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Saturday, March 9, 2024

Piccadilly's Egyptian Hall | Londonist

Wish You Were (Still) Here: Piccadilly's Egyptian Hall

An occasional feature, in which we mourn the loss of an exceptional slice of London, wishing it was still here. This time: Piccadilly's Egyptian Hall.

An Egyptian style hall
The Egyptian Hall used to stand opposite the Burlington Arcade, and was almost impossible to ignore. Image: public domain

What was the Egyptian Hall all about?

Britain had two broad bouts of 'Egyptomania'; the second was the fallout from the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, which folded in rather neatly with the art deco movement of the time. The first was sparked some century-and-a-quarter earlier, thanks to Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and Napoleon's campaign in Egypt from 1798-1801. Particularly because Bonaparte had been accompanied by scientists who documented the remains of many monuments, a European fascination with ancient Egypt was sparked. Real life relics like Cleopatra's Needle found their way over to Britain, while British architects were also inspired to have a crack at recreating the Egyptian style. The first time this was the case with a full-blown building was Peter Fredrick Robinson's Egyptian Hall, commissioned by the naturalist William Bullock, and completed in 1812. Partly inspired by the Egyptian room at Thomas Hope's house in Marylebone, Memoirs of a Metro Girl tells us the Egyptian Hall also borrowed from the Temple of Dendera, with its winged mundus, scarabreus and outward projecting facade.

What was actually in the Egyptian Hall?

Napoleon's carriage
Napoleon's carriage, once on display at the Egyptian Hall, now at Chateau de Malmaison near Paris. Image: damian entwistle via creative commons

Although some ancient Egyptian objects were displayed, there was a lot more going on. The Hall was often referred to as the 'London Museum', but really it was more of a world and natural history museum rolled in with an art gallery. Until 1819 the Hall housed William Bullock's collection of over 20,000 natural history objects, including a grim menagerie called the 'Pantherion', containing a stuffed elephant, rhino, zebra and 'cameleopard' (known to you and me as a giraffe). There were also grand artworks (such as the 26-foot-long 'The Judgement of Brutus Upon His Sons') plus Napoleon-related curios, including his carriage, captured after the Battle of Waterloo. Incredibly, the coach was presented alongside its one-armed driver, who'd also been captured by the Brits, and now stood next to the coach as a living exhibit. Visitors' fascination with the captured carriage was such, it was parodied by the cartoonist Thomas Rowland.

Was it always a museum?

A flyer for a Maskelyne magic show
The Egyptian Hall became 'England's Home of Mystery'. Image: public domain

By 1844, the Egyptian Hall was humbly billing itself "the most magnificent and extensive Collection of Historical Curiosities and Works of Art ever known to have been formed by One Person" (their random use of caps, not ours). By this time, Bullock's natural history collection had long been sold off, and the Hall was filled with everything from James Ward's Allegory of Waterloo, to a family of Laplanders and their reindeers, offering sleigh rides. In fact, the Hall grew rather fond of these exotic meet-and-greets; in 1865, a group of Chinese people could be visited here, including Chang, a seven foot, eight inch-tall 19-year-old. Later still the Hall was repurposed into more of a theatre, specialising in the mystical and magical, with the likes of the 'Real Indian Basket Trick', in which exotic flower trees were said to grow instantaneously in front of spectators' eyes. The conjurers Maskelyne and Cooke (the former, who invented the world-famous levitation trick) appeared at the Egyptian Hall for over 30 years, making it 'England's Home of Mystery', and influencing the likes of French filmmaker extraordinaire Georges Méliès. It was quite an extraordinary place to visit.

What happened to it?

The Great Room of the Egyptian Hall, as redesigned by J. B. Papworth in 1819
The Great Room of the Egyptian Hall, as redesigned by J. B. Papworth in 1819. Image: public domain

The Egyptian Hall was demolished in 1905 to make way for shops and offices, standing opposite Burlington Arcade (built a few years after the Egyptian Hall). If it'd managed to hold on less than 20 years more, maybe it'd have been given a repreive, thanks to the second wave of Egyptomania. The replacement building is now called Egyptian House, though that's the only thing remotely Egyptian about it. The ground floor occupants though, currently include the French bistro Richoux, which you can read as an extremely subtle nod to Napoleon, and the fact none of this might've existed in the first place. If you want.

Can I see anything like the Egyptian Hall in real life now?

The Egyptian House
The Egyptian Hall lives on in smaller form in Cornwall. Image: Tom Parnell via creative commons

London is smattered with many Egyptian goodies, from the Petrie Museum to Cleopatra's Needle. However, if you want to see a building that's strikingly similar to the Egyptian Hall, head to Paddington.... then catch a train to Penzance in Cornwall. Here you'll find the Egyptian House, which is heavily influenced by the Piccadilly's Egyptian Hall. And the best thing about it (aside from the cracking Admiral Benbow pub nearby)? You can stay here.

Last Updated 08 March 2024

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