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.