Contributor: Sophie Thomas
Location: Sir John Soane Museum, London
Description: In the early 1820s, the British Museum passed up the opportunity to purchase what is now among the most celebrated objects in the Sir John Soane Museum and, according to Tim Knox, “one of the most spectacular Egyptian antiquities outside Egypt” (105): the alabaster sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I, dating from about 1279 BC. It was carved from a single block of semi-transparent aragonite and covered with hieroglyphs from the Book of Gates. Inside, on the floor of the coffin, an image of the goddess Nut, guardian of the dead king’s soul, has been incised. (1) Admittedly, the price tag was 2,000 pounds, and the precise value of newly excavated antiquities from Egypt—received as curiosities more ‘wondrous’ than aesthetically pleasing—was difficult to establish. After some protracted dithering, the object went instead, in 1824, to John Soane whose house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields was not just a working architect’s studio, but also a dramatic showcase for his collections of architectural fragments, antiquities, artworks, and curiosities – many of which are documented in this watercolour by Richardson, Soane’s former pupil and assistant. The sarcophagus, given pride of place, can be thought of as a romantic ‘medium’ apart from the occult connotations of the term: it is itself a transported or displaced vehicle for transport into the afterlife, a museum monument to the way memory can be materialized, and death made a living (if empty) object of meditation in the present. It is also part of a narrative about the attractions of Egypt for Romantic traveller-explorers, and the perils of imperial appropriation.
At over nine feet long, the sarcophagus was both heavy and large, and Soane had to demolish the rear wall of the lower floor to bring it into the house. He also relinquished household office space to make way for an ‘Ante Room’ and ‘Catacomb,’ leading to the newly named ‘Sepulchral Chamber’ in which it was installed (Knox 32). These rooms are located in the dark and atmospheric basement of the house, perfectly fitting the lugubrious nature of the objects they contain: the adjacent Egyptian Crypt, a former wine cellar, was fitted out “with niches containing cork models of Etruscan sepulchres, funerary sculpture by Flaxman and Chantrey, and a copy of the epitaph from Mrs. Soane’s tomb”… “while the loculi of the top-lit Catacomb contained antique Roman cippi, or marble chests for the ashes of the dead” (Knox 105). The sarcophagus was mounted on fluted columns, from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli.
Interest in Egyptian antiquities peaked in the years around 1820, largely as a consequence of the astonishing discoveries made by Giovanni Belzoni in the years 1815-1819, under contract to the British Consul-General, Henry Salt. He was himself a larger-than-life figure. Formerly a performer known as the ‘Patagonian Samson,’ famous for an act at Sadler’s Wells called the ‘human pyramid’ in which he lifted and carried as many as ten men around the stage at once (Belzoni 29), Belzoni’s exceptional size and strength were helpful for excavating artifacts that were themselves gigantic. One of his first truly impressive accomplishments was to remove the massive granite head of Ramesses II from the Ramesseum at Thebes (Luxor), and arrange for its transport down the Nile, and ultimately to England, where it was installed in the British Museum in early 1819. (2) In 1817, in the Valley of the Kings, he located and entered six royal tombs, including the tomb of Seti I (1294-1279 BC). The most splendid of the royal tombs in the valley, it contained thirteen rooms, “almost all covered in superb wall paintings in painted relief in a state of pristine freshness” (Pearce 109-110). Here, in the burial hall, he discovered the magnificent sarcophagus that would ultimately find its way to the London home of John Soane, along with a few scattered fragments of the high relief lid. Belzoni spent over a year carefully documenting everything in the tomb, by making drawings and taking wax impressions. To further stoke public interest, he recorded his accomplishments and discoveries in his own narrative account, published by John Murray in late 1820, which was accompanied by a folio edition of forty-five coloured plates.
All of this painstaking effort would form the basis for an immersive exhibition in 1821-22 at William Bullock’s London Museum in Piccadilly, popularly known as the Egyptian Hall because of its unusual façade, inspired by the temple of Dendera. The museum offered a perfect setting for the display of Belzoni’s extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities and drawings. The hugely successful exhibition, viewed by nearly two thousand visitors on the first day alone, was referred to as ‘Belzoni’s Tomb’ since the main attraction was the recreation of “the beautiful tomb discovered by Mr Belzoni in Thebes” (The Times, 31 March 1820). It also replicated, to scale, two of the chambers from the tomb of Seti I: the ‘Entrance Hall’ and the ‘Hall of Beauties,’ a room fourteen by twenty feet, covered with symbolic representations of the pharaoh and his associated gods. The rich colours of the tomb’s interior walls were faithfully copied, and the whole was staged under lamplight, so as to recreate for the visitor the sensory conditions under which Belzoni himself had first entered it. The pièce de resistance, however, the alabaster sarcophagus, was not part of the exhibition: it arrived a few months after the exhibition opened, on the frigate Diana, and was caught up in protracted negotiations with the trustees of the British Museum over Salt (and Belzoni’s) extraordinary Egyptian finds; by the time Soane made the purchase, in 1824, Belzoni was dead. (3) Through exhibitions such as Belzoni’s, which presented Egypt as mysterious and spectacular, visitors felt they acquired access to the past. This access, with all its imaginary force, is a product of the inventive interplay of matter and media: of artifacts and scenic—or theatrical—recreation.
