by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Almost two weeks ago, our general information email box contained a message from someone wanting information on Pedro Sánchez, a Mexican tile artist, because a hand-painted tile was donated to a Upstate New York thrift shop at which, Tasha Statham, the correspondent works. The beautiful piece was assumed to have some value, but a Google search for Sánchez found two of the top hits coming from the Homestead’s web site and blog.
I quickly responded with an offer to purchase the tile and, fortunately, this request was met with immediate interest. After some discussion over price, a deal was made and the Homestead purchased the tile. With this transaction, the St. Matthew’s Church and its Browse and Buy Thrift Shop in the town of Horseheads, New York (a community of about 6,000 people in the south-central part of the state near Elmira) was able to add to its charitable coffers.
There was a note that came with the tile indicating that it was a representation of the Infant Jesus of Prague, a 16th century statue of the Christ Child from a church in that remarkable capital city of the Czech Republic. Usually, that figure is depicted alone wearing imperial clothing and a golden crown with an orb and cross in the left hand and the right hand raised in a benediction.
While it is true that there is an infant Jesus with a golden crown in this tile image, he is held in the left arm of the Virgin Mary, who has a cherub-topped crows and a halo and massive wide-spread gown. In her right hand is a flower while there are three heads, perhaps of angels, at the base of the gown.
There is a gorgeous simplicity in this tile, with a limited palette of colors, with white, green, blue and red secondary tints and a powerful predominant golden yellow dominating the scene. Sánchez skillfully used black hatched lines to simulate ruffles on the Virgin’s clothing and for bordering, providing a way to accentuate the golden color throughout. The total effect is striking and the artist added his signature laterally along the bottom right edge inside a dark blue border.
We also don’t know how the tile was intended to be used, whether as a stand-alone piece or part of a panel. At the Homestead, we are very fortunate to have three magnificent tile panels by Sánchez. The first is a stunning potted plant set in a niche in the Dining Room, with remarkably bright green pods and six-sided flowers of reddish brown, yellow and gray.
A gray border is spectacularly ornamented with semi-circles of yellow and gray surmounted by larger ones of reddish brown and black. This 24-tile panel has the name of the artist at the bottom and, at the lower right corner, what appears to be the mark of an artist’s guild to which he belonged.
In the adjoining Breakfast Room, where the morning sun can often be a staggering illumination, there is a large niche with shelves on the southern wall. At the top beneath a graceful scalloping of plaster is a shelf with a beautiful circular tile inset. While we don’t know if it was done by Sánchez, it does seem likely to be his work. It features four seven-pedaled tropical flowers with large centers, while green leaves on curved stems and smaller flowers with little black circular elements add to the interest.
At the bottom of the niche where there is a lower tile shelf and raised tile step is another fantastic mosaic, this one comprised of 30 tiles. With a dark blue background, there are two peacocks feasting on a watermelon, while other tropical fruits, such as a pineapple, other watermelons, citrus and others sit atop a large curved basket or bowl. This latter has a pattern of alternating horizontal and vertical lines and a circular center decorative element. On either end are serpentine components that might be rope handles. Sánchez placed his name along the right end of one of these.
Perhaps even more impressive than these two, at least if stately formalism is more desirable than a fluid exuberance as in the others, is a niche in the bedroom of Thomas Workman Temple II, the eldest of the children of Walter Temple and Laura Gonzalez. This gorgeous niche has a scalloped top ornamented with a flower and spreading leaf design.
Below that is a 3-tile panel is a border comprising 60% of that count and including the use of striking dark blue and yellow flowers and leaves similar to those of the plaster above it. The tiles, however, are set so that the vertical ones show the flowers in a portrait orientation and the horizontal ones in landscape. Even so, the left side tiles are set in one way and the ones on the right are the reverse.
The twelve tiles in the center depict a stunningly serene image of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child flanked by a pair of angels kneeling with hands pressed together in supplication on fluffy clouds—all have golden auras. The Virgin wears a simple dark colored cloak that covers her head while she holds the infant Jesus, swaddled only in a cloth diaper and with his right arm around her neck, in a loving and protective embrace.
