Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Gayer-Anderson Museum (and its departed cat)

Earlier this year I had a piece published in Canvas, the magazine of Middle Eastern art, about the Gayer-Anderson Museum in Cairo. It’s one of the most fantastic places I know and I go back every few years just to reassure myself that it really exists.

The museum is named for a British Army doctor who came to Cairo in 1906. From his lodgings at Shepheard’s Hotel, he set one day, accompanied by a dragoman, to see the sights and one of the places he visited was the great ninth-century mosque of Ahmed Ibn Tulun. As he approached he stopped to admire a fine stone-built house that stood either side of the passage leading to the main door of the mosque, its two parts connected by an aerial bridge. A woman leaned out of one of the latticed windows on the upper floor and called to him.

“What does she say?” he asked his dragoman.

“She’s inviting you to view the house.”

The Englishman declined and went on into the mosque. Despite remaining in Cairo for the rest of his working life, it would be almost a further 30 years before John Gayer-Anderson got round to venturing inside the house. When he did, he immediately fell love with the place, and within the year he’d taken possession of it and made it his home.

He only lived there for seven years (1935-42) but in that time he created something so unique that it has been preserved in his name ever since. To begin with the house – actually two houses – is extraordinary, medieval in origin and laid out like an interlocking puzzle, full of jogging corridors, split level chambers, winding staircases and disguised rooms. All this Gayer-Anderson meticulously restored. He had a passion for Egyptology and Oriental studies, and he purchased or otherwise obtained a vast array of art, crafts, furniture and fittings from around the Middle East, Near East and Far East, which he installed in his Cairo home. So you have a Damascus Room with walls and ceiling covered with painted wooden panels acquired from a 17th-century house in the Syrian capital. You have rooms full of pharaonic antiquities. The roof terrace has its edges fenced by mashrabiya screens rescued from demolished houses, while one wall is lined with Ottoman-era marble basins and sink backs. Elsewhere there are Coptic icons, Sufi crutches from the 19th century, galleries of bad art (the portrait of Gayer-Anderson at the head of this post is one of the better pieces), death masks of his family and, a personal favourite, an ostrich egg painted with topographical scenes of Egypt, which can be rotated by means of a little handle on top.



He collected what pleased him, more taken with novelty than value. The exception to this was one piece of real worth: this was a lifesize, regal-looking cat cast in bronze wearing gold earrings and a gold nose ring, discovered in the necropolis of Saqqara and dating back to around 600 BC. This he bequeathed to the British Museum in London, where these days it’s a prize exhibit – visitors can purchase ‘Gayer-Anderson cat’ T-shirts and necklaces, or a scale replica for the cool price of £450. Cairo’s Gayer-Anderson Museum, which receives fewer visitors in a year than the British Museum does in five minutes, also has to make do with a replica.

The photos here, which were taken to accompany my story in Canvas, are by Cairo-based photographer Barry Iverson.


Filed under Egyptologists and Egyptology, My journalism, Travellers' tales

Topless women and Hoovers

In the early years of the 20th century, several of Egypt’s leading hotels produced promotional booklets. I have a few of them, all of which must have been produced by the same company as they all follow the same format, of card covers showing a painted Oriental scene in a decorative border, and inside 16 pages of useful information, images and ads. I put the covers of a couple in Grand Hotels of Egypt, but the best example of all I acquired only after the book had gone to print. This is a promotional booklet for Shepheard’s, and it is so fascinating I’m posting scans of all its pages below. As far as I can tell, the booklet dates from around 1910 – it isn’t dated but it does carry ads for sister hotel the Semiramis, completed in 1907, and something called the New Ghezireh Palace, announced as opening in December 1913, but which, in fact, was never built.

Interesting to see that as far back as a century ago, the hotel business was already firmly grounded in hyperbole: page five reads, ‘The entrance hall is an absolute true copy of the Temples of Karnak and Philae’ – not likely given Karnak extends over several square miles, and never had columns supporting staircases or statues of topless women holding electric lanterns above their heads (as seen in the picture on page three). Also interesting is the information that ‘Every department of the Hotel and the accessories attached thereto are periodically and thoroughly cleaned by the Vacuum process’. Who knew they had Hoovers over a century ago?

