Visions d’Égypte. Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807-1879)
Reviewed by Charles Newton

Visions d’Égypte. Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1807-1879). Catalogue of an exhibition held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Site Richelieu/Galerie Mansart, 1st March-5 June 2011. 160pp, 94 colour illustrations. ISBN-13: 978-2717724844. 23.4 x 16.6

Émile Prisse d'AvennesÉmile Prisse d’Avennes (1807-1879)
Émile Prisse d’Avennes acquired and copied important monuments, notably the ‘Karnak Table of Kings’ now in the Louvre, and the Papyrus Prisse. He also produced two enormous and influential volumes, one on Ancient Egyptian Art, the other on ’Arab Art’. These were very much in the 19th century genre of collections of images and decorative motifs made by others (such as Owen Jones). Yet, as Who was who in Egyptology comments, Prisse remains ‘the most mysterious of all the great pioneer figures in Egyptology’. A major exhibition relating to Prisse was held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) this year. Here four contributors review the exhibition catalogue and the near simultaneous republication by Taschen of Prisse’s monumental L’Art Arabe. But clearly there is still much more to say about this important and intriguing figure.

Achille-Constant-Théodore-Émile Prisse d’Avennes is an enigmatic figure in the history of Egyptology and the study of mediaeval Egypt. His work in many fields lives on in the wonderful illustrated books he published, the finds he brought back to France, and in the key discoveries he made, yet there are mysterious elements in the narrative of his life.

To explain his unusual name, he maintained his family’s claimed descent from a certain Price of Aven, a refugee from Charles II’s England, who just happened to settle in Avesnes-sur-Helpe in French Flanders. In 1788, (about the time Louis XVI first convened Les États-Généraux), a grandfather of Prisse petitioned to be considered a member of the nobility, rather than just one of the gens de robe. He claimed descent, with no clear evidence, from a British noble family. I speculate that it is just as possible that the ancestor might have been a member of a Flemish family named Prijs.

A brief biography by Marie-Laure Prévost forms the first section of the catalogue, and accepts at face value Prisse’s claims, including his fighting alongside the Greeks in the War of Independence, then going to India as secrétaire du gouverneur général. All this was fitted in between being in Paris in 1826 and arriving in Egypt in April 1827. It might be true, as indeed Prisse proved to be capable of remarkable things, but independent corroboration of the more sensational bits of his own account would have helped. What this section does concentrate on, quite rightly, are his career, books, the illustrations, the discoveries, and his voluminous research on Egypt.

This chapter is followed by `Prisse et l’égyptologie’ by Elisabeth Delange, a well-illustrated summary of his achievements in discovering and recording the fast-disappearing antiquities of Egypt. Here the beautiful watercolours and bas-relief squeezes show that Prisse deserved his reputation as an Egyptologist. She also compiled the next section `La Chambre des Ancêtres de Thoutmosis III…’ which narrates and illustrates Prisse’s controversial removal and re-installation in the Louvre of the famous Karnak King List. She dismisses his story of the notorious encounter with the unwitting Lepsius on the return journey in 1843 thus: – `La rencontre avec Lepsius est pure invention’ [p.55, footnote 8]

Next, the famous papyrus that Prisse brought to France is described, illustrated and a translation of `L’Enseignement de Ptahhotep’ [The Maxims of Ptahhotep] is provided by Bernard Mathieu. Chloé Ragazzoli in the section `Fortunes du Papyrus Prisse’ describes the acquisition of this ancient text, and its reception over the years by Egyptologists.
« Avec le double empressement d’un artiste et d’un antiquaire » Les arts de l’Égypte médiévale vus par Émile Prisse d’Avennes by Mercedes Volait describes and illustrates Prisse’s fascination with Muslim Egypt. She points out that Prisse was as interested in mediaeval Egypt as he was in Egyptology, and talented enough to be an authority on both. Prisse increasingly used photography as the basis for many of his later architectural illustrations and the results are summarised in Un fonds de photographies unique sur l’Égypte by Sylvie Aubenas

In the last section, Un livre rêvé de l’Égypte monumentale de Prisse d’Avennes by Marie-Claire Saint-Germier, the history of Prisse’s often frustrated attempts to publish his work is illustrated by images from the huge archive of drawings he had assembled. There follows a list of other works exhibited, a chronology, a map of Egypt and an index.

In short, this is an essential book for those interested in Prisse d’Avennes, in 19th century Egyptology, and in the study of Mediaeval Egypt. The next thing needed is a full-length biography of this remarkable man.

Charles Newton

Chairman’s Report – 2009 to 2010

Through the last year your committee has met three times (in October, January and April) and also held an ‘away day’ for more lengthy discussion last October. Business included a decision to increase the subsidy on collections of papers published by ASTENE – this applied to our latest book, Saddling the Dogs, edited by Diane Fortenberry and Deborah Manley, published by Oxbow Books, and launched at the Durham Conference.

Our previous title, Who Travels Sees More, edited by Diane Fortenberry and published in 2007, continues to sell well. Robert Morkot is working with Norman Lewis on behalf of ASTENE towards the publication of William Bankes’ manuscript on the exploration of Palestine in the early 19th century. We agreed to arrange day schools during the year and into the coming years. On 4 October 2008 we held a study day organised by committee member Janet Rady in conjunction with Leighton House Museum, Kensington, and linked to the Tate Gallery exhibition on Orientalist artists and travellers. The study day, Orientalist Artists in an Orientalist House, included papers by ASTENE members Sarah Searight on Lord Leighton and William de Morgan, Kathryn Ferry on Owen Jones, Briony Llewelyn on Frederic Lewis and myself on WilliamMuller.

