On 4 November 1922, deep below the sands of the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, British archaeologist Howard Carter and his excavators found the steps that would lead to the discovery of the over 3,000 year old tomb of Pharoah Tutankhamun, who died aged just 19.
As the exquisite beauty and richness of the more than 5,000 grave goods were revealed, the world was mesmerised. ‘Egyptomania’ swept the globe.
The discovery inspired Ancient Egyptian-style design, nationally and internationally, in architecture, furnishings, fabrics, fashion, jewellery, hairstyles, art, interior design and popular culture, becoming an integral part of the visual language of Art Deco, a decorative arts style that would dominate until the mid-1930s.
Here we take a look at how this design revolution had a far-reaching legacy throughout the 20th century.
Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb
Ancient Egypt first became fashionable in the late 18th and 19th centuries following the unsuccessful invasion of Egypt in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) who wanted a foothold in the Mediterranean. He took with him many scholars to collect scientific and historical information about Egypt, and it was their work that gave birth to the field of Egyptology.
Travellers too brought back collections of Egyptian antiquities, as well as accounts of the wonders they had seen – pyramid, obelisks, sphinxes and temples – influencing design and architecture, including mausoleums, tombs and furnishings.
Many tombs had been excavated in the Valley of the Kings, including important discoveries by a rich American, Theodore Davis (1838-1915) who, in the early 20th century, found artefacts bearing Tutankhamun’s name but not his tomb.
On the basis of Davis’ work, archaeologist and draughtsman Howard Carter (1874-1939) and his patron, passionate Egyptologist George Herbert, Earl of Carnarvon (1866-1923) – whose family seat was Highclere Castle, Berkshire – believed that they might find Tutankhamun’s tomb. With a team of Egyptian excavators, they began searching.
After six long seasons of fairly fruitless digging, Lord Carnarvon decided to terminate the costly search. Carter fatefully persuaded him to approve one more season, finally finding sixteen steps cut into the rock floor of the Valley, leading downwards to a sealed door.
After stone and rubble had been removed, a second doorway was revealed. Carter prised out some stones and held a candle through the hole. ‘Details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist’ he said ‘…strange animals, statues and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.’ It was the antechamber.
Other chambers beyond contained thousands of artefacts, including exquisite gold statues of Tutankhamun, ornate jewellery, gilded furniture, cosmetics, fans, golden shrines, decorative weaponry, toys, vessels containing wine and perfumed oils, decorated wooden models of boats, bread, fruit and even flowers.
But the third chamber, the burial chamber, was the most astounding…
At the heart of four gilded shrines, one inside the other, ornately decorated with religious scenes and hieroglyphic texts and almost filling the chamber, lay a sarcophagus carved with the images of protective goddesses. Within that were three coffins in human shape, tightly fitting one inside the other. The outermost coffins were carved of wood overlaid with gold, with the middle coffin encrusted with polychromatic glass and semi-precious stones.
In the innermost coffin, made of over 110 kilograms of solid gold, lay the mummified body of Tutankhamun, untouched since the day of burial, his head enveloped in an extraordinary gold portrait mask.
The clearance of the more than 5,300 items from the tomb was long and difficult owing to their sheer number and fragility, taking around ten years.
Once an object had been photographed in situ by the official archaeological photographer, Harry Burton (1879-1940), it was removed from the tomb and taken to a nearby conservation laboratory in the Valley of the Kings for documentation.
Railway tracks were laid from the site and large containers with boxes of artefacts were manually pushed along, before being loaded onto a steam vessel and delivered to the Cairo Museum.
Today, the entire Tutankhamun collection will be displayed at the newly-built Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, due to open in 2022.
To help defray the huge costs of excavation and conservation, Lord Carnarvon signed a deal with The Times, giving it exclusive access to the work, thereby seriously alienating Egypt and the Egyptian press. The newspaper featured many of Harry Burton’s 3,000 dramatically-lit black and white photographs.
The discovery of the tomb coincided with the growing consumerism of the 1920s, as well as with the emergence of mass media – radio, telegraph, film, mass circulation newspapers – quickly spreading the extraordinary story to a global audience. Excitement was heightened by the untimely death of Lord Carnarvon March 1923, just five months after the discovery of the tomb, leading to feverish speculation about the ‘curse of Tutankhamun’
Tutankhamun inspired the world of design and popular culture, from the most expensive jewellery and furniture, to ceramics, games, cigarette cards and posters; from a King Tut brand of Californian lemons produced by the Johnson Fruit Company, to books such as The Kiss of the Pharaoh: The Love Story of Tut-Ankh-Amen, published in 1925; from the then American President, Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), calling one of his dogs King Tut, to songwriter, Harry Von Tilzer, writing a ‘Roaring Twenties’ novelty hit, Old King Tut.
