Ancient Egypt has had a deep and lasting influence on English architecture for the last 200 years. From Harrods’ food court and fanciful mausolea to cinemas and even factories, Egyptian art is everywhere. Now, marking the 90th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, English Heritage have launched an exhibition in the recently-reopened Wellington Arch on Hyde Park Corner, accompanied by a new book by Chris Elliot of the Egypt Exploration Society. CWA visited the launch to see these pharaonic fashions for themselves.
When Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922, the Western world was seized by an epidemic of Egyptomania. What is less well known, however, is that England’s enduring interest in all things Egyptian has much earlier roots. Egypt in England explores the origins of this influence, with particular emphasis on the Regency period, when British victories over Napoleon in Egypt gave the civilisation a patriotic appeal.
The new displays on show in the Quadriga Gallery feature a range of 18th and 19th-century objects inspired by ancient Egyptian art, from ceramics and clocks to an 18th Dynasty-style stool by Liberty. These are accompanied by photographs of how the ancient civilisation influenced architectural styles, with pictures of immediately-recognisable locations such as the famous Egyptian Avenue in Highgate Cemetery, as well as more surprising structures, such as Marshall’s Mill in Leeds, whose elaborate exterior belies the fact that it was used for spinning linen thread and cloth.
Other cases explore the first flowerings of organised tourism to Egypt, with beautifully-illustrated vintage Thomas Cook travel brochures – as well as some of the shabtis and amulets brought home by 19th-century travellers as souvenirs. It is striking how much attitudes towards heritage have changed in the last 200 years. As well as black and white photographs showing tourists climbing the Great Pyramid (you were once allowed to picnic on the summit), one case contains a large granite statue of a priest of Sobek and his wife, dated to c.1305-1196 BC, which was brought to England by John Mason Cook (the son of pioneering travel agent Thomas) and used for a number of years as a doorstop at the Thomas Cook office in Mayfair.
Visitors can also learn about the surprisingly adventurous story – illustrated with photos and Punch cartoons of how one of London’s most famous Egyptian landmarks, Cleopatra’s needle, came to England by boat, almost sinking twice en route.
Accompanying the exhibition, English Heritage have published Egypt in England, a collection of topical essays giving the architectural and Egyptological background of some of England’s stunning hidden historical gems, by Chris Elliott. Watch this space for our review of the new book.
Egypt in England can be seen at the Quadriga Gallery inside Wellington Arch from 7 November-13 January.