We hope, following a meeting in London between me, committee member Paul Robertson and Father Justin, Librarian of St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, to follow up work on the ‘travellers’ books’ in the monastery library.
During the year, quarterly Bulletins have been published, edited by Deborah Manley; the third will be edited by Robert Morkot. Diane Fortenberry has greatly assisted with the design of the Bulletin.

In November 2008 our Events Organiser, Elisabeth Woodthorpe, worked with ASTENE member Anthony Sattin on an unforgettable Nile cruise on a rebuilt dahabeeyah. On the tour’s last night in Egypt, we held a very small ‘conference’ in Cairo and were joined for dinner by five local and two other visiting members. Although Elisabeth is retiring from the Committee after six years’ good work, she has generously agreed to help with the future overseas tour to Greece and Albania. Her post as Events Organiser has been taken over by Patricia Usick, who acted as ASTENE’s first Secretary.

A proposal to assist with a survey for repairs to ‘Yanni’s House’ at Qurna had been discussed during the year, and was followed up in a meeting between me, Robert Morkot and a representative of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Luxor. Sadly, despite an agreement in principle to this survey, the house (which members visited on the Nile tour) was subsequently demolished – a sad end to Egyptian 19th-century cultural heritage.

In April 2009, a conference on the traveller and writer Herman Melville was held in Jerusalem. ASTENE member Professor Ruth Kark represented our interest, but the programme overall was perhaps too biased towards literary criticism to interest many of our members.

Finally, since our last Annual General Meeting, Angela Reid was co-opted (and is now duly elected) as Secretary, and Myra Green agreed to be Bulletin Reviews Editor. Diane Fortenberry has stepped down after five years as Treasurer, with Karen Dorn elected to take her place. As I myself retire from the chairmanship I have every confidence the ASTENE Committee will give the new Chairman, Robert Morkot, all support and encouragement in the years ahead.

Brian Taylor

Chairman’s Report – 2010 to 2011

Since the last Conference in Durham the Association has lost several eminent and key members who had been involved since the beginning.

Our President Harry James, one-time Keeper of the Department Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, died in December 2009, aged 86. Harry had been involved with ASTENE from the very beginning and was a constant supporter of its activities. His humour and wise advice will be greatly missed.Norman Lewis, who died aged 92, had also been involved with ASTENE since its formation. Norman devoted a lot of time to transcribing the journals of William Bankes in the Dorchester Record Office, and also wrote extensively on the Lebanon, and on Petra and its earliest European visitors.

This year we were shocked by the sudden death of Alix Wilkinson. Alix’s work was always impeccably researched. Her book on Egyptian jewellery written whilst she was working at the British Museum remains a valuable contribution to the field, More recently she had worked on the gardens of ancient Egypt and the gardens and public spaces of Cairo in the 19th century. Again her research was meticulous and her lectures delivered with aplomb. Alix also served as ASTENE as Secretary to the Committee for some years. Her humour and anecdotes will be greatly missed on ASTENE tours.

Brenda Moon was a very distinguished scholar and librarian. Brenda’s contribution to ASTENE is well-known and her biography of Amelia Edwards demonstrates her skill as a writer and researcher. She was a delightful and gentle person, and another member who will be missed from ASTENE tours.

The last AGM followed the Study Day on Monasteries at Rewley House on 3 July 2010. Dr Patricia Usick organised a very successful evening in February to see drawings of sites and monuments held in the archive of the Department of Greece and Rome at the British Museum. Further events are being planned, including a visit with small conference based in Dublin. The next Biennial Conference is scheduled for July 2013 at the University of Aston, Birmingham.

The meetings of the Executive Committee have discussed a range of issues. We were pleased to give a grant to the Griffith Institute for the digital copying of the volumes of drawings by George Hoskins and his artist Bandoni. These will be published on the Griffith Institute website.

The ASTENE Bulletin remains the key means of communication for members. Four issues have appeared in the year (nos 45-48); one was edited by Robert Morkot and the other three by Russell and Sheila McGuirk. Our thanks also go to Diane Fortenberry who has formatted and prepared some editions of the Bulletin for the printer. Myra Green has gained some excellent reviews, one of the most important elements of the Bulletin. Many members submit information, queries and responses.

The new website has not yet been put in place. Janet Rady, Hana Navratilova and – particularly – Sheila McGuirk have ensured that the old website has been kept up to date. My thanks to them.

The Committee also discussed the Constitution. We feel that some significant changes need to be made to make the Constitution clearer on some issues and to reflect the changes in the Association since its foundation. At the same time, we wish to retain the fundamental nature of the Association. A new draft Constitution will be discussed, circulated to members, sent to the Charity Commission for approval, and then voted on at an EGM.

The AGM at Rewley House in July 2010 saw the election and re-election of members of the Committee. We are delighted that Dr Jaromir Malek agreed to become our new President and Dr Elizabeth French Vice-President.

Robert Morkot