Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Dorothy U. Seyler, The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2015. Pp. 304; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9781633880368. $26.00.

Reviewed by Daniele Salvoldi, Freie Universität (daniele.salvoldi@fu-berlin.de)

Version at BMCR home site


Dorothy Seyler's book is a popularized biography of English explorer, collector, and MP William John Bankes (1786-1855). After graduating from Cambridge (BA 1808, MA 1811), where he met and befriended Lord Byron, Bankes set off in a long series of travels in Continental Europe, the Near East, Egypt, and Nubia (1812-1819). He was a man of conspicuous financial means and amassed an impressive collection of works of art, both ancient and modern. He copied several Greek, Latin and Nabataean inscriptions himself and hired a series of draughtsmen who worked for him, especially in Egypt and Nubia, to copy temple and tomb reliefs. Louis Linant de Bellefonds was engaged by Bankes specifically to search for the ancient city of Meroe, a task accomplished in 1821-22. After returning to England, Bankes was arrested twice for homosexuality and eventually fled, an outlaw, spending the rest of his life in self-imposed exile in Italy.

The book is divided into a prologue and fifteen chapters. The first three chapters are dedicated to Bankes' youth, education, and first political career as an MP. Chapters 4 to 11 are dedicated to Bankes' long travels in Portugal and Spain, Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, Nubia, the Levant, again Egypt and Nubia, and Italy. Chapters 12 to 14 recount Bankes' return to England, his second round of tenures at the British Parliament, the libel trial against James Silk Buckingham, the works at his Dorset estate Kingston Lacy, and his arrest. The last chapter tells about the Italian life of Bankes' last years, his continuous collecting and shipping artworks to England, and his death and legacy. The narrative is intertwined with large popularizing passages about ancient Egypt, in particular on the history of Egypt (pp. 89-90); Egyptian cosmogony, religion and pyramid-building (pp. 100-105); Karnak temple (pp. 155-157); Egyptian obelisks (pp. 179-183); Egyptian hieroglyphs (pp. 189-191). A chronology of ancient Egyptian kingdoms and dynasties follows, but no source is given.

The life and works of William John Bankes were first recounted by Patricia Usick in a British Museum Press book published in 2002.1 Patricia Usick turned her scholarly, thoroughly researched PhD dissertation in Egyptology into a well-written, fascinating account of the life of Bankes, focusing on his adventures in Egypt and Nubia. It is an academic book as much as a pleasant read. A couple of years later, journalist and lecturer Anne Sebba wrote a popularized biography of Bankes, which is still well researched and adds more information on Bankes' youth, private life, and his collecting activity.2 The two books together cover almost all of what is needed to know about Bankes in the sense of a traditional biography. Other scholars devoted journal articles to different aspects of Bankes' work, such as collecting Spanish paintings, refurbishing Kingston Lacy, or his contributions to the field of Nabataean studies. Given these premises, Dorothy Seyler and her publisher must have been aware that her book was to face tough competition.

The acknowledgment of her "debt to both Anne Sebba and Dr. Patricia Usick, two British authors who were the first to write about Bankes," (p. 8) is probably not enough to account for how closely she follows them. In fact, the book offers alarming examples of refined rogeting, a form of soft plagiarism that involves rewording and reordering of sentences. How consciously this is done, it is not clear, but given Seyler's sound academic background in rhetoric, it really comes as a surprise. A couple of examples will suffice here:

Many took to a lifeboat and were saved, but Henry apparently refused, believing it safest to remain in the ship. He was last seen trying to swim to a floating fragment of the wreck (Sebba, The Exiled Collector, 37)

Many who took to the lifeboats survived the wreck, but Henry refused to join them, perhaps because he thought the ship would not sink, or perhaps, like William, he could not swim and was terrified of the small boats. He was last seen struggling to reach a piece of the wreckage (Seyler, The Obelisk and the Englishman, 40)

And again:

They met two caravans coming from Dongola but none which they could join going in their direction. The Mamelukes escorting one of the caravans were alarmed at first on seeing them in 'Oriental garb' but then reassured by the sight of Bankes and Hyde, who were wearing European dress (Usick, Adventures in Egypt and Nubia, 126)

