Britain was fascinated by ancient Egypt long before Howard Carter found Tutankhamun’s tomb, with Napoleon’s Middle Eastern campaign (1798–1801) igniting interest across Europe. Nevertheless, the discovery in 1922 of King Tut’s final resting place sparked a new wave of Egyptomania.
There was jewellery, including some by Cartier incorporating genuine Egyptian antiquities; fashion, including overblouses embroidered with the pharaoh’s name in hieroglyphs; hats, shoes, even bathing costumes, as well as music such as the 1923 jazz tune ‘Old King Tut’ by The Georgians – anything that could be given an Egyptian connection. There was even said to be a proposal to call the section of the Northern Line underground that went through Tooting and Camden the “Tootingcamden” line.
The architecture inspired by Egypt can still be seen on the streets where we live, in the gardens of stately homes, and even on the bleak Yorkshire moors.
To mark the opening of a new Tutankhamun exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery, here are some of the finest examples. Best of all, they can be admired without forking out the £37.50 the Saatchi Gallery is demanding.
Cleopatra’s Needle, London
This obelisk, which dates back to 1450 BC, was given to London by the ruler of Egypt and erected beside the Thames in 1877. A time capsule was concealed inside it holding all manner of curios, including a set of 12 photographs of the “best-looking English women of the day”, a box of cigars, a set of imperial weights, a baby’s bottle, a complete set of contemporary British coins, copies of the Bible in several languages, a Bradshaw Railway Guide, a map of London and copies of 10 daily newspapers. Two bronze sphinxes guard it, but are facing the wrong way. Look closely and you’ll see shrapnel holes on one of them caused by a German bomb.
Obelisks can also be found in Ripon, Yorkshire; Stowe, Buckinghamshire; Holkham Hall, Norfolk; Easby Moor, Yorkshire; and Naseby Field, Northamptonshire.
Egyptian House, Penzance
London’s grandest ode to ancient Egypt is no longer there. Egyptian Hall, on Piccadilly, was built in 1812 as a museum and exhibition centre, showcasing stuffed animals, art and curiosities from around the world. It also lured visitors with “freaks of nature”, grasping on a Victorian obsession dubbed “Deformitomania”. Claude-Ambroise Seurat, an extraordinarily underweight “living skeleton”, Charles Sherwood Stratton, an American dwarf with the stage name “General Tom Thumb”, and conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy – “The Two-Headed Nightingale” – were among the countless human exhibits shown at the Piccadilly museum. It later developed an association with magic and spiritualism, becoming known as “England’s Home of Mystery”.
Sadly, Egyptian Hall was knocked down in 1905 to make room for flats and offices. However, a scaled down replica of it survives in Cornwall. Originally a geological shop and museum, the Egyptian House in Penzance (pictured top) was built around 1835 and today serves as a holiday home under the management of the Landmark Trust. There are three apartments (one sleeps 3 and the others sleep 4) and rates start at a very reasonable £12 per person, per night.
Carlton Cinema, London
This enormous landmark, midway along Essex Road in Islington, opened in 1930 with its ornate facade towering above the street – and was an immediate hit, with a capacity of 2,226. It became a bingo hall in the early Seventies, and resounded to the call of “Legs Eleven” until 2007. After six years of locked doors, it was purchased for transformation into an event space – the first phase of the conversion was completed this year. However, what is now called the Gracepoint Centre (gracepointuk.com) has been careful to maintain the soul and structure of the building.
Egypt Garden, Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire
Sphinxes guard the door of an Egyptian temple set into cleverly clipped yews, in one of several exotic gardens created by Victorian plant collector James Bateman to house his specimens from around the world.
Highgate Cemetery, London
The catacombs here evoke the monumental funerary architecture of Ancient Egypt, but were designed by a commercial cemetery company to attract wealthy customers to the more expensive burial spaces.
Temple Works, Leeds
Cutting-edge construction technology was used here to create the first large industrial building in the Egyptian style, popularly known as Temple Works since its design replicates the Temple of Horus at Edfu. The roof was originally covered in grass to maintain humidity – and was grazed by sheep until (according to urban legend) one fell through a skylight and killed a factory worker.
Greater London House
Another state-of-the-art industrial building in the Egyptian Revival style, this time using reinforced concrete. It opened as the Carreras Tobacco Company factory in 1928, and to mark the occasion the pavements outside were said to have been covered in sand to represent the Egyptian desert. It was a victim of architectural fashion in the 1960s, when it was stripped of its Egyptian features, but these were largely restored in 1996.
Crystal Palace Park, London
One of London’s finest buildings once occupied this leafy corner of South London 165 years ago: The Crystal Palace. Festivals and events were held there over the years but by the early 20th century it had fallen into a state of disrepair. In 1936, the palace burnt to the ground – a blaze that was visible from eight counties. But you can still wander around the Italian terraces and sculptures that survived the fire. The upper and lower terraces are connected by grand staircases, which offer views out to the rolling hills of the southeast and are fringed by grand sphinxes – repainted their original terracotta red in 2016. Meanwhile, scattered in a southern corner of the park, beside the landscaped Lower Lake, is a collection of absurdly inaccurate dinosaur sculptures.
You’ll also find a sphinx at Chiswick House.
Boston Masonic Hall, Lincolnshire
A rare example of the use of modern compositions in hieroglyphs on Egyptian-style buildings, and a reminder of the tradition of Egypt as a land of occult wisdom, and its influence on Freemasonry.
Harrods Egyptian Hall, London
The glamour of the Pharaohs was used for the interior refurbishment of London’s most famous luxury department store – an illustration of the popular associations between Ancient Egypt and spectacular wealth.
Egyptian Balcony, Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston
The building dates to 1893 but the Egyptian murals were painted by John Somerscales between 1909 to 1913.
Ker Street Social Club, Devon
Formerly Foulston’s Civil and Military Library, this is another building inspired by the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, and originally one of a group that included a Greek-style town hall and an Indian-style church. It shows how Regency architects relied on the use of certain key elements to create the Egyptian look.
Pharaoh’s Island, Surrey
In 1798, Horatio Nelson, still smarting from losing an arm the year before, foiled Napoleon’s planned invasion of Egypt during the Battle of the Nile. His reward – among other things – was this 280-metre island near Shepperton Lock, which he used as a fishing retreat. It is now occupied by a couple of dozen houses – sadly not in Egyptian style, but with names such as The Sphinx and Memphis.
Contributions from Chris Elliot, Oliver Smith, Sophie Campbell, Greg Dickinson and Chris Leadbeater