Mit Richard Lepsius auf die Cheops-Pyramide
Reviewed by Robert Morkot

Mit Richard Lepsius auf die Cheops-Pyramide: Studien zu den Ritualszenen altägyptischer Tempel (SRaT 10), by Horst Beinlich. Dettelbach, Verlag J.H. Röll, 2010. 115pp, b&w and colour plates, one folding plate. ISBN: 978-3-89754-375-1. €98.00.

The folding plate inside the back cover of this slim, but attractive, volume reproduces Joseph Bonomi’s panorama from the top of the Great Pyramid, and this is the starting point for the book also. Bonomi’s rolled-up drawing, measuring some 43.5 by 229cm, was identified by the Egyptologist Horst Beinlich in the Institut für Ägyptologie in Heidelberg, and his story of the rediscovery is yet another lesson in what lies unacknowledged in the basement collections of Universities and Museums. The watercolour is annotated with Bonomi’s name, but in the handwriting of Richard Lepsius, leader of the great ‘Prussian’ expedition to Egypt in 1842. From this, Beinlich is able to trace the history of the painting.

GISEHBonomi joined the Lepsius expedition having worked in Egypt with all of the leading figures since he began with his first employer, Robert Hay, in 1824. This was his last major expedition, and after two years he returned to England. Amongst the significant works that brought his knowledge of Egyptian art and architecture to the Victorian public was the Egyptian Court of the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. The panorama from the top of the Great Pyramid that was developed from the Heidelberg watercolour was another.

Bonomi presented the ‘grand moving panoramic picture of the Nile: portraying all the interesting features on both sides of that ancient river, its pyramids, temples, cities, & grottoes, displaying the manners and customs of its people’ at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, in 1849. It was typical of its period(eg, the Robert Hay panoramas of Qurna) and also of the showmanship of other artists, such as Bonomi’s father-in-law, John Martin: the type of event was cleverly recreated in the splendid recent exhibition of John Martin’s work—much with ‘Egyptian’ influence—at the Tate Gallery. The display panorama, apparently some 15m high, was painted by Henry Warren and James Fahey from the watercolours made by Bonomi. It travelled to Liverpool and Dublin before being purchased from Warren, Fahey and Bonomi by George Gliddon and exhibited in the United States.

Beinlich gives a detailed analysis of the panorama and its relation to the other views and plans of the Giza necropolis published by the expedition in the folio volumes of the Denkmäler (and now available, courtesy of the University of Halle, online at target=”blank”). The Denkmäler actually has a panorama from the top of the Second Pyramid at Giza [illustrated opposite], presumably because of its rather more central location in the cemetery. Illustrations from the Denkmäler are included in this volume, but there are also images from the original drawings and watercolours in the archival collections at the Academy in Berlin. Beinlich also includes copies and transcriptions of relevant documents, such as the diary of Georg Erbkam, and a letter of Lepsius still in possession of the family. Particularly notable, are the several different versions of the celebrated picture of the entire expedition on the top of the Great Pyramid celebrating the birthday of Friedrich Wilhelm IV.

The second half of the volume is taken up with narratives of other travellers who scaled the pyramids and entered them, from George Sandys (1611) to Amelia Edwards an Mark Twain. Among the many well-known ASTENE names are Emily Beaufort, Anne Elwood, Harriet Martineau and Ida Pfeiffer. Much of this will be familiar, but it is interesting to gather these different accounts of the gruelling climb together. The texts are in their original languages.

This volume is quite slim, but beautifully produced. There are 30 numbered plates, but actually rather more, many full page. The folding plate is particularly impressive, anyone could be tempted to remove it and either put it on the wall, or recreate the circular panorama. The cover is also quite attractive, although I couldn’t quite understand why a picture of the temple of Armant from the Description de l’Égypte was chosen. Altogether this is a valuable contribution to our field, with much of interest.

Robert Morkot