Yet, a discerning eye (visitors do have to look from a distance because of a rope and stanchions that limit access to most of the room) can detect something strikingly and, for the time, shockingly modern. The Virgin looks to have lipstick, eye shadow on her demurely downcast eyes, bobbed hair and a head scarf as if she was a modern 1920s woman. On the lower left tile is Sánchez’ name and the name of Puebla, the tile-making center where he worked.
These three panels are easily among the most distinctive and beautiful of the many striking decorative elements in La Casa Nueva, which is one of the most stunning Spanish Colonial Revival homes in greater Los Angeles (and a major surprise to find in the City of Industry!)
The panels were installed under the discerning eye of Beverly Hills-based architect Roy Seldon Price, hired by the Temples about 1924 to complete the work begun with a design sketched out by Walter Temple and Laura Gonzalez and then through finished drawings by the Los Angeles architectural firm of Walker and Eisen, known for their commercial buildings.
Walker and Eisen worked on most of Walter Temple’s commercial structure projects in Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Alhambra and El Monte before creating the drawings for La Casa Nueva. Once Price was hired to take over that project, he also worked on the last few commercial buildings for Temple in Alhambra, including the Edison Building, mentioned in a recent post and which still stands.
As for Sánchez, he is known to have worked for Martinez and Company, a well-known Puebla tile making firm, and then the panels were brought to Los Angeles through an importer. There are several other Sánchez panels in greater Los Angeles. One is in a community building in Placentia; another, intended for a house in Pasadena but never installed, were donated to the Arboretum of Los Angeles County, which installed them on a stairway wall. Years ago, I happened to be at a conference at the Mission Inn in Riverside and stumbled upon a Sánchez panel on a wall of that remarkably eclectic wonderland. There are private homes with some of his work, as well.
Documentation of Sánchez and his work is limited. At the end of October 1926, a woman advertised in the Los Angeles Times for the sale of her Hollywood Hills home, calling it “A Home You’ll Love to Live In.” In describing the “Old World Spanish architecture,” including wrought-iron and imported antique light fixtures, she added that the building had “tile insets by the well-known Mexican artist, Pedro Sanchez.” Because the owner was going overseas “for [an] indefinite length of time,” she was listing the house for a month at $18,500, more than double the average price of an American home.
A couple of weeks later, the Times featured a photo of film director Clarence Brown, who made several films with Greta Garbo like Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Anna Karenina (1935) as well as National Velvet and The Human Comedy in the 1940s, and his wife Ona seated at the edge of a swimming pool in the yard of their Beverly Hills residence. On a tall tile-topped wall behind them is a massive panel of about 150 tiles called “El Charro” by Sánchez. The work was so essential that it also was the name of the estate. Unfortunately, the serene setting didn’t save the Browns marriage, which ended the following year.
In August 1928, the paper had a brief article about the dedication of a Sánchez panel (called a mosaic in the piece) of St. Francis of Assisi in a grotto at St. Paul’s Cathedral, completed in 1923 at the corner of Figueroa Street and Wilshire Boulevard. Unfortunately, the Episcopal church was razed in 1980 due to earthquake damage.
Way to the east in Abilene, Texas, a prominent ranching family, the Grissoms, owned Bear Cove Ranch, south of the city, where their home had an abundance of Mexican serapes, blown glass pieces, clay pots and rugs. Also a central part of the decor, according to a 1937 Abilene Reporter feature was “a tile top table made by Pedro Sanchez, noted Spanish artist when he was in Mexico.” The article added that “it is fashioned of Puebla tile in blue, orange and yellow tones, with wrought iron legs.”
Not quite two years ago, a package arrived to the museum from Cleveland, but with no identification as to the sender. Inside were a pair of tiles by Sánchez of a bullfighter and his graceful dangerous dance with a charging behemoth. The brief note inside stated that the tiles came from the donor’s grandfather who lived in Pasadena and somehow acquired them.
Now, we’ve added another Sánchez tile to our collection and we’re certainly happy to have it to complement some of the most striking decorative elements of La Casa Nueva, while also glad that the proceeds go to benefit the church thrift shop and its charitable work.