The group passed two caravans returning from Dongola with slaves and gum, the second escorted by two Mamelukes. The Mamelukes were initially concerned to see some in the party in Arab clothing but relaxed when spotting Hyde and William in European dress (Seyler, The Obelisk and the Englishman, 173)

Usick and Sebba's works are acknowledged in only five endnotes, in three of those occurrences as sources for quoting other manuscript material. The strong influence of their work on Seyler's is also evident in both the choice of illustrations and the bibliography. The book features no less than sixty-nine illustrations, of which twenty-nine are colour plates. More than half are the same as or very similar to those published by Usick (thirty-four), Sebba (four), or the National Trust official guide to Kingston Lacy (six):3 almost all are reproductions of original drawings made by Bankes and his men or pictures of items in the Bankes collection. Of the remaining twenty-five illustrations, all but two are modern photographs of relevant places, such as the British Houses of Parliament or the pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara; two are (outdated) maps taken from Finati's Narrative.4 On the other side, the bibliography includes one hundred and seven titles; of these, seventy are already quoted by Usick and Sebba. Of the remaining thirty-seven, only eleven titles were published in the last fourteen years after the publication of Usick's book, but none of them is directly related to William John Bankes. Nevertheless, many publications dealing with Bankes' antiquarian interests came out in that span of time.5

As in all biographies, the author offers her own, original interpretation of the person portrayed. Seyler prefers to stress William J. Bankes' youth and private life, and she does so in a lively manner, exploring his ambiguous relationship with Lord Byron and stressing already from the title his contribution to the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. She is the first to publish a reproduction of Bankes' sketch for hanging the Spanish paintings at Kingston Lacy (p. 73), but the document was already described by Sebba in 2004.6 A plan of the Luxor temple drawn by Bankes around 1815 is also published here for the first time (p. 97). It is overall a very pleasant reading, short and effective, but it has little novelty or up-to-date information.

There are a few factual errors and a series of small inaccuracies, some of which the reviewer wishes to point out here. Seyler seems unaware of the existence of two different Abydos Kings' Lists. One was indeed discovered and copied by Bankes in 1818 in the memorial temple of Ramesses II and later acquired by the British Museum in 1837, where it is now kept (EA 117). The other is still standing in the larger memorial temple of Seti I. Seyler describes the list of Ramesses II, but refers to the wrong temple, and so does picture C20.

Contrary to page 82, Bankes never visited the mining site of Sarabit al-Khadim in the Sinai. In Bankes' papers there is indeed a fine and important series of drawings, both landscape views of the Hathor sanctuary and copies of hieroglyphic inscriptions (later published in facsimile by Gardiner and Peet),7 but these were made by Louis Linant and Alessandro Ricci in their 1820 journey.8 Proof that Bankes was never there lies in letters from John Hyde and Linant himself, who describe the site of Sarabit as to a person who had never seen the place before.9 It seems the mistake derives from Anne Sebba.10

The two Sekhmet statues from the Precinct of Mut at Karnak, purchased by Bankes in 1815, were not lost (p. 106), but are now at Chatsworth House, seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, who purchased them from Bankes himself in 1832. This piece of information is reported in Usick, but Seyler follows Sebba's mistake.11

The part dedicated to Bankes' journeys in modern day Israel, Jordan, and Syria is dependent on Giovanni Finati's Narrative because it is almost the only detailed source on the movements of Bankes. While Seyler comments on the other travels in Egypt and Nubia, giving many informative references to sites and customs, this area lacks the same coverage. As a result, for example, the important site of Palmyra is given no archaeological or historical background, and occupies only a short paragraph at page 125. Another consequence is that almost all Arabic names are given in an obsolete transcription, which sometimes makes identification difficult (e.g. Anche for al-Khanka, p. 111; Calaoon for Qalawun, p. 111; Oomkais for Umm Qais, p. 119).

