Egyptian revival architecture enjoyed a vogue in the twenties and thirties, in part inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun and part by the mix of stylised shapes and exoticism. It could also be a fairly cheap, but visually luxurious style to build in.
It was not however the first wave of ancient Egyptian inspired design and architecture in Britain. This took place in the early nineteenth century following the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt and later British intervention and occupation.
Even before then ancient Egyptian had inspired architectural design outside of Egypt, most notably during the Roman period. Egyptian inspired frescoes and objects have been found in Pompeii and Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli amongst several other sites.
Another notable fact is that the study of Egyptian revival architecture often focuses on (white) Europeans engagement with the style and meanings of Egyptian art. As Christina Riggs has argued however, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb influenced Egyptian artists and thinkers as well as artists of colour in America for whom Egypt could stand for a “future based on dignity and equality”.
So although not unique in general terms, these Egyptian style buildings still stand out against other buildings when spotted in London.
A “classic” example of Egyptian inspired architecture as in its taken from an Egyptian site. The Romans also took obelisks from Egyptian sites and erected them in Rome or other sites dedicated to Roman power. This obelisk, was originally erected by Tuthmose III before being taken to Alexandria and erected in the Caesareum. Such “acquisitions” are sometimes frowned upon these days.
The obelisk is flanked by two handsome Sphinxes designed by Vulliamy, the noted street furniture designer (of dolphin lamp post fame). It is interesting to compare the design of these sphinxes at once both solidly Victorian and yet simplified and streamlined to the more modernist styles below.
The Egyptian escalator
A rather fun take on the Egyptian inspired vernacular, which is perhaps fitting for Harrods. It is still one of my favourites for its clever use of light fightings. Very much the architectural equivalent of a smart King Tut snow globe.
Alfie’s Antiques Market
The ancient Egyptian façade (with images of Isis and other gods) was designed after the derelict building was converted into one of London’s finest antique markets. Frequented by London-based Lovejoy types, the heady outward appearance of style and heritage reflect the range of stalls within.
Old Carlton Cinema
Designed by George Coles and opened in 1930 as a cinema, it is one of the finest examples of twenties art-deco-esque-Egyptian-revival in the UK. It operated as a bingo hall between 1972 and 2007. The external fabric was dressed in multicoloured Heathenware faience.
Just off Shaftesbury Avenue, this building now houses Industrial Light and Magic which does visual effects for movies (including The Mummy franchises). Often not mentioned in lists of Egyptian revival architecture, it is one of the few Egyptian style buildings in London to include direct visuals to Tutankhamen in it’s external corniche work.
The old Carreras cigarette factory
The largest of the buildings, and possibly grandest, described here, the Carreras cigarette factory looms above its local environment. It was designed in collaboration between Marcus Evelyn Collins and A G Porri.
According to the Kentish Towner: “For the opening, actors in Egyptian regalia performed dramatics and a chariot race was even held along Hampstead Road.”
The Carreras cigarette’s branding was not specifically Egyptian (unlike Camels say) but their logo was the black cat, which can be found on the building. The tobacco was also Egyptian.
Following the closure of the factory, several of the original fittings were removed until it was renovated in the late 90s. A stunning must see building.
Abney Park Cemetery
Egyptian revival cemetery gates from the Victorian period. The idea of Ancient Egyptian mummification lent itself to ideas of death and monumentality.
The Sphinges of New Broad Street
Two Egyptian Sphinges sit atop a late Victorian classical building with Egyptian motifs in the less fashionable side of Liverpool Street station.
Blink and you’ll miss it, the goddess Isis hovers over Pall Mall in an otherwise bland Victorian building.
These are the main ancient Egyptian inspired buildings in central London. For more Egyptian revival architecture read my article on Post-Modern Egyptomania.
All photos taken by Simon Bralee 2017-2019. Please feel free to use for non-commercial purposes, but cite and link to the website if possible.