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