As we all began to recover from New Year and drag ourselves back to work, I headed to Euston to meet my friend Chloe of Artista for an early morning train to Scotland. Our destination was Glasgow, where I needed to see two more of the British Museum Sekhmet statues, on loan to the Kelvingrove Museum. Virgin Trains seemed against us, and our train was cancelled not once, but twice. At one point we thought we’d be spending a day or two in Preston. Finally, a new train arrived and we hurtled past delightful countryside and arrived in Glasgow only an hour or so behind schedule.
Having checked in to St Judes boutique hotel, where we successfully negotiated an upgrade to their only suite, we grabbed some lunch and headed to the Kelvingrove. Situated in a park to the west of central Glasgow, the Kelvingrove Museum is one of those great monuments of Victorian wealth and splendour. Its vast central halls and grand architecture are certainly impressive, though I was less impressed with their thematic displays of art and artifacts, which seemed to decrease the gravitas of the artworks.
Thankfully the small Egyptian gallery on the ground floor was coherently arranged. It was buzzing with families and children, and the displays have been purposefully arranged for young museum visitors. The two Sekhmets, the object of my visit, stand at each end of the gallery, and have been placed on low plinths so the faces are at child height.
Other features for children include a mummy wrapping activity, and an amusing canopic jar exhibit, where children have to pick out foam models of human organs and place them in the right canopic jar – sounds a bit morbid, but the kids were loving it. I was also impressed with the display panels, explaining the Egyptian processes of death for the younger audience.
The Sekhmets, British Museum EA 52 and 87, are two broken fragments of larger statues. EA 87 would seem to be from a seated statue, as it lacks any evidence of a lotus sceptre at the middle of the chest. It is slightly unusual, having a square, blocky form to the back as if the statue was never entirely finished – and yet the front is highly finished with rosettes and exquisite carving of the mane and ears. While many Sekhmet statues have a block-like form to the back, this seems larger and bulkier than usual. The colour of the stone is a soft grey, with pink inclusions, a large stripe of pink running diagonally across the collar.
EA 52 is more difficult to describe, as it has been highly restored, and cracks are evident across the face. It is a dark jet black stone, highly polished, and there are also tiny silver inclusions. Portions of the bottom half of the statue are clearly restored, and in the muted lighting of the gallery it was almost impossible to tell what was real and what was new – parts of the disc and back may also have been restored.
The question of restoration faces every museum and conservator – where does conservation end and restoration begin? Should they “restore” elements that have been lost? I have no problem with museum conservators putting fragments of an object back together again, and even including lost features if they have been able to identify genuine fragments of a statue or object in another museum collection, (and can therefore make a plaster cast). However I didn’t like the addition of “fake” breasts to this statue. I think in this case it would have been better for the fragmentary statue to have had any restored parts done in a slightly different colour – as is the case with the base of EA 87 – so that it was clearly what was original and what was restored.
Having investigated the Sekhmets, I soon discovered that there were more reminders of Egypt dotted around Glasgow’s cultural sites. Over the course of two days we visited three museums and the gilded and grand City Chambers. We also toured the Glasgow School of Art and other Macintosh designed buildings, including his magnificent House of an Art Lover. While we saw diverse works, ranging from paintings by Whistler to contemporary art installations, there were also some interesting connections to Egypt in this impressive city.
At Glasgow Cathedral the battered flag of the 1st Battalion of the Scots Regiment of Foot Guards hangs in the choir. It was carried by the regiment in 1801 when they landed in Egypt on the hunt for Napoleon. They carried the flag from the moment of arrival at Aboukir until the Battle of Alexandria in August 1801, where the British took possession of a large collection of antiquities from the French, including up to 10 fragmentary or whole statues of the goddess Sekhmet. These, along with the famous Rosetta stone, had been collected by Napoleon’s savants. While the two Sekhmet’s at the Kelvingrove seem to have been part of Henry Salt’s collection, I like to imagine that the Scots Foot Guards might have been among the first people to gaze into the eyes of some of the British Museum’s Sekhmets. What would they have thought of these strange half human, half cat creatures?
On the hill above the cathedral, the Glasgow necropolis holds further hints of Egypt – tomb monuments in the shape of Egyptian obelisks and temple pylons are dotted amongst the medieval and roman style monuments, an example of the growing interest in Egypt in the 19th century.
Even Glasgow’s favourite son, Charles Rennie Macintosh, was not immune to the odd Egyptian inspired decorative feature. Macintosh looked to the natural world for many of his architectural motifs, his stylised floral designs among the most iconic. On the exterior of his famous Glasgow School of Art (1897-1909) we found that Macintosh had incorporated a scarab beetle into the ironwork.
After two days of visiting Glasgow’s art museums and architectural gems, two very tired art lovers climbed wearily onto the Caledonian sleeper train. As we rattled south in the darkness I felt I had come one step closer to understanding these magical Egyptian statues. Glasgow had also shown me once again that some of the most magnificent artistic treasures in the world can be found in our regional cities and museums. I’m now looking forward to a visit to Newcastle and the delights of the Great North Museum.