Every few weeks I have to visit the British Library – it’s a bit like a drug; I need a fix of its grand reading rooms, and I love the smell of the old books too. Yes, the books are a bit musty, and sometimes quite delicate, but the smell is intoxicating for some reason. Maybe its the smell of history. So, I headed off on a friday a few weeks ago to look at some old auction catalogues. I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. Not just any auction catalogue of Egyptian Antiquities, but the auction of Giovanni Belzoni’s Egyptian collection, held shortly after his successful exhibition at the Egyptian Gallery in Piccadilly.
Belzoni’s exhibition of antiquities and a partial reconstruction of the tomb of Seti I in 1821 had been highly successful. In June 1822 Mr Robins of Regent Street auctioned the objects Belzoni had collected during his explorations and travels in Egypt. Among the treasure trove of objects, there were at least 5 statues of the goddess Sekhmet. However, back then, no one was entirely sure who or what these statues depicted. Lot 2 is listed as “TWO STATUES, Large as life…finely executed in granite…Representing the Goddess Isis, or, as others suppose, Virgo and Leon in the Zodiac, found in the Ruins of the Temple of Carnac… nb. Two of the like, found by Mr Belzoni, are now in the British Museum.” These two statues sold for £380.
Although lot 4 did not fare so well, selling for only £78, it was even more interesting: “Two standing statues of grey granite, and lions’ heads…a little mutilated in their arms and feet. Found amongst the Ruins of a large temple, at the back of the Colossi in Thebes, supposed to be the true Memnonium.” While these statues do not seem to have ended up in the British Museum, the auction catalogue provides useful information about the exact provenance of at least some of the objects collected by Belzoni and also the “value” put on these treasures in the early years of the 19th century. It is amusing to think, that on December 7th, a standing statue of Sekhmet, missing its head, went on sale at Christie’s in New York with an estimate of £200,000-300,000 (although it seems not to have sold). I wonder what £78 was equivalent to in today’s money in 1822?
A week or so later, on a sunny afternoon, my good friend Chloe took me off for lunch at Cecconi’s behind the Royal Academy. She’d booked us tickets for an “in conversation” lecture with the sculptor John Maine RA, whose wonderful work now graces the newly refurbished Green Park Tube Station.
As we’d have time in between lunch and the lecture, I decided I’d have a quick look at a few more auction catalogues and books at the Society of Antiquaries, whose illustrious home adjoins the Royal Academy in Piccadilly.
One of the perks of being a fellow of the Society is using their fantastic library, where fellows can trawl the stacks at their leisure. It is a temple to the antiquarian, historian and archaeologist, with magnificent collections of journals, folios, and books, amassed by the Society over the past 250 years.
While I didn’t find any further references to Sekhmet statues in auctions, I did find a few annotated auction catalogues from the 1820s and 30s, relating to other great collectors/adventurers, including Anathasi and Burton.
However, it was across the courtyard in the Royal Academy where I was about to have an epiphany. As I walked into the John Maine exhibition on the first floor, I was immediately struck by the magnificent gravitas of John Maine’s sculptures – vast lozenges of granite and carved plaques made from Portland stone. There was something lyrical in the organic forms and geometrical patterns he coaxed from the stone. For details of his work and a video by John Maine, visit www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/artists-laboratory .
His inspiration for the exhibition was his work on the restoration of the Cosmati pavement in Westminster Abbey. Mr Maine was brought in by the conservators and historians to give them a viewpoint and understanding of the work from the sculptor’s perspective. As Mr Maine spoke further about his work and inspiration for the show at the RA, I realised what I needed was to understand the Sekhmet sculptures from the point of view of the sculptor or craftsmen. I am not a sculptor, and while I have a solid background in Art History, and understand the processes of art (even doing a bit of oil painting), I have never cut or carved stone. My great-grandfather was a master mason, cutting granite in the quarries of Quebec to embellish office buildings in Montreal, but no family member is alive who can remember how he worked the stone.
So, after the lovely talk, where John Maine’s enthusiasm and passion for his art was truly infectious, I plucked up the courage to ask him a question. Did he ever visit the Egyptian Sculpture galleries in the British Museum I asked? – his face seemed to light up at the thought, and he said yes, it was one of his favourite places. So, I asked this magnificent artist if he might take a look at the Sekhmet statues with his sculptor’s eye next time he visited the BM, and send me his views. Amazingly he said yes! I hope that he won’t forget his promise and sometime in 2012 I will be able to speak to him further about how a sculptor would have approached the granodiorite used by the Egyptians to carve these statues, and what, if any of their processes of manufacture can still be discerned on the statues today.
I think I will be eternally grateful to Mr Maine if he can shed some light on how these majestic sculptures were produced. But really it will be wonderful to be in his presence again and soak up his passion for sculpture and the organic beauty of stone.