When Egyptomania crept into pottery

Robert Britnell, Special to the Packet & Times

A Carltonware King Tut vase. SUBMITTED

A Carltonware King Tut vase. SUBMITTED

The fascination with Egypt has a long pedigree. Centuries ago, Europeans associated Egypt with mummies, tombs and pyramids. It was a land dedicated to the dead. Despite that grim association, Egyptian motifs cropped up again and again in European art and literature.

Giuseppe Verdi alluded to Egypt when he wrote his famous Aida. Not even Shakespeare was immune to this country's charms. An Egyptian obelisk, at some huge expense, was moved from Egypt to Italy in 1690 and erected in the square in front of St. Peter's Basilica for all the world to see.

It wasn't long before the fascination with Egypt migrated from Europe to England. When one partook of the "Grand Tour" and when one journeyed to Rome, a traveller would have been surrounded with obelisks, sphinxes and hieroglyphics. The Caffe Inglese was established in Rome in 1760 and was designed in the Egyptian style simply to impress the travellers of the tour.

In due course, an English ethnographer happened to secure an Egyptian mummy for the purposes of scientific study. Not long after, English dilettantes began to dabble in Egyptian art forms. Sphinxes became popular figures on the gates and terraces of English country homes. Sphinxes, pyramids and obelisks were added to gardens and landscapes. Not long after, this phenomenon of Egyptomania steadily progressed from the garden to the drawing rooms.

It seemed only natural, then, Josiah Wedgwood should introduce Egyptian pieces to his classical designs. At much the same time, excavations in Italy, especially at Herculaneum, were yielding things of great splendour. Ever the keen businessman, Wedgwood saw the possibilities. Agents were sent to Italy to make models and drawings and to return with design ideas. Evidently, Wedgwood wasn't much interested in keeping the chronological order straight between Rome, Greece, Etruria and the Middle East. Egypt, for the sake of simplicity, became a member of Rome and Greece. It didn't seem to matter much. There was no serious scientific evidence. Archeology was still in its infancy. Wedgwood recognized the consumers of the day were enamoured with the classical designs of the ancient civilizations and were taken with the Egyptian "fad," so why not offer his public several examples of the Egyptian taste as part of his classical repertoire? His agents were to return from Italy with the source of this inspiration, and many things Egyptian were included. If it was good enough for the Wedgwood pottery, many other major china manufacturers also began to add Egyptian styled wares to their product lines.

One of Wedgwood's more archeological correct projects involved creations based on the Egyptian canopic vases. These were used to store the innards off embalmed Egyptians, and several examples had been discovered at Hadrian's villa in the Tivoli region of Italy. These vases were squat and were fitted with a cap, usually in the shape of a head. Few knew of their grisly function. They had pleasing shapes and their design was certainly consistent with the classical lines Wedgwood was marketing to the consumers of the day.

Other efforts were the products of a highly romanticized Egypt. Sphinxes were a popular item. A true sphinx is male and has neither a beard nor wings, but that didn't stop Wedgwood and the other china makers of the day. Egyptian heads, usually female, became big hits in the designs of various small, decorative items of china as well as on pieces of furniture.

Often, the pieces were excessively decorated with fake hieroglyphs, winged discs and fantastic animals. These were successful because they represented what people thought Egypt was like. Wedgwood and his competitors in the china business were capitalizing on their customers' interests. Sphinxes, pyramids and mummies were consistent with the mythology connected with Egypt. Even more important was the fact these classical forms based on Roman, Greek and Egyptian discoveries suggested power, strength, grandeur and timelessness - all qualities the English saw in themselves. Thus, one of the reasons a sphinx was added to a garden or a drawing room. It was also an era when monuments were in vogue. Chinawares in "Egyptian black" basalt were perceived as lending an air of solidity and monumentality to a formal room and reflected the staunch character of its owner.

Wedgwood and the others in the pottery business of the day were certainly interested in developing these Egyptian themes as an attempt at diversification. The production of these high-quality wares, even if they were based loosely on Egyptian relics, was undoubtedly lucrative. The Egyptian pieces were a nice addition both visually and historically to the classical lines already being produced. Wedgwood and others were entrepreneurs in a highly competitive trade. The Egyptian line of wares was the attempt of the day, based on new discoveries and old myths, to provide the consumer of the time with other avenues of taste. Wedgwood set the stage for what would be a mushrooming of the Egyptian interest and taste that continued into the next centuries and continues to this day.

Not too long ago, a century-old glass claret decanter decorated in English sterling silver in the Egyptian style with sphinxes and other devices sold for $9,500. A Carlton Ware canopic-style vase and cover made in the 1920s and decorated with Egyptian motifs on a blue ground with coloured enamels and gilt, along with a profile of Tutankhamen, sold a few months ago for close to $3,000. Both of these were discovered in the Orillia area.

Robert Britnell lives in the Bracebridge-Muskoka area and is prepared to travel reasonable distances to evaluate fine antiques and collectibles and offer guidance in how to best market them. He has a special interest in fine art, estates and downsizing projects. He can be reached at 705-645-6157 or

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