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Egyptomania reveals the West's enduring romance with Egypt and its dramatic influence on decorative arts
Bow Porcelain Factory, English, fl. 1747-1764. Pair of Figures as Sphinxes, c. 1750. Porcelain. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Rienzi Collection, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson, III.

HOUSTON, TX.- An exhibition opening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston March 18, Egyptomania, explores the Egyptian Revivals of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries through some 40 objects, including photographs, Georgian garden sphinxes, 19th-century “Aegyptian” furniture and Art Deco perfume bottles with pharaoh-head stoppers. The works will be on view through July 29, 2012.

“Westerners have long had an enduring romance with the idea of Egypt and its ancient people, of whom only their grand edifices really remain. We are captivated by their poignant narrative and other-worldliness,” said Christine Gervais, associate curator of decorative arts and Rienzi. “Egyptomania captures the way this fascination translates into European and American decorative arts objects, from clocks, perfume bottles and ceramics to Tiffany glass and Wedgwood.”

The fascination for Egypt has been repeatedly rejuvenated. Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801), the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) and the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb by English archaeologist Howard Carter all intoxicated the public, resulting in the reflection of Egyptian influences in Western culture, including literature, art and architecture. The exhibition focuses primarily on such trends in the decorative arts, where the influence can be seen in design motifs and symbols, as well as in actual forms.

The entry gallery to the exhibition will showcase works on paper, including books and photographs that disseminated notions of Egypt to the Western public. The invention of wet-plate photography in the 1850s allowed photographers to move out of the studio and into the field, and photographic subject matter reflected this change with a new focus on monuments and tourist attractions. Francis Frith, for instance, made a career of photographing Egypt and Palestine, and his beautiful photograph, The Pyramids of Dahshoor, from the East (1857), will be on view. Similarly, Francis Bedford went on a Tour in the East, accompanying His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales by command, and made many pictures in the 1860s, including Thebes–Interior of the Hall of Columns at the Temple of Karnaak, Looking South (1862). The description of G. Zangaki’s’ Thebes, Fallen Statue of Rameses (c. 1890), depicting a monumental figure lying fallen and cracked in the sand, spurred Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his famous poem on the decline of great leaders and empires, Ozymandias.

Several functional household items will be on view. A tall case clock by Pottier and Stymus, c. 1875, is an impressive example of the Egyptian Revival style in America. Made of cherry wood and standing nearly eight feet tall, the timepiece features Egyptian motifs such as sun gods, sarcophagus heads and stylized flowers. An “Aegyptian” Chair, c. 1875, and a Thebes Stool, c. 1884, are fine instances of the Egyptian Revival in English furniture.

Two silver serving pieces, a Sardine Fork in the “Lotus” pattern and a Nut Spoon in the “Isis” pattern, were made in the 1860s and 1870s by the Gorham Manufacturing Company. The first features a lotus blossom and the other stylized papyrus stalks. Egyptian influences can also be seen in tongs, ladles, spoons, and more. A pair of candlesticks by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, c. 1800-1815, keeps within the dictates of English Neoclassicism with plinths composed of ormolu and blue jasperware, with the classical references further accentuated by the addition of sphinx-like figures, making reference to the earlier Egyptian dynasties. An iridescent gold vase made by Tiffany Studios, c. 1912, is decorated with an Egyptian collar in green and gold inspired by archaeological finds made at Tel el Amarna in 1892.

Some of the household items are purely ornamental. A black marble Obelisk, c. 1850, would have had a dramatic presence in someone’s home. It stands over one foot tall and features side panels with hieroglyphics. Also on view is a pair of porcelain sphinx figures—with aristocratic English faces—wearing tasseled saddle cloths, lacy caps, collars and pearl jewelry, with their front paws crossed and resting on a rococo scrolled base.

In addition, the Egyptian theme can be seen in glamorous, women’s dressing room items, such as Art Deco perfume bottles, titled Sakountala and Mounira, which feature amusing pharaoh-head stoppers. Jewelry will also be on view, including Scarab Necklace, c. 1870, and Winged Scarab Pin, c. 1875. Both feature the popular beetle amulet—the first strung with actual dung beetles, in a brilliant emerald hue, imported from South America specifically to meet the craze for Egyptian-like scarabs.

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