TW Gaze’s newly appointed Book Specialist, Robert Henshilwood, highlights the exciting influence Egypt has on so many areas of collecting.
The deciphering of the Rosetta Stone in the 19th Century caused an explosion of interest in and fascination with the ancient Egyptians to spread amongst Europeans. This had particular impact in France and Victorian Britain, whose empires vied for control and clashed in the country repeatedly throughout that period.
So called ‘Egyptomania’ pervaded many aspects of Victorian culture and life, with Ancient Egypt becoming extremely influential on the aesthetics of literature, art and architecture and also playing a prominent role in the spheres of politics, religion and eventually film.
Egyptology also became an academic discipline in Europe, and the African country experienced a surprising rise in tourism, with many wealthy Brits particularly incorporating the country in the itinerary of their Grand Tour. The development of photographic technology of the period only helped fan the enthusiasm of many Egyptologists and tourists. Egypt's unique place in photographic history is quite special, and formed the beginning of what we now call travel photography, being the most photographed foreign place for Europeans and a place of fascination with its rich history and monumental architecture. The Nile valley became a popular destination for European travellers, who consulted guides and brought home souvenirs. Egypt’s ruins were sketched, painted, written about, and photographed intensively by cultural producers capitalising on their commercial potential.
Lot 280 in the Silver with Antiques sale at Diss Auction Rooms on 25 January comprised many 19th Century albumen print photographs of Egypt, including iconic images by Jean Pascal Sebah (1872-1947) and the Bonfils brothers, of the Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza, as well as many fascinating people studies and street scenes in Cairo and Alexandria amongst others. The lot easily exceeded its estimate of £200-300 with fierce competition between bidders in the room and online, the bidding finally ceasing at a very healthy £950, showing the demand for these magnificent images is as high as ever.
Throughout the 19th Century, Egyptian influences could be found in women’s mourning jewellery, which often featured obelisks or scarabs (even real scarabs, with beetles being a perfectly regular fixture on earrings), and on tombs, mausolea, cemetery gates and even entire graveyards, which had an Egyptian style of architecture or decorative features.
The poets Shelley and Horace Smith pondered on the lost majesty of the Pharaohs in their competing versions of Ozymandias, a Greek name for Rameses II. Freemasons had long made use of the Ancient curses and Ritual mourning of the Egyptians, but Egyptian imagery strongly affected literature when it became linked to the foundation of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a group of Occultists whose members rumoured to include Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats, Algernon Blackwood and others. Henry Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mine” and “She” both heavily feature mummies and Richard Marsh’s “The Beetle”, an influential Gothic horror novel, encapsulates supernatural Ancient Egyptians, scarabs and the cult of Isis. Marsh, along with other pulp pioneers of the 1890’s such as Guy Boothby, paved the way for 20th Century Gothic horror on screen, the pinnacle being the 1932 film “The Mummy”, starring Boris Karloff. Likewise, popular early-mid 20th Century fiction by authors such as Agatha Christie, who set crimes and mysteries in exotic Egypt, have left most of us a romantic legacy of the unique country and culture.
So whatever your style or collecting interest, whatever objects you covet or cherish, it is safe to say Ancient Egypt has permeated our collective consciousness and psyche, and will continue to do so for years to come. If you have books, ephemera or photographs relating to Egypt, or indeed any other speculative subject, I will be pleased to decipher its value and significance for you. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries are now being taken for the next sale of specialist books which will be combined with The Saturday Select Sale on 11 May.