Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Egypt Centre Collection Blog: Sir John Gardner Wilkinson and Swansea

Monday, 13 May 2019

Sir John Gardner Wilkinson and Swansea

Pretty much all Egyptologists will be familiar with Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (fig. 1), who has been described as the "father of British Egyptology". But how many will know of his connection to Swansea? Wilkinson was born on the 5 October 1797 in Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire. His father was a Westmoreland clergyman, the Reverend John Wilkinson, an amateur enthusiast for antiquities. Wilkinson inherited a modest income from his early-deceased parents. Sent by his guardian to Harrow School in 1813, he later went up to Exeter College, Oxford in 1816. Wilkinson ultimately took no degree and, suffering from ill-health, decided to travel to Italy. It was there in 1819 he met the antiquarian Sir William Gell (1777–1836) and resolved to study Egyptology.

Fig. 1: Sir John Gardner Wilkinson

Wilkinson first arrived in Egypt in October 1821 as a young man of 24 years, remaining in the country for a further 12 years continuously. He also revisited the country four times: in 1841–2, 1843–4, 1848, and 1855–6. During his stays, Wilkinson visited virtually every known ancient Egyptian site, skillfully recording inscriptions and paintings as a talented copyist and compiling copious notes. Wilkinson's most significant work was his Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (fig. 2). First published in three volumes in 1837 and subsequently illustrated by Joseph Bonomi (1796–1878), this title stood as the best general treatment of ancient Egyptian culture and history for the next half-century. Acclaim for this publication brought Wilkinson a knighthood and ensured him the title of the first distinguished British Egyptologist.

Fig. 2: Page 1153 of Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians

In 1856, at the age of 59, he married Caroline Catherine Lucas (1822–1881), the daughter of Henry Lucas of Glamorganshire. Lady Wilkinson worked on editing her husband's manuscripts as well as writing several books of her own, the most successful of which was Weeds and Wildflowers (1858). The couple lived first at Tenby in Pembrokeshire, on the South Wales coast. In 1866 they moved to Brynfield House at Reynoldston on the Gower peninsula. Brynfield and the surrounding area provided Wilkinson with ample opportunity to indulge his interest in ancient British remains; he had already published several articles on British archaeology and antiquities. The house was close to Cefn Bryn, the site of Arthur's Stone (fig. 3), a Neolithic burial dating back to 2500 BC. Wilkinson was the first to excavate the tomb in 1870 and claimed that the pathway followed by the ghostly apparition seen by many of King Arthur on a white steed, is the remains of a stone avenue.

Fig. 3: Arthur's Stone

Wilkinson died at Llandovery (Carmarthenshire) on the 29 October 1875 and was buried at St Dingat's church. The ashlar pedestal monument, which was designed by Wilkinson before his death, has an Italianate arcaded top and pyramid cap. There are two steps and a plinth under the pedestal, with angle pilasters and cornice (fig. 4). He had bequeathed his collections with an elaborate catalogue in 1864 to his cousin, Lady Georgiana Stanhope Lovell, who had married Sir John Harper Crewe at Calke Abbey (now owned by the National Trust). He left his widow in poor financial straits from which she was rescued by a pension that Benjamin Disraeli persuaded Queen Victoria to grant her. Wilkinson's papers are now held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and form an invaluable resource to some of the earliest recorded states (dating to 1821 to 1856, before the advent of widespread tourism and collection) of many Egyptian monuments. 

Fig. 4: Wilkinson's grave

One of the objects recorded in his 1856 notebook (MS. Wilkinson dep. e. 68) is a lintel, which was then in the possession of Dr. Henry William Charles Abbott (1807–1859). Abbott was an English medical practitioner and a collector of antiquities. It is thus fitting that in 1971, 115 years after it was first recorded by Wilkinson, the lintel (W491) arrived in Swansea as part of the loan from the Wellcome Institute (fig. 5). In the intervening years, the lintel changed hands several times, including at one stage being part of the celebrated collection of William Tyssen-Amherst (1835–1909), First Baron Amherst of Hackney. The lintel belongs to a man named Tjenti, an Overseer of Craftsmen, who lived around the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2513–2374 BC). The interesting life cycle of this object will be the focus of my talk at the Egypt Centre's Wonderful Things conference in two weeks time. If you would like to attend, please contact me ASAP!

Fig. 5: Tjenti's lintel (W491)

Bierbrier, M. L. (2012) Who Was Who in Egyptology. London: The Egypt Exploration Society. 4th edition.
Thompson, J. (1992) Sir Gardner Wilkinson and His Circle. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
———. (2015) Wonderful Things: A History of Egyptology, 1: From Antiquity to 1881. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
Thompson, J. and R. Lucas (1995) 'Sir Gardner Wilkinson in Gower'. Gower 46: 6–14.
———. (1870) 'Avenues and Carns about Arthur's Stone in Gower'. Archaeologia Cambrensis 25, 1: 22–45, 117–121.
--   Sent from my Linux system.

No comments:

Post a Comment