Where history happened: Egypt in Britain

Charlotte Hodgman speaks to Egyptian expert Chris Elliott about Britain’s craze for Egyptian architecture in the 19th century, and examines eight related places...

This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

One of the two 19th-century bronze sphinxes sited next to Cleopatra’s Needle. (G
The idea that an ancient civilisation  could continue to influence the way people lived – thousands of years after it disappeared and from a distance of some 2,000 miles – is a strange one. Yet the 19th and 20th centuries saw a number of buildings heavily influenced by ancient Egypt spring up across the UK – from the southern coast of Cornwall to the northern tip of the Scottish Highlands. 
 
“Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 was a watershed moment for Britain’s fascination with ancient Egypt,” says Chris Elliott, author of Egypt in England. “Ancient Egypt has always had a low-key influence on British culture, but Britain’s defeat of French forces in Egypt (following the battle of Alexandria in 1801) saw the first hard archaeological information on Egypt begin to be brought back to England.”
 
Napoleon’s forces in Egypt had included a 167-strong Commission on the Sciences and Arts, charged with exploring and recording the country. One of its members, Dominique Vivant Denon, was among the first to publish his findings, and did so in 1802 in the form of his Voyages dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte (Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt). Denon’s work was quickly translated and published in English, sparking an enthusiasm for all things Egyptian in Britain.
 
Says Elliott: “The British passion for Egyptian culture and architecture was the result of a combination of factors. In the years that followed Britain’s victories over the French, a wave of patriotism swept the nation, particularly among the very rich. To create a building in the Egyptian style was considered to be the height of fashion: the magnificent Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, built in 1812, was one of the first buildings in Britain to be influenced by Egyptian style.”
 
But if the growth of empire and the spread of British influence overseas added to the appeal of Egyptian culture, so too did its biblical connections – including the tradition that it provided a refuge for the holy family (Joseph, Mary and their infant son, Jesus). Prior to the Napoleonic invasion, the rediscovery of the classical world – most notably during the Renaissance – had also seen a renewed surge of interest in ancient Egypt, fed by translations of texts referring to the country as a land of mystery and wonder.
 
By 1801, the British had seen off French forces in Egypt, and a huge range of artefacts  were shipped back to Britain – mummies, papyri and small antiquities, as well as large hard stone sculptures and statues. 
 
“The discovery of the Rosetta Stone [an inscribed stele dating from 196 BC, now in the British Museum] in 1799 is one of the most important in archaeological history,” says Elliott, “and it paved the way for the understanding of hieroglyphics. Yet it was more than 20 years before the principles behind hieroglyphics were to be established – ultimately by a brilliant young Frenchman named Jean-François Champollion, with contributions by Englishmen Thomas Young and William Bankes, on whose Egyptian obelisk the hieroglyph for ‘Cleopatra’ was first identified.”
 
Once hieroglyphs could be understood, a whole new interest in Egypt opened up as people began to make sense of what the ancient texts actually said.
 
Architectural representations of ancient Egypt were not wholly accurate – and they probably weren’t intended to be. Although architects of designs such as that of the Egyptian Hall at Stowe in Buckinghamshire claimed to have modelled their creations on buildings such as the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, there is, says Elliott, little similarity.
 
“It is my theory that many people wanted the prestige of being able to link what they had built to ancient Egypt, but what they actually did was take the key elements and adapt them to the types of building they were used to. They wanted the look of ancient Egypt – for example, papyrus columns and winged solar discs – but preferred to ‘Egyptianise’ existing buildings with a decorative facade.” Despite this trend, some buildings did include hieroglyphic inscriptions that – though not wholly accurate by today’s standards – could be deciphered.
 
Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 – the first almost intact ancient Egyptian royal burial ever found – was hugely influential in popularising ancient Egypt and brought a vast number of artefacts into the public eye, some of which had never been seen before. The death in 1923 of Lord Carnarvon, who was with Carter when the tomb was opened, gave rise to a great wave of curse mania, which did little to quell the interest in ancient Egypt.
 
“Although the ancient Egyptian style was never as widely adopted in Britain as its classical or gothic counterparts, it is one that has never really died out”, says Elliott. “The last buildings influenced by Egyptian architecture were constructed in the 1980s and I have no doubt there will be more in the future.”
 
With their pylon-shaped features, the lighthouse cottages at Noss Head in the Scottish Highlands are one of many examples of ancient Egypt’s influence over British architects in the 19th century. (Alamy)

 

Eight places to explore

 

1) The Bankes Obelisk, Kingston Lacy, Wimborne Minster

Where a little-known artefact helped unlock the secrets of ancient Egypt
 
The Rosetta Stone, now on display in the British Museum, is famous for being the key to the translation of hieroglyphics, but another obelisk also played an important role in unlocking the secrets of ancient Egypt. In 1821, Egyptologist and traveller William John Bankes brought to England an obelisk that had been erected at the Temple of Isis at Philae in Upper Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy IX (116–81 BC), a Macedonian Greek ruler of Egypt. 
 