A year after the installation of the sarcophagus in the crypt or ‘Sepulchral Chamber,’ Soane hosted a series of atmospheric receptions over three evenings in late March. He hired over one hundred oil lamps, candles, and candelabra for the occasion (Knox 32), a number of which illuminated the coffin from within. (4) Some 900 London luminaries came to view “The Belzoni Sarcophagus and Other Antiquities” by lamplight (as the invitations stated). Among them were S.T. Coleridge, J.M.W. Turner, and Benjamin Robert Haydon, who offered a vivid account in a letter to a friend (Miss Mitford, 28 March 1825) of how, while “Fancy delicate ladies of fashion [were] dipping their pretty heads into an old, mouldy, fusty, hieroglyphicked coffin, blessing their stars at its age, […] the Duke of Sussex … came squeezing and wheezing along the narrow passage, driving all the women before him like a Blue-Beard, and, putting his royal head into the coffin, added his wonder to the wonder of the rest” (Haydon 222).
The imaginative power of the sarcophagus speaks for itself (Haydon notwithstanding), but an additional footnote may here be ventured. It could be approached as an upstairs-downstairs counterpoint to what might more literally be considered John Soane’s sarcophagus: the bath off his bedroom on the second floor of the house, into which, two months before his death, he sealed up a variety of miscellaneous personal papers and objects, with instructions that it not be opened until 22 November (the anniversary of his wife’s death) in 1896. This was the last of three such repositories, into which Soane arguably encrypted himself, in an act of self-archiving, for future retrieval—and that would later be described as “one of the most famous of post mortem jokes…” (The Sunderland Echo, 18 July 1906). All of the repositories contained an odd assortment of things, such as false teeth, household accounts, lottery tickets, extra copies of Soane’s publications, empty drawing cases, an unused diary – pointedly, a “Daily Remembrancer”—for 1822, pamphlets and sale catalogues, and papers and correspondence related to his vexed family relationships. (5) Although this final gesture may appear puzzling and eccentric, Soane had always been concerned about the question of his legacy, and how it might be preserved: clearly, by facilitating Soane’s passage into the future, the symbolic value of the sarcophagus—its importance to him, and indeed to us—may also be considered in this light.
Subject: The Sepulchral Chamber with the Sarcophagus of Seti I, watercolour dated 9 September 1825
Media rights: Sir John Soane Museum
Publisher: Volume 82/47: Sketches and Drawings/of the/House and Museum of J. Soane Esq RA… by J. M. Gandy & C. J. Richardson
Digital Collection Record: SM Vol 82/47
- For a vivid and detailed account, see Taylor and Dorey. The Soane Museum’s website offers its visitors an immersive, 3-D experience of the tomb, and the sepulchral chamber where it now resides, at: http://explore.soane.org/?_ga=2.265658319.1374628858.1593295117-382917441.1593295117#/
- See Belzoni’s vivid descriptions of this enterprise (Belzoni 31-2, 102-4, 110-15, 168). Reports of the discovery of the twelve-ton head and its imminent arrival were widely disseminated in the periodical press, an advance notice that famously inspired the sonnet writing competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith that produced ‘Ozymandias.’
- For a more detailed account of the negotiations with the British Museum, see Moser, 96-105.
- In 2017, to mark the bicentenary of Belzoni’s discovery, the Soane museum recreated the sensational effect of the translucent stone “lit up like a lantern.” The multitude of tiny figures on the outside appeared to “flicker and move,” as Helen Dorey, the deputy director of the museum who unearthed details of the original event, recalled (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/nov/05/sir-john-soane-museum-recreates-sepulchral-chamber-of-pharaoh-seti-i). See also Dorey’s detailed account in Taylor, 83-91.
- See Palmer (2015) and Thomas (2018) for detailed accounts of this episode.
Belzoni, Giovanni. Belzoni’s Travels: Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries in Egypt and Nubia [London, 1820]. Ed. Alberto Siliotti. Verona: Geodia; London: British Museum Press, 2001.
Haydon, Benjamin Robert. The Life, Letters, and Table Talk of Benjamin Robert Haydon, ed. Richard Henry Stoddard. New York: Scribner, Armstrong and Company, 1876.
Knox, Tim. Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. London: Merrell, 2016.
Moser, Stephanie. Wondrous Curiosities: Ancient Egypt at the British Museum. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Palmer, Susan. “The Mystery of the Sealed Repositories,” Death and Memory: Soane and the Architecture of Legacy. London: Sir John Soane’s Museum, 2015. 39-47.
Pearce, Susan M. “Giovanni Battista Belzoni’s exhibition of the reconstructed tomb of Pharaoh Seti I in 1821,” Journal of the History of Collections 12:1 (2000), 109-126.
Taylor, John H. with Helen Dorey. Sir John Soane’s Greatest Treasure: The Sarcophagus of Seti I. London: Pimpernel Press Ltd., 2017.
Thomas, Sophie. “A ‘strange and mixed assemblage’: Sir John Soane, Archivist of the Self,” Studies in Romanticism 57:1 (Spring, 2018), 121-142.