Gentleman Scholar and Pioneering Artist - Sir John Gardner Wilkinson’s Remarkable Contribution to Egyptology

Gentleman Scholar and Pioneering Artist - Sir John Gardner Wilkinson’s Remarkable Contribution to Egyptology

Gentleman Scholar and Pioneering Artist - Sir John Gardner Wilkinson’s Remarkable Contribution to Egyptology

Reading May 28. 2021

Written by Júlia Schmied, Egyptologist, Blockyard Assistant at the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

John Gardner Wilkinson, aged 46, in Turkish dress by Henry Wyndham Phillips (National Trust, Calke Abbey)

We would like to present this article as the second entry in our new series called the Evolution of Epigraphy here at digitalEPIGRAPHY, in which we introduce the path that epigraphy has taken since the dawn of Egyptology to the digital advancements of today. Our first article (written by Survey artist Dominique Navarro) reflects on James Henry Breasted’s extraordinary vision in establishing the Epigraphic Survey and creating the Chicago House Method  in order to utilize new technologies in epigraphic work. In our second article we would like to go further back in time to the rediscovery of Egypt following the Napoleonic Wars, when epigraphic methods were yet to be conceived and early scholars could rely only on their observation skills and artistic talents to convey the magnificence of the ancient monuments. 

Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875) was exceptional in this regard. He has been referred to as “the founder of Egyptology in Great Britain”, and indeed, his contribution to Egyptology has been profound. He toured Egypt with a firman in his pocket, an official permission from the authorities to visit sites and carry out excavations, and filled notebook after notebook with drawings and watercolors of the monuments he saw. His sketches are astonishingly accurate, even though he was a self-taught artist, and can still be used as reliable evidence for scholarly purposes. In many instances his drawings and paintings are the only records of monuments that have suffered intensive damage in subsequent decades or have since been lost or destroyed. His precision in documenting monuments owed much to the fact that he was the first person to work in Egypt with the knowledge of the ancient Egyptian language. Indeed, while Wilkinson set out on his Egyptian journey as a gentleman traveler of modest means and classical education, his interest in pharaonic civilization awakened by the discoveries of the Napoleonic expedition, he emerged as one of the pioneers of Egyptology and epigraphic documentation. 

I. Rediscovering Ancient Egypt

Luxor Temple from Voyages dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte (on the left) and the Ramesseum from Description de l’Égypte (on the right)

Egyptology is usually considered to have been born out of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798. The French invading forces were followed by a large contingent of scientists and scholars (including engineers, artists, mathematicians, geographers etc.), whose objective was to document everything they saw while traveling up and down the Nile valley. They made topographical surveys, studied Egypt’s flora and fauna, collected and classified minerals, and, most famously, recorded the monuments of ancient Egypt in meticulous detail. 

The first notable book to result from the expedition was the two-volume Voyages dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte by Vivant Denon, one of the expedition’s scholars and later director of the Louvre, published in 1802. An eyewitness account of Napoleon’s journey through Egypt, it became an instant success. It was translated into English and German and remained in print for 150 years. However, it was the monumental and unparalleled Description de l’Égypte, published between 1809 and 1828, that truly captured the fascination of the public. It comprised eight huge folio volumes of text (four on antiquities, two on modern Egypt, and two on natural history) and nine accompanying folio volumes of plates, “providing the most extensive panorama of ancient and modern Egypt ever published” (Thompson, Wilkinson, 23). However, many of the hieroglyphic inscriptions were recorded incorrectly because the artists had no knowledge of what they were copying – in light of which Wilkinson’s later achievements become all the more noteworthy.

The Rosetta Stone (Description de l’Égypte vol V. Pl. 52-54.)

A full-sized reproduction of the expedition’s most important discovery, the Rosetta Stone, was also published in the Description de l’Égypte. It is a black basalt stone slab with a trilingual inscription – one of them Greek, the other two Egyptian demotic and hieroglyphic – which eventually led to one of the greatest scholarly rivalries of the 19th century between Thomas Young in England and Jean-François Champollion in France and, ultimately, the deciphering of hieroglyphs in 1822. 