 “The obelisk revealed a Greek inscription that included the names ‘Ptolemy’ and what Bankes discovered to be ‘Cleopatra’, a previously unknown hieroglyphic”, says Elliott. “Like the Rosetta Stone, Bankes’s obelisk had inscriptions in both Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs, which he believed would provide crucial insights into the nature of hieroglyphic scripts.”
 
The roughly 22 foot-high, six-tonne obelisk arrived in England in 1821 and had made its way to Bankes’s family seat of Kingstone Lacy by August 1822. The obelisk’s inscriptions revealed themselves to be bureaucratic texts (similar to that of the Rosetta Stone).  
 
The obelisk now stands on a three-tier plinth on the south lawn at Kingston Lacy where bronze plaques give information on both the Greek and hieroglyphic inscriptions, and the men who brought it to England. The house and grounds at Kingston Lacy are both open to the public. 

 

2) The Egyptian House, Penzance

Where a 19th-century geologist created a fashionable Egyptian facade
 
Built for geologist John Lavin in around 1835 as a shop and geological repository, Penzance’s Egyptian House bears a strong resemblance to the former Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly, designed by PF Robinson. The design of the Egyptian House has been attributed to either Robinson or John Foulston of Plymouth, and was one of a number of Egyptian-style buildings created in the aftermath of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt in 1798. 
 
Lavin bought two 18th-century cottages in 1834, extending them upwards and then adding an Egyptian-style brick and stucco facade boasting pylon shapes (temple-like entrances), cornices and columns, as well as two papyrus-bud columns that flank the entrance.
 
A decorated cornice, which is topped by the coat of arms of William IV, dates the building to no later than Victoria’s accession in 1837. The house also displays an eagle, which, says Elliott, is not remotely Egyptian in style, suggesting that not all architects were faithful to, or wholly familiar with, ancient Egyptian styles.
 
The Egyptian House has been in the care of the Landmark Trust since 1968 and has since undergone essential renovation. The ground floor houses shops, but the remaining floors have been converted into apartments that can be rented by visitors.
 
The Egyptian House closely resembles the former Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. (Katherine Wright)

 

3) Marshall’s Mill, Leeds

Where an Egyptian-style flax mill became “a marvel of the district” 
 
Marshall’s Mill (also known as Temple Mill) was once a thriving flax mill, constructed as part of John Marshall’s 19th-century flax empire. Designed by James Combe, who worked for the Marshall family, the 396 foot-long and 216 foot-wide building was constructed with an ancient-Egyptian facade, as well as some interior decoration. Completed in around 1840, with offices added two years later, its vast single-storey weaving shed was described by some as the “single largest room in the world”.
 
Says Elliott: “Although the link between flax (the raw material for linen) and ancient Egypt was confirmed in 1834 when it was established that mummy bandages were made of linen and not cotton, the choice of design for Marshall’s Mill is more likely to have been a product of John Marshall’s involvement with the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society.” The society covered subjects such as ancient Egypt and was itself given three mummies in 1823: one of which (that of an Egyptian priest named Nesyamun) was unrolled in 1824.
 
As well as being renowned for its Egyptian style, the building was also unusual in that it boasted a grass roof on which sheep would graze – according to one story, a sheep once fell through a skylight, killing a worker below. The mill even provided inspiration for Mr Trafford’s factory in Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, or The Two Nations, in which it is described as “a factory which was now one of the marvels of the district; one might almost say, of the country...”
 
Marshall’s Mill is now a listed building and its palm columns and snake motifs are still visible to the public. The building’s interiors are currently undergoing restoration work. 
 

4) Noss Head lighthouse, Staxigoe

Where a remote 19th-century lighthouse demonstrates Egyptian influence
 
Originating from the Old Norse word ‘Snos’ (nose), Noss Head lies on the peak of the nose-shaped headland three miles north of Wick. The lighthouse – the first to have diagonal framing in the glass of its light room, which helped produce a stronger light – was completed by Alan Stevenson in 1849. 
 
“Stevenson was well acquainted with classical Greek authors and could apparently quote Homer from memory,” says Elliot. “It is this interest, as well as the historical connection to the great Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria, that probably inspired Stevenson to include Egyptian elements in his design. These included decorative pylons with 
plain cavetto cornices (an overhanging horizontal moulding), and a battered (sloping) doorway into the lighthouse 
tower itself”.
 
The lighthouse was automated in 1987 and now houses the Clan Sinclair Study Centre.
 

