Just along London’s Victoria Embankment, not far from where Cleopatra’s Needle stands like a sentinel on the Thames, you will find Two Temple Place. A stunning mansion incorporating neo-Gothic, Elizabethan and French Renaissance details, it was originally built as an estate office for William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor in 1895, the work of architect John Loughborough Pearson.
Owned by the Bulldog Trust, which provides financial and advisory assistance for UK charities, this magnificent architectural treasure is made available for free exhibitions which highlight Britain’s regional museums, encouraging dialogue and interaction between museums and curators across the UK, providing a space in which they can come together to show their collections in new ways.
This winter Two Temple Place has provided a unique opportunity to see ancient Egyptian treasures from seven regional museums – the Bagshaw Museum, Bexhill Museum, Bolton Museum, Ipswich Museum, Macclesfield Museums, Royal Pavilion & Museums (Brighton & Hove), and Touchstones Rochdale – who have brought together a magnificent exhibition looking at the body and beauty in Ancient Egypt.
Entitled Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt, the exhibition focuses on the intimate and often very personal items used and treasured by the ancient Egyptians to beautify, adorn and alter their appearance.
Hairpins, kohl pots, perfume bottles, bronze mirrors and bead necklaces are the stars of the show – things that were worn and used in life, but also deeply personal objects that were taken to the tomb and into the Afterlife. The exhibition also covers the preparation of the body for burial, ‘transforming the body” to ensure the dead journeyed successfully to the afterlife.
There are stela commemorating the dead, like that made for the Greco-Roman ‘Menches the Younger, Rouphous [son of] Poukheis.” His mummified body is shown being cared for by the Egyptian god of embalming, Anubis. This stela was found at Abydos, a great pilgrimage site for Egyptians for 300o years, thought to be the mythical burial place of Osiris, god of the Underworld. That a person, probably of Greek descent (judging by the inscription), living in Roman-ruled Egypt would want to set up a monument at Abydos is a testament to the enduring power of Egyptian religious practices.
A stunning portrait of a young bearded man in a white tunic, found at Hawara and dating from the Roman period (mid-2nd century AD), is like a snapshot ‘selfie’ from ancient times – this was undoubtedly painted from life, but it was meant to be attached to his mummy in death, an example of Roman realism blended into the traditional Egyptian funerary art of the mummy mask.
However, the most touching objects, and the real treasures of this exhibition are the small, personal items, like those from the simple burial of a young girl, dating to the New Kingdom and found at Gurob. A necklace of semi-precious stone and faience beads and three stone kohl pots with glass applicators. These were the prized possessions of a real person, the remains of a life cut short so long ago.
The curator of the exhibition Dr Margaret Serpico, who worked with PhD student Heba And El Gawad of Durham University to bring the exhibition to Two Temple Place, notes that this exhibition was “a long term project to raise awareness of some of the 200 ancient Egyptian collections in the UK, many in regional museums. I have always been amazed by the many wonderful artefacts in these collections, objects that I wished could be seen by wider audiences. This exhibition is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate these collections and appreciate how important it is that we care for and preserve them into the future.’
Indeed, bringing together these varied collections from all over the UK also offers a chance to focus on some of the people who supported Egyptology in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The excavations of the renowned archaeologist William Flinders Petrie are highlighted, along with the patronage of Amelia Edwards, who founded the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF) and helped grow interest in Ancient Egypt among the public. The exhibition also brings into the light the travellers, collectors and patrons who formed collections of Egyptian objects, and also acquired objects for their local museums by sponsoring the work of the EEF in Egypt. These often un-sung heroes included Marianne Brocklehurst (1832-1898) and Mary Booth (1830-1912) who supported museums in Macclesfield (Marianne helping to found the West Park Museum) as well as the brothers Charles Heape (1848-1926) and Joseph Robert Heape (1845-1933) who enriched those in Rochdale, along with many other philanthropists and Egyptology enthusiasts.
This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to peruse Britain’s lesser known, but quite wonderful Egyptological collections, spread the length and breadth of the UK thanks to wealthy Victorian patrons who had a love for Egypt. It also offers a window into the lives and deaths of real people in Ancient Egypt, how they saw themselves and wanted to be seen in life and in the afterlife.
For those who are fascinated by Egypt or just want to learn more about ancient lives, Beyond Beauty shouldn’t be missed. This exhibition is free, so hurry along to Two Temple Place before it’s too late!
by Tara Draper-Stumm
**Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt exhibition is on display at Two Temple Place until 24th April 2016. Entry is free.
**For further reading see the excellent exhibition catalogue Beyond Beauty: Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt (Two Temple Place, 2016), available to purchase for £5.