8 min read

The Victorian female collectors captivated by Ancient Egypt

photo of a carved head of an Egyptian Pharoah

Hardstone head of King Amenemhat III (c. 1850 BC). Once in the collection of Amelia Edwards, founder of the Egypt Exploration Society and friend of Mrs Goodison. Photo courtesy the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

Museum Crush talks to Egyptologist Tom Hardwick, curator of The Atkinson’s exhibition Adventures in Egypt – Mrs Goodison & Other Travellers, which uncovers the fascinating world of female Victorian collectors

In Victorian Britain’s overwhelmingly masculine society, intelligent, driven and often moneyed women were obliged to restrict their energies to acceptable “feminine” activities; like travelling, writing, fund-raising – and amassing impressive collections of Egyptian antiquities.

The results of this male-sanctioned pursuit are said to have greatly helped to establish British Egyptology and boosted the Victorian interest in all things Pharaonic.

Among these tireless female travellers with an insatiable thirst for Egyptian antiquities was Amelia Edwards, a successful author who formed the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882 (still, as the Egypt Exploration Society, the UK’s leading Egyptological institution). Another was Annie Barlow, daughter of a Bolton mill owner, who founded Bolton Museum’s significant Egyptian collection.

Then there was Margaret ‘Maggie’ Benson, the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the sister of author EF Benson, whose excavations at the Temple of Mut at Luxor unearthed two of the finest Ancient Egyptian busts in British collections today – at the Petrie and the British Museum.

At the Atkinson in Southport they have their own intrepid Victorian woman to thank for a fascinating and highly personal collection of Egyptian antiquities.

a photo of an open sketch book with notes and carved Egyptian stone laying across it

Limestone relief fragments from the reign of Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamun (c. 1350 BC). The fragments were collected by Mrs Goodison’s friend F. G. Hilton-Price, and are displayed next to his manuscript catalogue of his collection (c. 1890 AD). Photo Matt Dodd, The Atkinson

a photo of an sketchbook with fragments of Egyptian pottery and decorated stone

Fragments of glazed faience tiles from the royal buildings at Tell el-Amarna (c. 1350 BC), mounted in the late nineteenth / early twentieth century. Photo Matt Dodd, The Atkinson

a photo of a limestone fragment with face of Nefertiti

Painted and carved limestone sketch of Queen Nefertiti (c. 1350 BC). Excavated at Amarna by Flinders Petrie, 1891-2. Photo courtesy the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

Anne Goodison was the wife of the Merseyside civil engineer George Goodison who laid out many parts of Greater Liverpool (Everton FC named their football ground after him) and the exhibition celebrates 130 years since her first return from Egypt. By combining objects from her own collection with masterpieces from museums and private collections in the UK and abroad, it provides a wider context for her life, her travels and the growing Victorian fascination for Egyptian Antiquities, which says curator Tom Hardwick, took root at the beginning of the century.

“People in the west had been interested in Egyptian things for years,” says curator Tom Hardwick, “but collecting boom of the nineteenth century has its roots in the Georgian period when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt as a means of destabilising British interests in India.

“Bonaparte’s military failure, after the sinking of his fleet at the Battle of the Nile, was re-branded a scientific victory as a result of the work of the French scientists who were assessing Egypt with a view to colonising it. In the course of their investigations they acquired the Rosetta Stone, which was handed over to the British in 1801 as part of the terms of the surrender of Alexandria.”

The rest is (Anglo-Ancient Egyptian) history.

