the Massachusetts rum makers). He is a sharp-nosed man (captured in profile) wearing a pith helmet and leading a brown horse. Could this be Mr. Curtis himself? (Pith helmets, incidentally, are Spanish adaptations of the Filipino salacot.) 

The book “Prominent Families of New York” published in 1898 by The Historical Society of New York lists a Mrs. George William Curtis. The Curtis family of Massachusetts dates back to 1635 when the first Puritan ancestor with the name arrived on American shores. They would be chiefly soldiers and officers who would marry into distinguished banking and political families. On record is a George William Curtis, born in 1824 who would study in Europe, write for Harper’s Weekly, and become regent of the University of New York. His path would cross with the Massachusetts mandarins when he would marry Anna Shaw, whose grandparents on her maternal side were Nathan Russell Sturgis Sr. married to Elizabeth Parkman. George Curtis’ mother-in-law would thus be the sister of the famous trader Russel Sturgis. 

Russel Sturgis (1805-1887) would become one of the most successful traders in Asia, establishing the houses of Russel Sturgis in both Canton and Manila as well as in North America. He would, in fact, live in the Philippines for a long period, which ended only upon the death of his wife and his return to Boston for a short period of time. He would return again and again to Asia but would eventually be wooed away with the offer to head Barings Bank in London. The watercolor bearing the name of one of his trusted lieutenants is a window into the world of old Manila and the crossroads in which it lay. 

The Bridge of Spain
The Bridge of Spain, spanning the Pasig. Note the carriages and lamp posts along the bridge

Conservation architect Mico Manalo has these insights to share, “Apart from being a stunning example of the letras y figuras genre, the piece commissioned for George M. Curtis has another important protagonist. In the four panels accompanying his name, an ever-present element is water. The City of Manila could not have existed without the bay and the Pasig River, and as the Curtis piece demonstrates, these two bodies of water play a central role in the city’s development: while the Spanish saw the potential of setting-up within Manila Bay’s well-protected confines (Daniel Burnham even likened it to “the bay of Naples”), precolonial kingdoms had existed along the Pasig River effectively controlling the trade that went through it.

"Which is why it isn’t such a surprise that three out of the four panels depict the Pasig: with the city’s only bridge at that time – the Puente de España, with the Paseo de Magallanes which was famous for late afternoon promenades, and as the foreground for a country scene. Even in the lone panel that contains the Manila Bay, one still sees the mouth of the Pasig between the lighthouse and Fort Santiago, where a concentration of ships’ masts can be found, presumably because the Aduana (Custom House) was there.

"A more detailed examination of each of the panels shows how Manila grew out of, and continuously communicated with water, beginning with the first one showing the final evolution of the Puente de España. For two and three-quarters of a century, this was the only way to cross the Pasig River from its south bank, where Intramuros is, to the arrabales or suburbs of the north bank: Binondo, Santa Cruz, Quiapo, San Miguel and Sampaloc. Also called the Puente Grandeuntil the reformations done to it in the 19th century, it used to have a gate at its northern end called the fortín – a small fort that controlled access particularly to and from the walled city of Manila. With the city’s expansion to the north, south, and east, this gate was eventually demolished, being a bottleneck for the ever-increasing traffic crossing the bridge. To the left of the panel is the Cuartel del Fortín, the barracks that housed the military that manned this small fortification. Today, it is the site of the recently burnt-down Manila Central Post Office building.

The Magellan Monument
The Magellan Monument stood on the banks of the Pasig until 1945 when it was felled by American bombs and rolled into the river. Behind it is the Church of Sto. Domingo

"Behind the Puente de España is a grove of trees, which is the subject of the second panel: the Paseo de Magallanes. Here began a green belt of paseos or promenades that looped around the city towards the last quarter of the 19th century, as Manila began to shed much of its dependence on its defensive walls which, by this time, were already obsolete given the developments in artillery and warfare. The oval-shaped, tree-lined track was where fashionable Manilans took their carriages for a late afternoon paseo. This usually ended when the bells tolled at six for the Angelus – a time where the entire city came to a complete stop. Rising above the trees is the monument to Ferdinand Magellan, a rostral column that was unfortunately destroyed during the Battle for Manila in 1945, along with the prominent spires, towers and domes of the Santo Domingo church and those of the Metropolitan Cathedral. The city lost the Paseo de Magallanes when the Americans decided to raze the Baluarte de Santo Domingo and create what is known today as Magallanes Drive, between the Post Office building and the Intendencia.

"The third panel is probably one of the more memorable views of Manila to any traveler or trader. Labeled Bahia de Manila, it shows Manila Bay teeming with all kinds of 19th century water vessels from western ships and brigs to more oriental types. In the background is the City of Manila, or today’s Intramuros, whose walls rise from a beach that will soon become the tree-lined Maleçon, or Paseo de María Cristina. Fort Santiago is very discernable with the walls of the Baluarte de Santa Barbara and its red-tiled military buildings, though at a distance one catches a glimpse of the Aduana, or Custom House, for which 1877 is of extreme significance as it marks the year it was reopened after having been damaged in the 1863 earthquake.

"The mouth of the Pasig River is congested with ships whose huddled masts appear behind smoke from a white steamship. Right above the latter is the Faro del Río Pasig which was the lighthouse that announced the entrance to the storied river. It is on the north bank, where one finds the bustling arrabal of Binondo, with its massive church rising above this important suburb.

"Many travelers did a tour of the Pasig River leaving the cosmopolitan setting of Manila and its suburbs for the more idyllic rural areas going towards the Laguna de Bay. One would have passed the suspension bridge linking Quiapo to Bagumbayan – the precursor of today’s Quezon Bridge, and the scenery would have begun to change. The density of Manila, Binondo, Santa Cruz, and Quiapo would give way to villas of the wealthy lining the river in the arrabal of San Miguel, after which the river would snake and bend through mangrove and marsh, passing by the great shrine of the Lady of the Abandoned in Santa Ana.

"In the last panel, as well as in the foreground of the two lower panels, the rural side of the river and those who live along it are celebrated, in contrast to the more urbane characters that make up the letters that spell out 'GEORGE.' This piece is a study of the different facets of life along a river and bay that was the source of life for a city and its suburbs: a reminder that we are people who are more of the water than of land."

[Leon Gallery’s The Spectacular Midyear Auction, co-presented by ANCX, is happening this Saturday, June 17, at 2PM, at the G/F Eurovilla 1, Rufino corner Legazpi Streets, Legazpi Village, Makati. To browse the many other treasures up for bids, visit the Leon Gallery website by clicking this link.]

Images courtesy of Leon Gallery