February 5, 2016 5:16 pm
For many visitors to London, the British Museum's Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, with its monumental gods and pharaohs, is a non-negotiable part of the itinerary. Yet it is only the tip of a large pyramid: there are more than 200 public and private collections of ancient Egyptian artefacts in Britain. Now some of those objects have been assembled into a superb exhibition, Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt, at Two Temple Place, London.
There could be no more fitting residence. Built for the wealthy American William Waldorf Astor — it was previously known as Astor House — and now owned by a charitable foundation, the Bulldog Trust, Two Temple Place is an example of late Victorian Gothic at its most exuberant. With its mahogany panelling, geometric flooring and stained-glass windows, the house encapsulates the same cultural grandiosity with which the Victorians set out to the Middle East in search of other nations' treasures.The curators are sensitive to the controversy raging around restitution. "We decided to only show objects that were in public collections, where at least they can be seen by everyone," says assistant curator Heba Abd el Gawad, who is herself Egyptian. Museums in Bagshaw, Bexhill, Bolton, Ipswich, Macclesfield, Brighton and Rochdale are among those that have contributed, and the tale of precisely how they acquired their artefacts forms part of the show. With admirable lucidity, text panels and photographs narrate the journey by which, for example, a gilded mummy mask from Hawara ended up in Ipswich and a limestone vessel from Thebes found itself rehoused in Rochdale.
Twin catalysts for this migration were Amelia Edwards and William Flinders Petrie. Edwards, a popular novelist, visited Egypt in 1875. On her return, she set up the Egypt Exploration Fund to finance annual excavations. Sponsored by museums around the UK and by private individuals, these were carried out with the approval of Egypt's Department of Antiquities, which also permitted the artefacts to be carried back to Britain.
Edwards's right-hand man was Petrie, Britain's first professor of Egyptology. Petrie's passion for archaeology was kindled by childhood visits to Stonehenge, and from 1884 onwards he carried out more than 60 excavations in Egypt. On many of them he was joined by other wealthy Victorians, such as Walter Amsden, a doctor from Bexhill, Frank Llewellyn Griffith, an Oxford classics graduate, and Amelia Oldroyd, heir to a fortune made in the Yorkshire textile mills.
Petrie's collection finished up in his eponymous museum at University College London. But many of his fellow travellers left their objects to their own local museums — donations that sometimes say much about personalities and sources of wealth. Bolton Museum, for example, is now home to an assembly of ancient textiles because one of its chief donors was Annie Barlow, daughter of a textile mill owner.
By the 1920s, regulations forbade the more extravagant exports. (Today, no antiquities may leave the country.) But the Victorians had already scooped a formidable haul. As a consequence, Beyond Beauty delivers a journey through the anima of a culture that feels as immediate and intimate as if its citizens had died decades ago, rather than millennia.
The theme of the exhibition is the Egyptians' obsession with bodily transformation. The earliest object here is a stone palette in the shape of a fish, which was used for grinding make-up pigments and dates back to the pre-dynastic era (from 6000BC to 3100BC). Among the latest is a sumptuous, gilded mummy mask inscribed in Greek for a Roman citizen, Titus Flavius Demetrius. Made around the late first to early second century AD, it's a luminous insight into the hybridity of the culture at a moment when Rome had wrested Egypt from the Greeks.
In between, we have jewellery, textiles, make-up, hairpins, mirrors and scent jars, their presence in tombs all testifying to the belief that corporeal care did not end with death. Meanwhile, painted coffins, carved stone reliefs and exquisitely decorated funerary masks evoke the ideal bodies to which the Egyptians aspired. As they have done throughout history, the powerful often distorted their own image for political ends. A small stone bust from the late 12th to the early 13th century (about 1800BC) shows a ruler with notably huge ears, a sign that he was always listening to his people.
The house encapsulates the cultural grandiosity of the Victorians' quest to seek out other nations' treasures
The bedrock of ancient Egyptian culture was the conviction that death was not the end. Rather, it was the gateway to an afterlife in which the deceased could hope to be reborn as a divine spirit. The tomb objects and death rituals were all chosen to smooth the path towards this transition.
No detail was left to chance. A strip of linen bandage is inscribed with a spell from the Book of the Dead to ensure that the deceased could quote the correct text at the celestial gates. A group of figures in faience — the green ceramic signified rebirth — and wood, equipped with tools, symbolised the Egyptian Middle Kingdom belief that the deceased might be called on to undertake agricultural work in the eternal fields; the magically inscribed statuettes would labour instead.
Elaborate physical preparations were essential for a successful journey. First, the internal organs had to be extracted. Dating from the 22nd dynasty (945-715 BC) and excavated in Thebes, a stunning quartet of limestone jars are each crowned with a different animal's head to symbolise the four sons of the god Horus. Originally designed to have held the stomach, intestines, lungs and liver, their outlines are as clean and modern as the vessels in a Morandi painting. Such superb condition is a testament to the dry climate within the tombs.
Once purified and embalmed, the mummy was decorated to resemble the gods as closely as possible. Gilded faces, blue wigs — for divine hair was thought to be made of lapis lazuli — and false beards (to ape Osiris, ruler of the underworld) are some of the most commonly observed features.
In illuminating both ancient Egypt and the Victorian fascination with the objects it produced, Beyond Beauty condenses a lot of information into a relatively small space. Yet it always manages to communicate it eloquently, and the rich surroundings are an undeniable plus. Reborn as Two Temple Place, Astor House seems to be enjoying a fruitful afterlife.
To April 24, twotempleplace.org
Photographs courtesy of Macclesfield Museum, Touchstones Rochdale, Royal Pavilion & Museums