Look around you. Can you see it yet? London is full of references to Ancient Egypt.
Sphinx like shapes and forms
There have been many beasts in London: the pigeon, the fox, and the deer. Many who have travelled or been brought to make it their home: grey squirrels, parakeets and terrapins. But the most unusual of these, is the sphinx.
London is famous for many architectural gems of the Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic and Neo-Post-Modernist styles. Her street furniture is replete with lions, Britannias and old forgotten Victorian men venerating the guana.
London is also home to several sphinges (the plural of sphinx). Many are connected to buildings in the Egyptian style but not all. Here be just some of the most notable.
The York Watergate was designed by Inigo Jones. It was the river entrance to the Duke of Buckingham’s palace on the strand. The Thames was a major express way during the medieval and early modern period and for much of this period the strand was famous for its palaces. Today lions sit a top the gate, but in earlier designs the gate was defended by sphinges.
The first Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, was a favourite of James VI of Scotland and possibly his lover. He is also a character in the Three Musketeers and was played by Tom Wyner in Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds.
The gate marks the old bank of the Thames until work on the Embankment. Today you walk through Embankment gardens to get to it.
Chiswick House was designed by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington in the Neo-Palladian style. It resembles Paladio’s Villa Rotunda, although it is not a slavish copy. Burlington was an important architectural figure- as practitioner, patron and theorist.
The garden is lined with sphinges based on a sphinx collected by Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel now kept in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Arundel’s family fell from grace during the reign of Elizabeth but were returned during the reign of James VI of Scotland. He and Villers were rivals in the early Stuart court and were both major collectors of antiquities, often bidding against each other. Perhaps that is why the sphinges of York gate were replaced at the last moment by lions.
Two sphinges face each other on a plain white building in the classical style with only minimal Egyptian motifs. The wrought iron balustrade references palms and the lack of a pediment suggests a pharonic temple front. The brilliant white suggests the timelessness of Greek art, hinting at the Pentelic marbles.
Duchess House was designed for Thomas Hope in 1799. Hope’s anonymously published novel Anastasius, which told the tale of the journey of a Western man into the sexpots of the Ottoman Empire, drew comparisons with Byron. Its reputation did not survive the Victorian period.
Several Georgian town houses in Islington are guarded by a set of Sphinges and obelisks with the words Nile on them. Built in 1841, the words may reference the Battle of the Nile in which Nelson defeated the French navy. This was part of the major military intervention in the region, which also led to the “rediscovery” of Ancient Egypt by European scholarship.
The sphinxes wear a cloak similar to that worn by Alexander the Great in small figurines.
Perhaps the most famous set of sphinges in London. Cleopatra’s Needle was originally erected by Tuthmose III, then re-erected in the Caesareum, in Alexandria before being given to Britain.
These sphinges look more Egyptian than earlier designs, but there is something unmistakably Victorian about the sphinges. They were designed by George John Vulliamy, who also designed the dolphin lamp posts which line the embankment (part of the same urban renewal project which extended the banks of the Thames from the original site of York Gate). The design is also quite simplified and looks forward to the Art Deco streamlined moderne look of the early twentieth century.
Eight sphinges lined the entrances of the Crystal Palace, the Victorian Millennium Dome. The Palace was the idea of Prince Albert, the Royal Consort, to promote modern progress and Britain’s role within it. Part of this celebration of modernity was an exploration of the past, the opening up of new forms of knowledge in lands and times hitherto unknown.
The original Crystal Palace was set up in Hyde Park, before being moved to a specially established park in the now eponymous area of South London. The palace burnt down in 1936, but a few of the items from the grounds survived. The sphinges were restored in 2016.
Sphinx of Lombard Street
A “Greek” style sphinx in the Second Empire style decorates London’s Lombard Street. Synonymous with high finance, this is now a quiet back route radiating from the Bank of England.
Chimera with Personifications of Fire and Sea was sculpted by the Francis William Doyle-Jones from 1914.
The Haida Sphinx in the British Museum (which is a bit of a cheat) was carved in the 19th century by Simeon Stilthda, one of the most important Haida carvers. It is an Ancient symbol represented in Native North American repertoire and techniques.
Inspired by a picture in an alliterated Bible (published between 1874-1878), it was carved in red cedar using traditional tools.
According to the British Museum it “captures a moment of cultural dialogue in the 19th century between existing and newly arriving cultural traditions on the islands of Haida Gwaii on the Northwest Cost of North America”.
It was donated to the British Museum by a missionary.
New Broad Street
Another building in Second Empire style down a side street. 35 New Broad Street is replete with Ancient Egyptian symbolism built on a classical shell. If we take the theory of the Duck and Shed as a way to read a building’s meaning, then the meaning of this building is elusive. Perhaps the Sphinges stand for power or prestige, durability or just a passing interest. In any case it is an intriguing building.