How obelisks won the West

The Egyptian Revival

August 25, 2006

The subtitle of this book is "Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration for Design Motifs in the West", and it is one of a growing, and welcome, collection of cross-disciplinary works that add greatly to the interest of both fields - in this case, design and Egyptology.

There has recently been a resurgence of interest in the history of Egypt as an inspiration for the West, helped in part by the major exhibition Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art 1730-1930 , which was held in Paris, Vienna and Ottawa in 1994-95. This resurgence may also owe something to the recent popularisation of history in the media, not least the interest in Nelson and Napoleon, themselves the focus of another exhibition, this time in Greenwich in 2005. However, this book - a fully updated third edition of a work first published in 1982 - has some claim to have begun this trend, and to have been the inspiration for more recent publications dealing with "Egyptomania" in the classical world.

This claim can be made on the grounds that the present book does not take the Napoleonic campaigns as its starting point, but instead argues that the roots of Egyptian influence on Western art can be traced much further back, to the time of the Greeks (in the broadest sense) in Egypt. Alexander himself visited the Siwa oasis to receive the oracle from Amon and was depicted wearing such horns in allusion to it. When his successors ruled Egypt after his death in 323BC, Egyptian ideas became widespread in the Mediterranean world, disseminated from the cultural centre of Alexandria.

The Roman conquest of 30BC served only to increase the influence of such ideas. Just as the Greeks had looked to Egypt as a fount of ancient wisdom, so Rome looked to Alexandria as the repository of such knowledge, and the Romans were quick to take up not only aspects of ancient Egyptian religion but also elements of architecture. Thus obelisks were transported to Rome and entered the canon of Western architectural forms. Appropriately, this form was used to commemorate Nelson, whose death came at the dawn of a new Egyptianising era, and his victory at Trafalgar at several locations in Britain (Swarland, Great Fransham and Knotty Ash to name but a few).

The section dealing with obelisks and their transport to Rome is typical of much of the book, providing a thorough and concise treatment of the subject, with references and relevant illustrations, but at the same time providing much more than a catalogue. Thus we learn that the Romans seem to have copied hieroglyphic inscriptions to make plain the link between the obelisk and Egypt. It was evidently important that the connection between the monument and its origin be made obvious to all who saw it. It was an exotic form.

The obelisk form, like the sphinx, was well known by the 18th century - the result of the rediscovery of the classical world, and with it the exotic world of ancient Egypt, during the Renaissance. At this time, the mysterious nature of the Egyptian realm was reinforced by the fact that the hieroglyphic script could no longer be read, helping to foster notions that it might be the key to esoteric knowledge.

The perception of Egypt as "enduring" and, to an extent, the European idea that the Egyptians were obsessed with death meant that Egyptianising monuments were seen as suitable for funerary monuments. The best known of these is the monument of Cestius in Rome, itself providing the proportions for many later monuments, particularly of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

James Stevens Curl is the author of The Victorian Celebration of Death (2000), so it is not surprising that his chapter on funerary architecture is particularly interesting. Although the Egyptian section of Highgate Cemetery, London, is well known, we are here treated to some lesser known monuments. These include Thomas Willson's (c 1780-c 1840) design for a "Pyramid to contain Five Millions of Individuals", which sadly was never built. It would have covered 18 acres, but provided spaces equivalent to a 1,000-acre cemetery, and would have stood taller than St Paul's Cathedral.

However, many schemes lacked the scale of Willson's design and were executed in poor materials. Typical of these were Egyptianising entrances to the new public cemeteries. Augustus Pugin (1812-52) castigated the architects of such monuments in his Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England (1843), stating that "a cement caricature of the entrance to an Egyptian temple... is erected with convenient lodges for the policeman and his wife, and a neat pair of cast-iron hieroglyphical gates, which would puzzle the most learned to decipher; while, to prevent any mistake, some words such as 'New Economical Compressed Grave Cemetery Company' are described in Grecian capitals along the frieze, interspersed with hawk-headed divinities and surmounted by a huge representation of the winged Osiris bearing a gas-lamp". Despite Pugin's attacks, the Egyptian theme remained popular for monuments even if it declined for tombs themselves.

The book is illustrated with 219 black-and-white photographs, 56 figures and 40 colour plates. As much Egyptian and Egyptianising art is rich with colour, the balance of the illustrations could profitably have been reversed. This book could have found an appreciative audience among amateur Egyptologists as well as professionals and scholars had it been made more attractive. In its present guise it is likely to remain the preserve of the scholar - a pity, because it is well written and highly readable.

Paul T. Nicholson is senior lecturer in archaeology, Cardiff University.

The Egyptian Revival

Author - James Stevens Curl
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 572
Price - £80.00 and £.50
ISBN - 0 415 36119 2 and 36118 4

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