The monumental publication Description de l’Égypte (1809-1829), produced by Napoleon’s multidisciplinary team of scholars, brought the wonders of ancient Egypt to European notice, and opened up a rich vein of inspiration for artists, architects, and craftsmen in all media.
The new-found fascination for ancient designs inspired further publications that had significant influence on the decorative arts throughout the 19th century, especially in the Empire and Art Nouveau styles. The English traveller and one of the earliest Egyptologists, Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, published his Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians in 1837. This work, copiously illustrated with drawings of buildings, art, and artefacts, was revised and abridged as A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians in 1854, providing a pattern book for artists and craftsmen.
Apart from material gathered from his own travels, Wilkinson described museum exhibits, notably from the British Museum, that were accessible to the general public.
While acting as British Consul General for Egypt, based in Cairo, Sir Henry Salt had collected many Egyptian artefacts which, in 1823, he offered for sale to the British Museum. But the BM would not agree to Salt’s asking price for the Sety I alabaster sarcophagus (see the article by Geoffrey Lenox-Smith in AE 133). Consequently, three years later, Salt sold his second collection to the Louvre Museum in Paris, and a third collection was auctioned at Sotheby’s in London in 1835, eight years after his death. Of the nearly 1,100 auction lots, many were acquired by the British Museum, including some ordinary wooden furniture items dating to the Eighteenth Dynasty that were to attain a modest ‘stardom’ beyond the Museum’s display cases. To this day, apart from knowing that the chair, stools, and jar stand were purchased on behalf of Salt, their provenance is uncertain. Their shapes are familiar from portrayals of New Kingdom furniture in Theban tombs, suggesting their general area of origin, but the individual tomb or tombs in which they were discovered will never be known. The furniture, which had probably changed hands several times before coming to the antiquities market in Luxor, may well have been acquired as the result of illicit digging. Similar items, which were intended to provide domestic comforts for the tomb-owner in the next life, were bought by other European and American museums, bringing ancient Egypt to popular attention and providing artistic inspiration in many areas.
Among the most popular items were two stools from Salt’s collection that appeared in Figure 72 of Gardner Wilkinson’s The Ancient Egyptians. Their simple, elegant lines were the very opposite of the heavy, elaborately carved fashions of the Victorian era. The ebony stool, EA2472, has ivory details and inlay, and the double-curved seat, originally of leather, gave equal support for a sitter on any of the four sides. The stretcher rails, which maintain the square shape of the frame, end in ivory papyrus-bell ferrules and are further strengthened by ivory lattice struts. The legs, inlaid with ivory lotus petal garlands at the top, and decorated with incised rings, taper towards the bottom before flaring to neat, round feet. Stools of similar shape may be seen in other museums, like the Middle Kingdom example donated to the Metropolitan Museum by Lord Carnarvon in 1914. Seats were of leather or woven reeds, or made from slatted or solid wood, which could be made more comfortable with the addition of a cushion, as in the relief of funerary offering-bearers from the Tomb of Neferabu.
The ivory ornamentation makes EA2472 easily identifiable, for example when it appears as set dressing for a painting in what became known as the ‘Egyptianising style’. A prime example of this is Edwin Long’s painting Love’s Labour Lost (1885), in which the stool takes centre stage. The sitter is surrounded by many other Egyptian objects recognisable from different museum collections, including a jar stand that Long would also have seen in the British Museum. Long had portrayed the stool in The Gods and Their Makers (1878), and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, possibly the best-known artist in the Egyptianising genre, included it in Pastime in Ancient Egypt Three Thousand Years Ago (1863).
Liberty & Co patented a design for what they called the Thebes Stool in 1884, but Egyptian-inspired furniture had been made since the 1850s. Replicas or reproductions of Egyptian furniture had been shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851, illustrating ancient Egyptian skills as well as showcasing contemporary craftsmanship. The Egyptian Court continued to draw crowds when the Crystal Palace was relocated to Sydenham in 1854, inspiring more travellers, collectors, and museum visitors. In his Principles of Decorative Design (1873), British designer Christopher Dresser had praised the Egyptian exhibition as a source of inspiration for the decorative arts. During the 1870s, Dresser produced his own interpretations of the Thebes Stool, and various versions by Liberty’s continued in manufacture well into the early 20th century.
Liberty’s registered another ‘Thebes’ design based on a plainer wooden stool from Salt’s collection: EA2476. This has a double-curved slatted seat, supported by square-section legs, stretchers, and lattice struts, and is covered with white gesso. The stool’s simple form, possibly originating in furniture built from reeds, the Egyptian equivalent of bamboo, made it an ancient ‘design classic’, and stools of this type can be seen in many different contexts. Egyptianising artists regularly used EA2476, or an equivalent from another museum collection, in their works. Alma-Tadema included one in The Death of the Pharaoh’s First-born Son (1872) and John Weguelin showed EA2476 in his Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat (1886). Liberty’s Egyptian-inspired stools, typical of the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements, now sell for hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. Among the furniture in the tomb of Kha and Merit (TT8), found in 1906 by the Italian Ernesto Schiaparelli, were stools of both designs. These are now in the Museo Egizio in Turin, where seats for gallery visitors are modelled on an ancient Egyptian form.
The 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb revived interest in the Egyptian style in all crafts, including furniture-making. A stool very like EA2476 from Tutankhamun’s collection gave rise to new, modern designs like Josef Frank’s Tutankhamun Stool (1941) for the Swedish maker Svenskt Tenn.
The humble Egyptian stool could be said to have inspired the modern trend of simple, clean, minimalist lines which epitomises the Scandinavian style of furniture so popular today. A 4,000-year afterlife for these simple stools is surely longer than even the ancient Egyptians could have envisaged.
Hilary Wilson is a retired maths teacher and is Chairman of the Southampton Ancient Egypt Society. She is now a freelance lecturer and writer, and is the author of several Egyptological books and articles, as well as the previous Per Mesut series in Ancient Egypt magazine. Under the name Hilary Cawston, she writes fiction with an Egyptian theme.