British art, archaeology and the discovery of ancient Egypt

In the 19th century, archaeology had a profound impact on the understanding of the past. New discoveries and scholarly publications provided major insights on antiquity, revealing the potential of archaeology to illuminate previously unknown aspects of ancient history and culture. Greatly inspired by this development, artists began to feature archaeological subjects and objects in their work. Beyond generating images of the past that stimulated the popular imagination, these artists encouraged a passion for the ancient world with audiences throughout Europe. I hypothesise that historicist artworks from the second half of the 19th century generated important and influential ideas about the past in both the popular realm and the scholarly domain. The dramatic and colourful reconstructions of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, in which great monuments, exotic landscapes, biblical themes and domestic subjects were featured became a key way of engaging with the past, yet we know very little about their role in shaping disciplinary knowledge.

To address this research question, the proposed study will investigate how British history and genre painting contributed to the formation of ideas about ancient Egypt. I will analyse the Egyptian-themed works of three leading history painters (Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Poynter and Edwin Long), aiming to establish how their paintings labelled, categorised and defined ancient Egypt as a culture. While the French are credited with ‘discovering’ ancient Egypt with their pioneering scientific expedition of 1798-1802, this study will determine whether the British artists who drew so heavily on archaeology in the second half of the 19th century made a unique contribution to the understanding of Egyptian antiquity. I postulate that their visions had a strong impact on knowledge of Egypt, not only because they paid so much attention to archaeological detail but also because they brought the distant past to life in such an evocative and ‘familiar’ way.

a 1872 Death of First born Rijksmuseum Rijksm jpg

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1872 The Death of the First Born, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Research on Victorian history painters such as Alma-Tadema, Poynter and Long has placed their paintings in the artistic context of 19th century Britain. My study seeks to shift this focus to examining historicist artworks in the context of 19th century archaeology. An investigation into the archaeological aspect of history paintings is important because it has the potential to show us how new ideas about antiquity were being generated in the creative arts. This approach will not only shed light on how such artworks may have brought about new understandings of ancient Egypt, but will also do much to advance our knowledge of the general influence of art on ideas about history and culture.

Professor Stephanie Moser
University of Southampton

Stephanie was awarded a Major Research Fellowship in 2012.