On the publisher's side, more rigorous proofreading would have avoided typos such as Bryon for Byron (pp. 27, 34, 68, 79), three different spelling for the name Muhammad (Mohammed at p. 111, Mahomet at page 116, and Mahommed at p. 136), Boromini for Borromini (p. 139), Lathurus for Lathyrus (p. 99), Allessandro for Alessandro (p. 292). Some names are missing from the index, such as Thutmose III and Taharqo. The obelisk of Ramesses II at Luxor, featured on the cover, does not match the obelisk meant by Seyler in her title, which is the small Philae obelisk now at Kingston Lacy, and a key element in the early steps towards decipherment of the hieroglyphs.


1.   Patricia Usick, Adventures in Egypt and Nubia. The Travels of William John Bankes (1786-1855) (London: The British Museum Press, 2002).
2.   Anne Sebba, The Exiled Collector. William Bankes and the Making of an English Country House (London: John Murray, 2004).
3.   Anthony Mitchell, Kingston Lacy (Rotherham: The National Trust, 1994).
4.   Giovanni Finati, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Giovanni Finati, ed. William John Bankes, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1830).
5.   In order of publication: Norman N. Lewis and Michael C.A. MacDonald, "W.J. Bankes and the Identification of the Nabataean Script," Syria 80 (2003): 41-110; Patricia Usick, "William John Bankes in Egypt," in The Bankes Late Ramesside Papyri, ed. Robert Demarée (London: British Museum, 2005): 3-5; Annie Sartre-Fauriat, Les voyages dans le Hauran (Syrie du Sud) de W.J. Bankes (1816 et 1818) (Bordeaux-Beyrouth: Ausonius, 2005); Norman N. Lewis, "A Collection of Papers including a Transcript of the Journals Written or Dictated by W.J. Bankes during his Journeys to and from Petra in 1818 […]," Ancient Arabia: Languages and Cultures, Bankes Papers ; Daniele Salvoldi, "Alessandro Ricci's Travel Account: Story and Content of His Journal Lost and Found," Egitto e Vicino Oriente 32 (2009): 113-120; Deborah Manley and Peta Ree, "Encounters on the Nile: Tourists, Artists, Scholars, Explorers, a Missionary and an Obelisk," in Sitting beside Lepsius: Studies in Honour of Jaromir Malek at the Griffith Institute, ed. Janine Bourriau (Leuven: Peeters, 2009): 327-342; Maria Cristina Guidotti, "Alessandro Ricci nel Museo Egizio di Firenze: la collezione e i disegni," in L'Egitto in Età Ramesside: atti del Convegno Chianciano Terme 17-18 dicembre 2009, ed. Daniela Picchi (Milano: Silvana Editoriale, 2011); Daniele Salvoldi, Catalogue of William John Bankes (1786-1855): Egyptian Drawings, Bankes of Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle (D-BKL, 1348-1925); Maps, Plans and Drawings (Dorchester: Dorset History Centre, 2011), Dorset Archives URL (search "Bankes of Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle"). It might be useful to add here a couple of titles that Seyler could not see before the publication of her book: Stephanie Hardekopf, "Is the 'Bankes Tomb' Really Lost?," Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Abteilung Kairo 69 (2013): 79-89; Klaas A. Worp, The Bankes Ostraca from a Box at Kingston Lacy: The Greek Texts (Catania: Sicania, 2016).
6.   Sebba, The Exiled Collector, 61.
7.   Alan H. Gardiner and Thomas E. Peet, The Inscriptions of Sinai, 2 vols. (London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1917-1955).
8.   Dorset History Centre, Bankes of Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle (D/BKL, 1348-1925); Maps, Plans and Drawings, Egyptian Drawings, Folder XX.
9.   Letter from J. Hyde to W.J. Bankes, Cairo, 7 October 1819 (HJ 1/103) and letter from L.M.A. Linant de Bellefonds to W.J. Bankes, Cairo, 15 April 1821 (HJ 1/139), both in Dorset History Centre, Bankes of Kingston Lacy and Corfe Castle (D/BKL, 1348-1925), Maps, Plans and Drawings, Egyptian Drawings.
10.   Sebba, The Exiled Collector, 65.
11.   Usick, Adventures in Egypt and Nubia, 195; Sebba, The Exiled Collector, 73.

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