As Egypt became increasingly popular, scores of travelers and scholars, initially mostly British, came to explore the country for themselves, to write about their journey, and to collect antiquities. This coincided with and was supported by the political changes taking place in Egypt following the French defeat and the withdrawal of the British army soon after. Egypt was left in the hands of Muhammad Ali pasha, nominally a vassal of the Ottoman empire, who established a much more effective government then before, making the country a lot safer and more accessible for travelers. In his history of Egyptology Thomson notes: “The Napoleonic Expedition, with its copious and comprehensive survey of the monuments between Alexandria and Philae, opened an entirely new artistic dimension in Egyptology. Subsequent travelers and sojourners in Egypt were inspired to equal, correct, or surpass the magnificent plates in the Description de l’Égypte. Wilkinson, Hay, Lane, Hoskins, and others filled their notebooks, sketchbooks, and portfolio with sketches and watercolors. For the first time, scholars began to appreciate the uniqueness and excellence of ancient Egyptian art… Then, dismayed as the monuments deteriorated or vanished entirely within the space of just a few years, they became increasingly convinced of the need to record them before it was too late.” (Thompson, Wonderful Things I, 240)

Wilkinson arrived in Egypt in 1821. His first visit lasted twelve years during which he visited almost every site then known, from the Second Cataract to the Egyptian deserts, filling his notepads with sketches of the monuments he saw.

II. The gentleman scholar - Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875)

Sir John Gardner Wilkinson by James Charles Smallcombe (National Portrait Gallery)

John Gardner Wilkinson was born into a comfortable, educated, middle-class family which “fully embraced the ideals and opportunities of the Enlightenment”. He was the only surviving child of Reverend John Wilkinson, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a member of the African Exploration Society (later the Royal Geographical Society), and Mary Anne Gardner Wilkinson who was “every bit as erudite as her husband, taught her son French, Latin and Greek while he was still in the nursery” (Wilkinson, A World Beneath the Sands, Chapter 3). After his parents’ early death, Wilkinson was left a modest income. He was sent to Harrow School, an independent school for boys, by his guardian, and later attended Exeter College at the University of Oxford.

After leaving his studies, in the spring of 1819 Wilkinson went on a Grand Tour of Europe, as was customary for well-to-do men with classical education, traveling to France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. He arrived in Rome in the spring of the following year and was delighted by the classical antiquities. There he made the acquaintance of Sir William Gell, the man who would soon change the course of his life. Gell was a classical scholar, bibliophile, and a skilled artist; a fellow of both the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries, who was knighted for his services to archaeology. He was also an avid correspondent, who communicated regularly with other serious scholars in his fields of interest, including Thomas Young, Champollion, and Henry Salt, an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist and the consul-general in Egypt since 1815. 

Gell was the one who aroused Wilkinson’s interest in ancient Egypt, offering to teach the younger man everything there was to know at the time, including the method of deciphering hieroglyphs developed by Young. They visited some of the archaeological sites in Italy and practiced sketching the antiquities in local museums, Gell noting that “Wilkinson had a genuine enthusiasm for antiquities, a deep love of classical learning, and the ability to sketch accurately” (Thompson, Wilkinson, 11). In effect, it was Gell who encouraged Wilkinson to visit Egypt not as a mere wandering traveler but as an antiquarian researcher instead. 

III. Wilkinson in Egypt

Arrival of some foreigners in Egypt, Beni Hassan (Plate XII. Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians vol. I. 1878)

Wilkinson arrived in Alexandria on 22 November 1821. From there he traveled on to Sais and then Cairo, and in February 1822 he began his journey south. He sailed past Meidum, Beni Hassan, Antinopolis, Abydos and Dendara; visited the best-known sites of the east and west bank of Luxor; then travelled on to Esna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Aswan and Elephantine, as far south as Semna, below the Second Cataract. In the following year he visited such far-flung destinations as the oases of the Western Desert and the wadis of the Eastern Desert as well. His primary guide was Travels in Egypt and Nubia by Frederick Lewis Norden, a Danish navy captain who in 1737-1738 traveled through Egypt. Throughout his journey, Wilkinson “made many sketches, drew floor plans of temples, and occasionally noted mistakes in the works of Norden and others,” but there was just too much to see for any concentrated work. (Thompson, Wilkinson, 40)

After returning to Cairo, Wilkinson intensified his Egyptological studies. He focused on the ancient Egyptian language and soon began to achieve results: alongside Champollion and Young he became one of the very few experts on hieroglyphics at the time. His Materia Hieroglyphica appeared in 1828 and Extracts from Several Hieroglyphical Subjects in 1830.  