“As Egypt became an active part of the Mediterranean world people were now trying to control the country and they used Ancient Egypt as a way of legitimising their interest – by using arguments like: ‘then they built pyramids, now they live in mud huts. It’s clever white people who need to look after this’.”

a photo of a coin with an image of Napoleon and his soldiers in front of the pyramids

“Forty centuries look down on you”: Napoleon exhorts his soldiers to victory at the Battle of the Pyramids, July 21 1798. Contemporary commemorative bronze medallion. Photo: Matt Dodd, The Atkinson

a caricature depicting tow Regency attired people canoodling in a standing Egyptian coffin

Thomas Rowlandson Modern Antiquities (hand coloured engraving, c. 1800). Nelson and Lady Hamilton canoodle in an Egyptian coffin, hungrily watched by her antiquarian husband Sir William Hamilton.

a sketch of tow people in an underground cellar full of mummies

Anonymous artist, Descent into the mummy pits near Medinet Habu (pen and ink, c. 1890). Mummies or mummy fragments were popular souvenirs throughout the nineteenth century. The swarthy, grimacing figure of the under-dressed guide contrasts with the pale, respectably shocked tourist. Yet who was paying whom to desecrate the dead? Photo Matt Dodd, The Atkinson

Hardwick, who works as an archaeologist in Egypt, says people sometimes talk about the 19th century travellers to Egypt in a romantic light, “but they don’t often talk about what Egyptians felt about people coming and having their antiquities taken”.

“Egypt was a colony in the 19th century, and it’s not all about glamorous buccaneers uncovering treasures. People had been living among these ruins for a very long time already and they did not take too kindly to people coming and telling them what these things were.”

Admitting that this assessment is “probably a little black and white,” he adds , “there were many people who were interested in Ancient Egyptian antiquities for non-ulterior motives. But until the 1830s it was a bit of a free for all. People would turn up and take things away, but from the 1830s they realised it was a finite resource and they restricted it – some stuff would stay in Egypt and the western archaeologists would also get to keep things.”

Meanwhile professional archaeologists like Flinders Petrie would sell futures to fund their excavations, which meant many of his excavated finds – including collections from specific sites – were broken up and shared with museums and the collectors who funded him.

The Atkinson exhibition brings many of these treasures back together. Many of them haven’t been seen since the 1890s, like the two famous busts of priests excavated from the Temple of Mut by Margaret Benson and her companion Janet Gourlet – together here for the first time in 120 years.

a shot of a gallery with paintings and Egyptian objects in cases

Victorian and Pharaonic governors of Egypt. Foreground: Quartzite statue of Senenmut, c. 1450BC (British Museum); Background: J. Singer Sargent, Lord Cromer (National Portrait Gallery); J. Tenniel, Gladstone and Egypt (from Punch, 1883); H. von Herkomer and F. Goodall, Lord Kitchener (National Portrait Gallery); Éxpérience Aérostatique – British advisors to the Egyptian government escape Egypt with their loot (from The Journal of Abu Naddara, 1889). Photo Matt Dodd, The Atkinson

black granit head of an Egyptian male

Hardstone head of an aged man, Middle Kingdom (c. 1900 – 1750 BC). Excavated at the Temple of Mut, Luxor, by Margaret Benson adn Janet Gourlay; given by them to University College London. Photo courtesy the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL.

Benson was the first British woman to dig in Egypt but a quote on the wall of the exhibition again returns to the context of 19th century digs in Egypt by reminding us how she complained of having to pay ‘baksheesh’ to her Egyptian excavators.

“It’s a way of reminding visitors that this wasn’t merely a cosy world of nineteenth century travelling,” says Hardwick. “She was a pioneering female archaeologist, which meant she could be as pioneeringly abrupt with her workers as men could be.”

Also on view in this revealing exhibition are objects from Tell el-Amarna, the capital of Tutankhamun’s parents Akhenaten and Nefertiti, excavated by Petrie and the young Howard Carter, who went on to uncover the tomb of Tutankhamun. A large group of watercolours by Carter are also on view from this “golden age” of travel, exploration and procurement.

“They hired a boat for themselves and went about visiting sites and picking up antiquities”

As the fascination with Ancient Egypt grew, and as the Mediterranean shrank in the face of railways and steam travel, Egypt became more and more open to exploration and holidaying. Thomas Cooke ran packages for those with the money and the spare time, but in 1886 and 1890 the Goodisons eschewed the Cooke’s tour to make two wholly independent trips to the land of the Pharaohs. At the time Mrs Goodison commented: “I could never face Mr Ruskin again if I travelled in a Cook boat.”

