Eternal power of pyramid selling: New shops in London testify to the fascination we still have for ancient Egypt, says Jonathan Glancey

Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Cleopatra bedded first Julius Caesar, then Mark Antony, she seduced a civilisation: western Europe has been in the thrall of Egypt, on and off, ever since.

Fascination for all things Egyptian has reached several peaks: in first-century Rome; after the Battle of the Nile (1797: Nelson beat Napoleon); Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, which greatly influenced the Arts Decoratifs exhibition in Paris three years later (the debut of Art Deco design), and when Elizabeth Taylor starred in the Joseph L Mankiewicz film, Cleopatra, in 1963. More recently, the great Tutankhamun exhibition of 1972 boosted interest in Egyptiana.

Egypt itself remains one of the great holiday destinations: camera-whirring Japanese are as fascinated by the Sphinx and as awed by the great pyramids at Giza as were empire-building Romans.

In London, the number of shops specialising in Egyptian artefacts and design has recently grown into a small pyramid. There is one near the British Museum, another near Madame Tussauds, a third in Shepherd's Bush. A fourth and the biggest of all, The Egyptian House, opened a few weeks ago behind Oxford Street, not far from the Egyptian Halls - a Regency leisure centre that once stood on the site of Simpsons in Piccadilly.

The Egyptian House, like its exotic siblings, sells a mix of reproduction Pharaonic artefacts (statues of cats, Isis, hippopotami and Anubis) and contemporary Egyptian crafts (rugs, brass lamps, terracotta pots). The appeal is mixed. The shop purveys glitzy holiday repro to, well, whoever revels in glitzy Egyptian tourist repro; but it also sells small crafted objects - lamps, rugs and gold-plated goblets - that accord with the seductive fad for harem-like home decoration.

Pick your way past the inevitable papyrus scrolls and you will find objects to enliven your home without making it in any way vulgar. Sadly, though, the best object in The Egyptian House is an impressive wooden bed supported by two immense golden and horned gazelles. This is used simply as a window display; but if it was made to sell, it would appeal to those with a strong taste for the exotic.

It was just this sort of design that Carter brought up from Tutankhamun's secret and airtight tomb of and which so inspired Art Deco stylists and Hollywood movie moguls. The discovery of this astonishing tomb also encouraged early mummy films that further stimulated fascination for this haunting, ancient culture.

The tomb contained a lot of furniture: from simple folding chairs to sofas covered in gold leaf and mythical animal heads. These would all sell in reproduction or reinterpreted form today. For, beneath its dazzling surface, Egyptian design has a deep-rooted and universal appeal - its blend of abstract and animal motifs, the glassy stares (as if into infinity) of the figures portrayed in murals and statuary, the soul-stealing depths of its religious rites and monuments.

This combination excited Caesar, Antony and Octavian. Octavian - with Caesar, Pompey and Mark Antony dead - became Augustus and transformed Rome from a republican city of brick and stone into an imperial hub, dripping in marble and gold. Julius Caesar first brought Egypt to Rome in the guise of a gold statue of Cleopatra. Obelisks and other artefacts followed, before Cleopatra herself arrived; she was in Rome on the Ides of March, 44BC, when the great dictator was assassinated. She returned to Egypt, where she seduced, then married Mark Antony, the man she saw as Caesar's successor. The marriage scandalised Rome, led to Antony's loss of citizenship and ultimately to war with Octavian and the defeat of Antony's navy at the battle of Actium in 31BC. Antony fell on his sword rather than surrender and Cleopatra memorably embraced an asp.

Egyptian style, dotted uncertainly across the cultural map of Renaissance Europe, was revived vigorously when Napoleon invaded the country. Egyptian motifs were woven into fashionable French clothes, carved into buildings and turned into Empire-style furniture. Stone sphinxes and pyramids became a feature of country house gardens, city squares and cemetries in France and Britain alike. The Egyptian House (now a Landmark Trust holiday house and National Trust shop) was built in Penzance, and the Egyptian Halls in Piccadilly.

British and French archaeologists and diplomats were offered such ancient objects as Cleopatra's Needle (now on the Embankment in central London) by Egyptian dignitaries throughout the 19th century until the founding of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in the 1860s.

Egyptian style was popular again in the Twenties and Thirties when Tutankhamun emerged from the grave. Art Deco designers - from jewellers to architects - took to asps and Anubises with the ardour of Cleopatra herself. They chose the vegetable-like columns favoured by the Pharaohs' architects to support roofs, adapted Egyptian patterns to decorate walls and produced bracelets, brooches and bangles in the guise of scarab beetles, vultures and baboons. Art Deco became the style for cinemas, offices and factories (the Hoover Factory on Western Avenue, west London, was the finest; it is now a Tesco store).

In the past decade, Leagas Delaney, the advertising agency, built an Egyptian- style office in Shaftesbury Avenue, and the Sainsbury brothers panicked when the DIY store they had commissioned in Kensington began to look too Egyptian.

Now Egyptian shops are springing up across London, reminding us of a European love affair with all things Egyptian that has lasted, to date, something like 200 times longer than the style-setting love of Antony for Cleopatra.

The Egyptian House, 77 Wigmore Street, London W1 (071-935 9839).

Egyptian Touch, 76 Goldhawk Road, London W12 (081-749 8790).

(Photograph omitted)

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here