He also worked hard at documenting monuments and inscriptions, his copies achieving an extremely high standard of accuracy. As his biographer writes: “These copies are probably his most enduring Egyptological accomplishment for, besides being minor works of art, they are often the best and sometimes the only surviving evidence for objects that have since been damaged or destroyed.” (Thompson, Wilkinson, 41)

From the mid-1820s, Wilkinson began spending more and more time in Luxor, especially on the west bank. He built a remarkable house in and around the tomb of Aametiu (TT83), located in Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, which would become a local landmark and a convenient base for archaeologists and scholars working in Thebes, including the artist Robert Hay and his wife, and later Prussian Egyptologist Karl Lepsius, who used the house as his base during his expedition between 1842-45. Wilkinson’s neighbors included Henry Salt’s assistant Giovanni d’Athanasi, known as Yanni, who lived down the hill, and whose house served as the consul-general’s headquarters in Thebes. 

Wilkinson’s first major endeavor in Thebes was to make a comprehensive topographical survey of the west bank. He mapped the area, identified the monuments, and numbered the tombs; the resulting book was his Topography of Thebes, and General View of Egypt, published in 1835. His survey included the Valley of the Kings, where he assigned numbers to the 21 tombs then known to him, painting them over their doors. His numbering system is still in use, tombs with numbers higher than 21 belong to those discovered since he worked there. He opened and copied some of the tombs at Deir el-Medina and sketched objects from the village that were circulating on the Theban antiquities market. Many of the objects depicted in the book have since disappeared, the tomb scenes damaged or destroyed within a few years. 

Illustration from Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1937)

While living in Thebes, Wilkinson was especially interested in the Tombs of the Nobles, for he believed that they revealed more about how the ancient Egyptians lived than did the great monuments. He was among the first to realize the naturalistic nature of ancient Egyptian art, especially in the tomb of Rekhmire, which was his favorite. Here he could observe the broadest spectrum of ancient Egyptian life: “Here, manners and customs, historical events and religious ceremonies, carry us back, as it were, to the society of those to whom they refer; and we are enabled to study the amusements and occupations of the ancient Egyptians, almost as though we were spectators of the scenes represented.” (Wilkinson, Topography, 127) He also noticed the natural posture of the figures and the fact that one of them was shown in perspective; and sent a drawing of the wall scene to Gell with the commentary, “You will observe the maid is drawn ¾ figure & not as a stiff Egn [sic]– which shows they knew something more of perspective than people fancy, & I have many specimens of things done in what we should now call & allow to be perspective.” (Thompson, Wilkinson, 110-111)

Indeed, Wilkinson’s intention as an epigrapher was to copy and render on paper what he saw – be it a mural or an object of use – as faithfully as possible. Even though his drawings were done freehand, he managed to convey the style of the wall paintings remarkably accurately. He convincingly rendered the reliefs into line drawings, applying sun and shadow transitions in the representation of figures more or less consistently. His line drawings show a remarkable wealth of detail. With toning, he suggests the different shades of color, since, for printing reasons, the illustrations in his early publications were all reproduced in black and white. The few color plates in his books could not yet faithfully convey the original hues the ancient artists had used. Wilkinson’s watercolors on the other hand, which to the best of my knowledge have not yet been comprehensively published, do indicate the original colors of the ancient murals.

