Monday, March 30, 2015

Lady Meux and Egyptology

Portrait by James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Lady Meux typifies the type of 1890s woman I adore most of all. She was eccentric, incredibly wealthy, and had such a shifty past that "respectable" people wouldn't talk to her, but the Prince of Wales was happy to party with her at her house. When she had her portrait done, she hired James Whistler. What I don't like about her, or any of the figures that I've uncovered from this period so far, is the inclination to horde the artifacts that England was pillaging from other parts of the world, like the Americas, but especially Egypt.
"When an artifact is stolen, it is separated from the archaeological and historical context that is an essential aspect of its value. The looting of Egypt's antiquities dates back to ancient times--there are now more standing obelisks in Rome than there are in Egypt." Source
Today, I started stumbling upon books about the collection of Egyptian antiquities that Lady Meux kept at Theobalds House. You can see one for free on archive.org. The book pays careful attention to symbolism, translation, and funeral practices because Lady Meux kept the physical remains of ancient Egyptians and their coffins at her house.

From Kurna; Coffin of An-Heru; XIth Dynasty, about 2600.
Coffin of an Unnamed Priest of Amen-Ra, with
Mythological Scenes and Explanatory Inscriptions.
Qebhsennuf, Tuamutef, Hapi, and Mestha;from Thebes;
Set of Canopic Jars; XVIIIth Dynasty, about B.C. 1550.
Lady Meux's collection was so extensive that the legendary Egyptologist Wallis Budge only managed to catalogue part of it, some 1,700 parts, and he dedicated The Book of Paradise to her.

When she died, she tried to will the collection to the British Museum, but they declined and it was sold off instead. During her lifetime, Egyptians made it known to the English that many of the things their archeologists were taking were valuable to them. In Lady Meux's defence, when she learned that five of her Ethiopic manuscripts were missed by Ethiopians, she left them in her will to Emperor Menelik.

I do not know what the legal status the items from Lady Meux's collection, but I do know that the permission of the Egyptian government has been required for all archaeological excavations since 1869. Illegally excavated antiquities are also to be considered Egypt's national property. And Oscar Wilde's father reportedly bragged about having personally acquired his antiquities "before all the archeology started."

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3 comments:

  1. I am shocked. Greed knows no bounds or boundaries.

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  2. You never mentioned about her brothers, one of whom I am a descendant, madam.

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    1. Someone should write a book about her life. She was so interesting! I really wanted to include her in my fiction, but I don't know if it will work. I would love to hear more about her brothers though!

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