Retour d’Egypte

Fragment of a wall painting depicting a harpist entertaining guests at a banquet, from an 18th-Dynasty tomb at Thebes dated 1425-1375 BC, at Kingston Lacy. ©National Trust Images/Angelo Hornak

William Bankes, who inherited the Kingston Lacy estates in 1806, combined the different temperaments of a scholar, a connoisseur and a romantic. Between 1812 and 1820 he travelled around the Mediterranean, visiting Portugal, Spain, Egypt, Syria and Italy and collecting works of art along the way.

The Philae obelisk on the South lawn at Kingston Lacy. ©National Trust Images/Rupert Truman

Two articles have just been published about Bankes’s Egyptian collections. In the 2012 edition of the National Trust Historic Houses and Collections Annual, David Adshead relates the story of how Bankes managed to remove an obelisk from the island of Philae in the First Cataract of the Nile and to have it ultimately re-erected on the lawn at Kingston Lacy.

One of a pair of ‘Retour d’Egypte’ (or Egyptian Revival) Paris porcelain stands with caryatid figures and hieroglyphs, c. 1805, in the Saloon at Kingston Lacy. ©National Trust Images/James Mortimer

The early nineteenth century was a period of fierce rivalry in Egypt between the representatives of several European nations – and in particular between Britain and France – keen on obtaining the most interesting antiquities and on deciphering the hieroglyphic script.

One of a group of 25 stelae, or tomb inscriptions, from the craftsmen’s village at Deir el-Medina near Thebes, at Kingston Lacy. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

Bankes played a part in this ‘antiquities race’ by recording inscriptions and collecting objects. The obelisk, which was the largest and most fraught of his acquisitions, had been claimed by the French Consul, but after a failed attempt during which it slid into the Nile, Bankes and his associate Giovanni Battista Belzoni managed to get their prize onto a boat and whisk it away to Alexandria.

Copy of a wall painting at the Great Temple at Abu Simbel depicting captives, at Kingston Lacy. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

In retrospect this frantic game of one-upmanhip seems slightly comical – a clear case of obelisk envy – but at the time it was deadly serious. At one point Belzoni was almost lynched by the Consul’s men.

Shabti figurine of King Sethos I, at Kingston Lacy. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

In the August 2012 edition of ABC Bulletin Dr Daniele Salvoldi writes about the archive of William Bankes’s Egyptian studies. During his travels Bankes commissioned a number of artists to record almost a hundred different sites, some of which have since been lost.

Copy by Louis Linant de Bellefonds of a wall painting in the Great Temple at Abu Simbel depicting King Rameses II before three gods, at Kingston Lacy. ©National Trust Images/Derrick E. Witty

The resulting collection of 1700 documents includes epigraphy, landscapes, plans and elevations, maps and images of anthropological and natural subjects. The archive, which has now been fully catalogued by Dr Salvoldi, is kept at the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester, and can be accessed online.

9 Responses to “Retour d’Egypte”

  1. style court Says:

    The artists’ commissioned work alone is terrific. And the race to acquire sounds like a movie plot — always a dramatic human story behind the NT properties!

  2. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    I suffer from Egyptomania and I am fascinated by the story of William Bankes. So I hope to eventually visit Kingston Lacy.

  3. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    I’ve always enjoyed how successfully the Egyptian Revival mixed the classic elements of greece and Rome with the Egyptian theme. The porcelain stand is gorgeous.

  4. Andrew Says:

    Belzoni! The ODNB politely mentions his “rough” methods.

    You have written about Kingston Lacy and Bankes before, of course: an example at

    Presumably Bankes got to enjoy some of his Egyptian items before he was exiled?

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, yes William Bankes was a real-life Indiana Jones 🙂

    Classicist, yes do try to visit, KL is a fabulous place in many different ways: art, architecture, archaeology, interior decoration, gardens, and all of those elements working in concert.

    Mark, yes it is remarkable, isn’t it, how seamlessly, and apparently quickly, Egyptian and neoclassical design elements were melded together.

    Andrew, yes Belzoni was a colourful character (indeed almost like a supporting actor in an Indiana Jones film). As you probably know, he started out as a strongman performing as ‘the Patagonian Sampson’ on the stage at Sadler’s Wells. Then he became a hydraulic engineer, and then a pioneering excavator. As the ODNB entry indicates, his methods were very much ‘pioneering’. In 1821 he displayed his finds in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, theatrically unwrapping a mummy in front of a gasping audience, and the following year he published a book about his adventures and discoveries.

    Bankes only went into exile in 1841, so he did indeed have time to enjoy his Egyptian (and his many other) acquisitions. In 1821 he published the inscriptions on the Philae obelisk, contributing to the efforts to ‘crack’ the hieroglyphic script, which was finally achieved by Jean-François Champollion. He had plans to use his other research materials to publish a book about Egypt, but sadly this never materialised.

    Anne Sebba’s 2004 biography ‘The Exiled Collector’ provides a good overview of Bankes’s life.

  6. Kate Warren Says:

    Nice to see KL getting a mention Emile 🙂

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Kate, you will remember these well 🙂

  8. Hels Says:

    As you will see next week, I am very interested in French porcelain made for Napoleon because of the Napoleonic museum blockbuster on in Melbourne just now.

    Your Egyptian Revival porcelain stands are gorgeous. Do we know which company made them? Were the hieroglyphs real or did the French artist make up something that looked vaguely Egyptian?

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Helen, our collections database lists them as by Lefebre et Caron ( The hieroglyphs look a bit ‘French’ to me, but then I am no Egyptologist 🙂 I will ask our ceramics guru, Patricia Ferguson, if she knows anything about them.

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