5) Freemasons’ Hall, Boston

Where freemasons allied themselves with ancient Egypt
 
The idea that freemasonry has roots in ancient Egypt was a popular one during the 19th and early 20th centuries and the Freemasons’ Hall in Boston was one of a small number of masonic temples built in Britain during this period with 
Egyptian features.
 
The building dates from 1860–63, and its design is credited to the London architect George Hackford. It is similar to the temple at Dendur, south of Aswan – now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – but includes other aspects of Egyptian style, including two columns with hieroglyphic inscriptions, and a large hieroglyphic inscription across the front of the building.
 
“Many of the freemasons who served in Egypt during the Napoleonic invasion would have been receptive to any discoveries which could be seen as evidence of the origins of freemasonry in that part of the world”, says Elliott.  Ancient Egyptians were believed to have concealed their wisdom in signs and hieroglyphics that could only be understood by certain people. This was believed to have been similar to traditions of freemasonry.

 

6) Cleopatra’s Needle, Westminster 

Where London’s oldest monument overlooks the city
 
Made in Egypt for Pharaoh Thotmes III in 1460 BC, Cleopatra’s Needle boasts an eventful history. The obelisk itself was carved from a single block of granite and began life as one of a pair that stood in front of the Temple of the Sun in what is now north-west Cairo. They were later moved to Alexandria where, in AD 1301, an earthquake caused one to fall. 
 
Proposals to bring the fallen obelisk to England began with the Earl of Cavan in 1801 as a commemoration of British victories in Egypt, but it wasn’t until 1878 that the 180-tonne obelisk finally arrived in northern Europe. Its journey, though, was far from easy. 
 
The Needle was to be towed to England encased in a cigar-shaped iron cylinder named Cleopatra. Tragedy struck, though, when Cleopatra began to sink in the middle of a storm in the Bay of Biscay. Six men from the accompanying ship, Olga, drowned trying to effect a rescue. Though Cleopatra was abandoned in the storm, with its precious cargo, it was found five days later and subsequently towed on to England where it landed on 21 January 1878.
 
The next problem was the siting of the obelisk: suggestions included Battersea Park and Horse Guards Parade – a full-sized wooden model was even set up in front of the houses of parliament to test public reaction – but it was eventually erected on the Thames Embankment. Two bronze sphinxes joined it in 1881.
 
Four plaques mounted round the base of the obelisk relate the history of the Needle and its journey to London, including the names of the six men who lost their lives during its transportation. 
 

7) LA Fitness (formerly Pyramid Cinema), Sale

Where one of Britain’s last Egyptian cinemas was built
 
Built in around 1933 to seat 1,940 people, Sale’s Pyramid Cinema was one of the last Egyptian-style picture houses to be built in Britain. The building was designed by architect Joseph Gomersall and boasted an Egyptian exterior and interior, including an organ that featured pharaonic heads on either side, together with lotus columns and a winged music stand. The cinema doubled as a theatre and opened for its first public performance on 26 February 1934 with a film and stage show.
 
Externally, the building relied on a series of columns to give it an Egyptian feel, while floral motifs, suggestive of the floral offerings of ancient Egyptian tomb decorations, were used inside.
 
The Pyramid closed as a cinema in 1984 and became a Grade II listed building three years later. Subsequently a nightclub and conference suite, it is now home to a fitness centre (pictured below). Although the interior of the building cannot be accessed by the general public, the exterior still boasts its four Egyptian-style columns.
 
The Pyramid’s resident organist Reginald Liverside playing the cinema’s Egyptian-style organ. (Trafford Local Studies)
 

8) Putney Vale cemetery, Wandsworth, London 

Where one of Britain’s most famous Egyptologists is buried
 
In grave 45, block 45, of Putney Vale cemetery lies Howard Carter, who, in 1922, discovered the best preserved pharaonic tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings, that of the ‘boy-king’ Tutankhamun (ruled c1333–1323 BC). Undisturbed for nearly 3,500 years, the tomb contained hundreds of objects: in fact, so numerous were the antiquities within, that it took a decade for Carter to unearth and catalogue them all.
 
Despite the media furore that followed the discovery, securing Carter’s place in the history of Egyptology, his funeral in 1939 was only attended by nine people, and his monument relatively plain. In 1994, though, the rapidly deteriorating headstone was replaced with a new one, which features the following inscription, taken from a cup found among the objects in Tutankhamun’s tomb: 
 
“May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness.”
 
Putney Vale cemetery also holds the Egyptian-style mausoleum of Colonel Alexander Gordon, whose tomb, says Elliott, was probably influenced by his travels in Egypt. The structure boasts a bronze single-leaf door embellished with lotus and cobra motifs, and two palm-leaf columns.
 
Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was Chris Elliott, author of Egypt in England (English Heritage, 2012).
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