I didn’t go to Chatsworth in Derbyshire in search of anything Egyptological, but that is exactly what I found while wandering the corridors of that magnificent house.
There in a hallway stood two statues of Sekhmet, seated on their thrones. Both are damaged and weathered, parts of the arms and feet now missing. The damage was most likely deliberate, an attempt by the ancient Egyptians to “de-activate’ the power of Sekhmet once the statues were no longer needed in the temple.
One statue, which is missing its usual sun disc, has an inscription each side of the legs, clearly indicating that it was made for Amenhotep III. The other statue, while not inscribed, does still retain its fixed sun disc and uraeus.
The statues were purchased in the 1830s by the 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858), the so-called ‘Bachelor Duke’ and only son of the famous Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. According to the Duke they had come to England via “a famous traveller and purchased by me in the New Road.”
The ‘famous traveller’ was apparently none other than William John Bankes (1786-1855), the explorer and collector whose collection of Egyptian antiquities and drawings made of temples and tombs in Egypt still grace his home Kingston Lacy in Dorset (now overseen by the National Trust). One has to wonder why these Sekhmets were passed to the Duke of Devonshire rather than end up at Kingston Lacy?
In 1834 Bankes had inherited Kingston Lacy and began its remodelling almost immediately, so maybe by that time his passion for antiquities was somewhat superseded by other interests. It would also be interesting to know if these two statues were among those originally collected by Giovanni Belzoni – he was commissioned by Bankes to retrieve a small obelisk from the Temple of Isis at Philae, which now stands in the grounds of Kingston Lacy. Someone has probably done some further research on whether there is a connection, but I have failed to find it.
The 6th Duke placed the Sekhmet statues in the gardens at Chatsworth, where they stayed until 1991. They were then moved into the house to protect them from further weathering. They now stand among other sculpture and treasures in a long corridor on the ground floor of the house.
These are certainly not the only Sekhmets, or Egyptian antiquities for that matter, to end up in Britain’s country houses. As well as Kingston Lacy, Egyptian objects can still be seen at Highclere Castle, home of the Earls of Carnarvon. There were two Sekhmet heads propping up a bench at a country house garden in Cornwall at one time, but whether they are still there remains to be seen. The Sekhmet statues in the Metropolitan Museum in New York once graced the collections of Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire.
No doubt there are other Sekhmets to be found hidden in Britain’s stately homes. If you happen to see any do let me know!
Deborah Devonshire, Home to Roost and other Peckings (London, 2009).
The National Trust, Kingston Lacy Dorset (London, 1998).