While mostly Wilkinson was carefully copying into his notebooks, he used other techniques as well to document the monuments. In 1826 he made a series of rubbings and squeezes of reliefs in tombs and temples all over Egypt, some 5500 of them altogether, including scenes from tombs in Gurna and Deir el Medina, as well as from the temples of Karnak, Luxor, and the West Bank (Moss, Rubbings, 108-109). On one occasion he even used chemical analysis on tomb paintings: he sampled the pigment in them, and after returning to England gave the samples to a chemist friend who determined the composition of the paint used by the ancient artists (Thompson, Wilkinson, 108).

Pl. LXIV (Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians 1937)

Wilkinson’s greatest Egyptological undertaking, however, was a comprehensive study of daily life in ancient Egypt. Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians was published in 1937 and, owing partly to the illustrations he had meticulously copied in the Tombs of the Nobles, it became an instant success and went through many printings. “It was the first book to use ancient Egyptian (as opposed to classical or biblical) evidence to illuminate pharaonic civilization, the first to present the ancient Egyptians as real people rather than figures of myth and legend. Above all, it made Egyptology accessible to a general readership, both creating and feeding an appetite for popular history… The book was printed in a handy size and sold at an affordable price (unlike the huge and expensive folio volumes of the Description de l’Egypte). Published in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession, it remained the definitive account of ancient Egypt throughout her long reign” (Wilkinson, A World Beneath the Sands, Chapter 3).

Pl. IV. (Architecture of Ancient Egypt)

Wilkinson went on to publish several more books about ancient Egypt, although none quite as successful as Manners and Customs. His Architecture of Ancient Egypt, published privately by subscription in 1850, was the result of his keen interest in ancient Egyptian architecture and close study of monuments. Its impact on mid-19th century Egyptian Revival architecture in the British Isles however was quite substantial.

IV. Wilkinson’s Legacy

Today, all Wilkinson’s papers, including his manuscripts, notes and sketches, are held at the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, where they are catalogued and readily accessible to scholars. His role in the development of Egyptology has been debated, although his contribution to the discipline is unquestionable. As Thompson, his biographer, acknowledges, “no nineteenth-century writer did as much as Wilkinson to make the ancient Egyptians known to the general reading public.” However, for scholars today, “his most meaningful contribution is the wealth of Egyptological and other data in his notebooks” (Thompson, Wilkinson, xii). 

Spending twelve years in Egypt, Wilkinson visited practically every major archaeological site in the country, making notes and highly accurate copies of the remains in his sketchbooks. They often record monuments and antiquities that were damaged or destroyed shortly after Wilkinson’s time, thus becoming invaluable sources for researchers trying to reconstruct all that once was. 

Indeed, Wilkinson’s watercolors and drawings were important sources for the Epigraphic Survey's reconstruction of the Roman frescos in the Imperial Cult Chamber at Luxor Temple, especially where the once vivid murals have been reduced to a few painted contours only. Moreover, his paintings and sketches of the chamber are a clear testament of his skills as an accomplished artist. 

Documenting the Imperial Cult Chamber and its frescos at Luxor Temple

Figure A.I. (Art of Empire)

After leaving Luxor in 1833, Wilkinson visited Egypt briefly three more times. Again, he filled notebooks with comments and sketches, gathering material for future publications. During his last journey in 1855-56, his primary scholarly purpose was to study and record Christian remains in Egypt. In January 1856 he made pencil and watercolor sketches of the Imperial Cult Chamber and its frescos at Luxor Temple. The chamber had been excavated not long before, in 1854, and Wilkinson’s drawings provide the most complete and detailed documentation known of the now fragmentary fresco groups in the mid-19th century. 

Wilkinson’s watercolors of the chamber cover six double pages in his sketchbook. The double-page panoramic view from inside the northwest corner is his most magnificent, it shows the two halves of the north wall with the entrance in the center, the whole of the east wall with the doorway leading into the east side rooms, and the south wall with the niche and two granite columns. Some of the figural images and decorative motifs on the paintings comprise a unique record of sections that have since disappeared from the walls. 

