Egyptian Style

Egyptian Style was popular in Britain in the second half of the 18th Century for ornamental work, and examples may be seen in the V&A and in the Wallace Collection. It was revived again at the turn of the century after the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and periodically received new interest throughout the 19th Century, most notably in the 1860s and 1870s as the opening of the Suez Canal and explorations in Egypt made new discoveries. Many of the great explorers in Egypt were British, and collections of original Egyptian art found their home in the British Museum and various University museums, to inspire the English artist and craftsman. And on the bank of the Thames is of course Cleopatra’s Needle.

Egyptian Room in the British Museum, early 19th Century

Various British painters went to Egypt, and though most of these were Orientalists (i.e. painting modern Arabs, moors and Turks emphasising the exotic middle Eastern lifestyle, real and imagined), some artists painted the archaeology – David Roberts being the most well-known. Frederick Goodall painted many modern Nile scenes with the pyramids in the background. Others painted life in ancient Egypt: Alma Tadema did so before he found his metier in everyday life in Greece and Rome; Edwin Long painted beautiful girl-priestesses and Pharaonic court scenes; Ernest Normand depicted more sensual domestic and biblical figure subjects on an ancient Egyptian theme.

A Priestess of Isis, print after Edwin Long

With the exploration and discoveries and wars in Egypt in the news, artefacts in the museums and the evocative paintings in the galleries, what did this inspire the British artists back home to produce? The greatest output of Egyptian style art in the 19th Century was on the small scale – jewellery and silver tableware. Examples were shown at the Great Exhibition, and subsequent exhibitions in the 1860s and 1870s. A few of these have found their way into the V&A, though finding them on show is another matter.

1870s jewellery made by the Birmingham School

So far as sculpture goes, as far as I have seen, the Egyptian style manifests itself with four main subjects. Most common is the sphinx, of which there are several good examples: the biggest I think being the Vulliamy sphinxes made to flank Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment, and the even bigger stone ones at the site of the Crystal Palace. Typical smaller ones are in Bath, early examples by William Hollins from outside some great mansion have found their way into the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. In London on the smaller scale we may mention a chunky sphinx in Lombard Street, and one held by a figure of Sculpture by Lanteri on the tower of the V&A (you’ll need binoculars to spot it), and a fine pair above a doorway just off Finsbury Circus in London, by Daymond and son. Sphinxes are also found as street furniture in the cast iron ends of the benches along the Victoria Embankment, and in other towns such as Preston (Avenham Park) and Birmingham (Old Square).

A Vulliamy sphinx by Cleopatra's Needle

Secondly, a few sculptors took an Egyptian girl with headdress as a variation of the ideal nude – Onslow Ford, H. C. Fehr, and Ada Freeman Gell spring to mind.

Cleopatra in Aldwych, by H. C. Binney

Thirdly, there are a few studies of Cleopatra as part of architectural sculpture – for example as part of a frieze of heroines too high up to really appreciate in Aldwych, London, and a wholly admirable Cleopatra as Truth by Harry Bates for the Victoria Law Courts in Birmingham.

Cleopatra as Truth

Fourthly, on occasion, an ancient Egyptian is used to indicate Africa, together with or instead of a black African person. The best known example is of course in the Africa group of the Albert Memorial, by William Theed. Another is the Egyptian girl on the front of Queen Square House in Bristol, who holds a tiny sphinx.

Africa from the Albert Memorial.

Other examples of Egyptian style from the latter part of the 19th Century may be more discrete. In London, an Egyptian girl was ideal as an allegorical figure of ancient history on the old City of London School near the City end of the Victoria Embankment. Back to the Albert Memorial, three Egyptians are included in the architects' section of the basal frieze (by the sculptor Birnie Philip). On India House in Aldwych among the various coloured roundels is a stylised pair of camels and pyramids. Opposite the British Museum, one of the blocks of flats has a small head of a pharaoh among the decoration. There are various girls with headdresses who may be Egyptian, oriental, or somewhere in between, for example in the decorative ironwork and sculpture along Regent Street of post-turn of the century and Edwardian times. And from that period too, most unobtrusive of all, we may mention a panel on the Norway House building just off Trafalgar Square, with a classical figure with a spinning wheel, seated on a stool with a sphinx base.

Ancient History, City of London School building

Finally, Egyptian style architecture. The Egyptian obelisk makes a fine monument, for a variety of war memorials, and in cemeteries – the strong association of Egypt with a culture centred on death made such Egyptian style particularly appropriate for such things. Among various larger Egyptian obelisks, we can return to Bath where there is a particularly tall Victoria memorial in the Royal Victoria Park, and we may note in passing that one of the proposals for the Albert Memorial was a giant obelisk of granite. Egyptians had pillars too, with horizontal divisions rather than just fluting to emphasize height, hieroglyphics, and capitals based on the lotus and papyrus leaves.

Victoria obelisk, Bath Styles of Egyptian pillar

In the 19th Century there were a few whole buildings built in Egyptian style, with the pillars, decorative hieroglyphs, mouldings and friezes, for example the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, erected in 1812 by a Mr Bullock for the display of antiquities. And we still have small but complete Egyptian buildings in London cemeteries: my favourite is in Kensall Green Cemetery, where the Ducrow Memorial is a small building with Egyptian pillars, sigils and two sphinxes; a second Egyptian tomb (the Farrant Memorial) is nearby.

Ducrow Memorial.

Background information // sculpture pages // architecture pages

Top of page