Fashion too came under the Tutankhamun spell:
The discovery inspired clothes and accessories decorated with motifs such as lotus flowers (associated with rebirth and renewal), cobras and vultures (symbols of protection), falcons (linked to the god Horus, embodiment of divine kingship), papyrus (freshness and vigour), solar discs (sacred image of the Sun god Ra), as well as hieroglyphics and Ancient Egyptian religious symbols.
There was a fashion for loosely draped dresses, often with sashes. Bobbed hair and dramatic makeup, including black kohl eye liner, became popular.
Egyptian-influenced architecture in the 1920s and 1930s
In the 1920s, newly developed building techniques and materials offered architects exciting freedoms and design possibilities.
The Art Deco Carreras cigarette factory references the red, blue and green colours of Ancient Egypt, albeit in muted form, as well as many of its motifs and symbols, such as its twelve pillars with their papyrus bud capitals and stylized papyrus stems at the base of their shafts. The company’s name ‘Carreras’ on the frontage is carved in a font loosely reminiscent of hieroglyphics.
Two enormous black bronze cats, 3.6 metres high, guard the entrance. These both reference the Ancient Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet, as well as Carreras’ then best known cigarettes – ‘Black Cat.’
Much of the factory’s Egyptian-style detailing was lost in the early 1960s when the building was converted to offices. Using the 1920s plans and drawings, the new owners’ architects restored most of the original features in the 1990s.
Tutankhamun’s influence, along with interest in the continuing exploration of sites in Ancient Egypt, fed into the Art Deco style of architecture in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly for public and commercial buildings.
The exterior of this cinema – which once had a central clock at the top and the word ‘PYRAMID’ prominently carved beneath – has four columns topped by capitals in the form of palms, and winged solar discs above the two doors flanking the entrance. The interior’s little-altered Egyptian decorative scheme includes lotus flowers and a proscenium arch featuring a vulture, wings outspread. On either side of the organ console was a head of a pharaoh.
This modest market building, one of three in Brixton Village, shows that the fashion for Art Deco Egyptian design following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 was not just confined to large commercial premises.
Its strictly geometric Art Deco façade, made of buff ceramic tiles, uses the bright blue, red, yellow and green Egyptian colour palette in the detailing of the small columns of the first floor window, as well for the decorative tiling above and to either side of the entrance.
Egyptian influenced architecture in the 1980s
Interest in Ancient Egyptian style waned between the inter-war years and the late 20th century, before resurging during the rise of Post-Modernism in architecture in the 1980s – a time of rampant materialism.
The decades-long gap was largely a product of the Second World War (1939-1945), followed by the powerful influence of post-war Modernism, with its emphasis on the functionality of buildings and a repudiation of ornamentation and decoration.
Post-Modernism (PoMo) – broadly characterized by a rejection of the austere design that went before in favour of an irreverent and playful mix of modern and older architectural traditions, often in exaggerated scale – saw architects once again embracing the styling and motifs of Ancient Egypt, as well as elements of the Classical.
The Ancient Egyptian-style design of this DIY and home store was researched by Pollard and his stone carver, Richard Kindersley (1939-), during visits to London’s British Museum and Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, as well as in consultation with Egyptian experts.
The decorative capitals of the columns running along the façade were typical of Ancient Egyptian temples. Two rearing sandstone cobras – traditional symbols of protection of a pharaoh – flanked the entrance as water spouts. A limestone frieze of ten Ancient Egyptian deities decorated the façade overlooking the car park to the left of the entrance.
As the building neared completion, the Sainsbury’s chairman and board got cold feet, claiming the decorative features overwhelmed the Homebase brand. They ordered some columns be pulled down, a large sphinx guarding the entrance be removed, the original brightly-painted columns be painted over with white, and the winged solar disc over the entrance hidden by the Homebase logo.
The building, with its homage to Ancient Egypt, survived for 26 years, before being demolished in 2014 to make way for luxury flats.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
- Egypt in England by Chris Elliott, published by English Heritage.
- Excavating the Archive: Tutankhamun, published by Bodleian Library Publishing/The Griffith Institute.
- The black and white photographic record of the Tutankhamun tomb and artefacts, taken by archaeological photographer Harry Burton, as well as the Tutankhamun archive, are housed in the Griffith Institute, the centre for Egyptology, University of Oxford.