He devoted a double painting to a group of figures on the south wall west of the niche, whose lower parts have only been preserved. On the left side of a double page “four standing figures and the lower legs of a fifth are roughly sketched in pencil, skillfully suggesting their stance and positions relative to one another” (Jones, Art of Empire, 116). A one-page color sketch shows a detail of the soldiers and horses on the east wall, capturing the dynamic nature of the original scene perfectly. Wilkinson also included detailed studies of soldiers’ footwear, as well as the patterns from the painted imitation opus sectile dado. Some drawings seem to have been left as preliminary pencil sketches or outlines, indicating perhaps that Wilkinson intended to copy more. However, a sunstroke kept him confined for much of his stay in Luxor, leaving his work in the imperial cult chamber incomplete.

The Epigraphic Survey’s recent documentation and reconstruction of the Roman frescos, partly based on Wilkinson’s artwork, was a unique project. You can read our ten-part synopsis of the process here.

V. Supplement – Methods of printing in early Egyptology

Interior of the Portico of Esna (Topography of Thebes)

Artists returning from Egypt in the first half of the 19th century were faced with the dilemma of how to reproduce their work for publication. The traditional techniques of printmaking include woodcut, etching, engraving, and lithography.

The simplest and oldest method of printmaking is the woodcut, a relief process in which the image is carved into the surface of a block of wood. During the process, the non-printable parts are cut away, and the remaining raised areas are covered with ink. The image is retained by pressing a sheet of paper onto the block. The woodcuts provided only outline images with no color and not a lot of nuance in texture. The images in Wilkinson’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians were printed using this method.

A similar technique is engraving, a process in which lines are cut into a wood block or a metal plate in order to hold the ink. This method creates thinner and more delicate lines. In metal engraving, the plate is usually made of copper or zinc. Copper plates offer greater texture, but they are too soft to produce many prints without deterioration in image quality. Zinc engravings hold up better, but they will also flatten over time due to the pressure from printing, causing less contrast in later impressions. In case of the plates of Description de l’Égypte metal engraving was involved.

The printmaking method most frequently used in Egyptological publishing was lithography, a process in which a design is drawn onto a flat stone (or prepared metal plate, usually zinc or aluminum) and affixed by means of a chemical reaction. The technique was invented around 1798 by a German playwright, Alois Senefelder, “who accidentally discovered that he could duplicate his scripts by writing them in greasy crayon on slabs of limestone and then printing them with rolled-on ink. Because the local limestone retained so relentlessly any crayon marks applied to its surface, even after repeated inking and printing, lithographs (so called from the Latin for stone, litho, and mark, graph) could be printed in almost unlimited quantities” (Lithography in the Nineteenth Century).

Lithography became widespread in the 1820s; Wilkinson’s hieroglyphic publications in the late 1820s, as well as his Topography of Thebes in 1835 were printed using this method.

Color plate from Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837)

While lithography produced prints in various shades of gray, color lithographs – called chromolithographs or oleographs – were developed in the second half of the 19th century. This technique involved using multiple lithographic stones, one for each color, and could take months to produce. Although an expensive process, printing in color offered the possibility to reproduce ancient Egyptian art with its approximated colors. Some chromolithographed plates were published in Wilkinson’s Manners and Customs already in 1837; however, they could not yet convey the ancient artists’ palette faithfully. 

Additional reading

Jones, M. and McFadden, S. (eds): Art of Empire: The Roman Frescoes and Imperial Cult Chamber in Luxor Temple (Yale University Press, 2015)

Moss, R.: “Rubbings of Egyptian Reliefs Made in 1826 by Sir J. Gardner Wilkinson” in: JEA 62 (1976), 108-109.

Thompson, J.: Wonderful Things I: From Antiquity to 1881 (The American University in Cairo Press, 2015)

Thompson, J.: Sir Gardner Wilkinson and His Circle (University of Texas Press, 1992)

Wilkinson, J. G.: Topography of Thebes, and General View of Egypt (London, 1835)

Wilkinson, J. G.: Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians vols I-III. (London, 1837 & 1878)

Wilkinson, J. G.: Architecture of Ancient Egypt (London, 1835)

Wilkinson, T.: A World Beneath the Sands: The Golden Age of Egyptology (Picador, 2020)

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