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Filed under Memorabilia, Shepheard's

Burger classics

We reproduced the postcard above in Grand Hotels of Egypt. It shows Cairo’s Opera Square seen from one of the terraces of the Continental-Savoy. It dates, I’m guessing, judging from the cars, from some time in the 1930s. Over on the far left is the old Khedivial Opera House, where Verdi’s opera Aida had its world premiere on 24 December 1871, with costumes and accessories designed by Egypt’s Director of Antiquities Auguste Mariette. (Just two months short of the opera’s centenary, on 28 October 1971, the opera house was completely destroyed by a fire.) It’s a lovely little painting, interesting because artists of the time rarely painted the modern city, saving their canvases instead for more picturesque (ie saleable) subjects like ancient temples and medieval mosques. The painter in this case was the Swiss Willy Friedrich Burger (1882-1964), a graphic artist of some talent, responsible for numerous beautiful posters advertising the attractions of his homeland, such as the one below, which sell for a fortune these days at auction.

It was only after Grand Hotels had gone to print that I discovered the Continental-Savoy wasn’t the only hotel Burger painted and that it was, in fact, part of a set. I now have four more Burger cards and they are all equally lovely. All employ the same dusky, Cairo-sunset palette of pinks and purples. The Semiramis card (top one, below) is the only representation I’ve ever seen of that old hotel’s Nile terrace. The really intriguing card though is the one below it, which unlike the others (the third card shows the Moorish Hall at Shepheard’s, the bottom the pool at the Grand Hotel Helwan) is not a Cairo hotel. It is the view of the Dormition Abbey at Mount Zion from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Why include a Jerusalem hotel in a set of postcards showing Cairo hotels? Because the postcards were put out by Egyptian Hotels Ltd, owned by Charles Baehler, which in 1929 extended its activities into Palestine with the building of the King David. At what point the King David ceased being owned by an Egyptian company I don’t know, but it’s pretty unlikely this arrangement extended beyond 1948 and the creation of Israel. If anybody knows more, I’d love to hear from you.

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Filed under Art and artists, Memorabilia

How did I not know about the Marianne North Gallery?

A warning: Every now and again this blog is going to veer completely off subject. There are occasions when you come across some thing you feel compelled to shout about, and given that this blog is where I generally write about matters that interest me, here’s where that sort of thing is going to have to go.

So yesterday I went to Kew Gardens. It’s only a 10-minute walk from where I live and my wife has recently taken up membership, meaning we can drop by whenever the mood takes us. This was the second visit in three weeks and we explored parts of the gardens we hadn’t seen previously. This included the small red-brick building that is the Marianne North Gallery. How did I not know about this place before? It’s not much more than a single room and annex, but what a room. It has to be one of the most wonderful small places in all London.

Marianne North, was the daughter of the Liberal member of parliament for Hastings. On her father’s death in 1869, at the age of 40, she decided to pursue a long-standing ambition of painting the flora of distant countries. She began her travels in 1871-72, going first to Canada, the US and Jamaica, and then Brazil. In 1875, after a few months in Tenerife, she travelled on to Japan, Borneo, Jaca, Ceylon, India, Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania. (She also visited Egypt but painted very little there – that’s one of her rare Egypt pieces, heading this post.)

She travelled alone (she found companions tiresome) and used her time to record primarily plants, but also animals, architecture and landscapes. She offered the works to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, along with a proposal for a gallery to house them to be built at her own expense. The new building was designed looking partly like a Greek temple, partly like a plantation lodge, and it was completed in 1882. North died at Alderley in Gloucestershire in August 1890.

The gallery remains today as she intended it (her bequest stipulated it could not be changed). Its walls are tightly packed with 832 of her studies, which are framed to exactly fit and fill all available spaces. She favoured oil paints, rather than the watercolours most botanical painters used, which means her paintings have remained as bright and vivid as when they were first done. The lower parts of the gallery’s walls are clad in no fewer than 246 different types of wood brought back by North from her travels. Around the top of the walls is a gallery and high windows.

Individually the paintings are beautiful, rich with details and life; taken all together they are dazzling and overwhelming. Just as well there are a couple of benches in the hall, because you need to sit and take it all in – and then you can turn and examine the backs of the benches which are embellished by groups of Cinemascopic landscapes.

You can see more paintings at Kew’s online gallery. Alternatively, if you happen to be in London and have a liking for Victorian art and architecture, or a passion for travel and exploration, or are just partial to a bit of full-on willful eccentricity, then go along and see the Marianne North Gallery at Kew for yourself.


Filed under Art and artists