“They hired a boat for themselves and went about visiting sites and picking up antiquities,” says Hardwick, “she clearly knew what she wanted to see. What distinguished Mrs Goodison from other travellers at the time is her impressive knowledge and specific interests. We know she could read Hieroglyphs, and there were no universities teaching hieroglyphs then and as a woman she would have found it very difficult to have studied at university. So she taught herself and corresponded with leading figures of the time.”

These figures included Charles Edwin Wilbur an American archaeologist who made a fortune through municipal corruption in New York and therefore found it advisable to steer clear of the USA. Spending his winters in Egypt and his summers in Paris he helped Mrs Goodison to read hieroglyphs.

a photo of a large scale painting showing an Ancient Egyptian scene with artefacts mounted on it

Ancient Egyptian objects mounted atop a scale reproduction of Edwin Long’s The Gods and Their Makers (1878), formerly owned by Egyptological patron and textile magnate Jesse Haworth. Photo: Matt Dodd, The Atkinson

a photo of a long carved panel fragment

Fragmentary wooden panel carved on both sides with the names of Queen-King Hatshepsut, c. 1450 BC (British Museum). The “Throne of Hatshepsut”, in fact a collection of fragments possibly from a bed, was purchased by Jesse Haworth and given to the British Museum in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s jubilee. Photo Matt Dodd, The Atkinson

“If you compare her collection to other 19th collections, like the one in Macclesfield formed by Marianne Brocklehurst, Mrs Goodison’s objects are very small pieces, very fragmentary and very individual,” adds Hardwick. “She has a coffin – everyone has a coffin – but it’s clear that her interests are personal. She’s taking away souvenirs of places that preserve her memories.”

Complementing Goodison’s personal trove of antiquities, the exhibition mixes nineteenth century artworks with the ancient artefacts. Artists like G. F. Watts, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Henry Wallis all played their part in stimulating interest in Ancient Egypt during the Victorian period and the works they created, together with the ancient objects they owned, form part of the display.

Among them are two paintings by Watts – The Sphynx and a Nile sunset. Watts honeymooned in Egypt with his wife and although there is no documentary evidence, he probably moved in the same circles as the Goodisons.

There’s also a large recreation of Edwin Long’s 1878 The Gods and Their Makers, an archetypal piece of Victorian soft core, full of semi-naked, pale-skinned women making Ancient Egyptian amulets. It is accompanied by original ancient objects mounted alongside their painted counterparts.

The Atkinson’s most recent acquisition, the Trial piece of Nefertiti, which was originally excavated by Howard Carter for Lord Amherst, and subsequently sold to The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, before being deaccessioned in the 1950s, also joins other images of Nefertiti from the same excavations.

Major loans from national and international collections, including The British Museum, The Petrie Museum University College London, Manchester Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, and Brooklyn Museum also join this insightful exhibition which offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of the Victorian Ancient Egyptian collectors and their impact both home and abroad.

a photo of a stone fragment with Egyptian heiroglyphs

Limestone fragment with the titulary of the sun-god Aten, from a shrine built by King Akhenaten at Tell el-Amarna (c. 1350 BC), once in the collection of Mrs Goodison’s friend F. G. Hilton-Price. Photo Matt Dodd, The Atkinson

Adventures in Egypt – Mrs Goodison & Other Travellers is on display at The Atkinson until March 10 2018


The Atkinson

Southport, Merseyside

The Atkinson is Southport’s beautiful home for music, theatre, art, poetry, literature and history, right in the middle of Lord Street in Southport. Significant investment has been made in refurbishing the stunning 19th century buildings, to create a really welcoming multi art-form venue with a strong contemporary feel.


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *