The cultural and political significance Victorian Britain attached to the region from Cairo to Constantinople is currently being highlighted in an exhibition of early photographs from the Middle East taken by photographer Francis Bedford when he accompanied Edward, then Prince of Wales, on a tour in 1862 that included Egypt, Palestine and the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece.
The journey took four months, at a time when leisure travel to the region was increasing due to the enormous amount of archaeological excavation underway. The many amazing discoveries were fueling the public’s imagination at a time when the Ottoman Empire was disintegrating and Britain needed to secure the land route through to India.
Ancient Greek and Egyptian antiquities that Edward, Prince of Wales purchased on his tour, were brought back home to put on display at Sandringham House, or given away as gifts. For this exhibition they are on display along with the photographic record of the journey that continued to hone his appreciation and inspire his interest in collecting. Without Francis Bedford’s photographs it would have been impossible to identify, which antiquities in the Royal Collection the Prince of Wales acquired on his journey.
The Prince’s interest in collecting had started as a child when his parents, the Queen and her consort Prince Albert, encouraged their children to gather together objects of interest as an important aspect of their education.
It was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who decided in 1861 that their eldest son, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), would benefit from an extended tour of Egypt and the Middle East. It was thought that such a tour would provide the Prince with an amazing opportunity to learn about ancient cultures, history and religions, as well as have a chance to meet many of the rulers and diplomats in the region.
This experience was one they regarded as an essential aspect of his training as heir to the throne of England, which he later claimed as Edward VII (1841-1910).
As was usual at the time, the Prince kept a journal, which he diligently wrote in each day, outlining the many experiences that he enjoyed including his discovery of the antiquities.
On the 15 May 1862, the Prince wrote ‘sailed for Kalavarda, which is still on the coast of the island of Rhodes…to see the excavating of some old Phoenician tombs. Several old vases and lamps etc., were discovered while we [were] there…I had also purchased some antiquities wh[ich] were found near these excavations.’
At the time the items were gathered they were generally viewed as tourist souvenirs, memories of a special journey to be admired by friends and family.
Many however have since proved to be of historic, artistic, social and cultural significance and relevance, which means increasingly academics and archaeologists are studying them as important aspects of the evolving story of humanity.
Exhibition curator Sophie Gordon said, ‘Bedford’s photographs were a revelation to the Victorian public, who really only knew the Middle East through prints, books and The Bible. The photographs were believed to present a truthful, objective view of the region.
The tour was well-documented in the Press at the time, with the British Journal of Photography describing the exhibition as ‘perhaps the most important photographic exhibition that has hitherto been placed before the public, whether we regard it as an aid to history or as a collection in which unity of design has been a ruling principle in the artist’s mind’.
Bringing the antiquities back together for Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East, largely as they appeared 150 years ago, is indeed well done.
Among the objects is an Egyptian papyrus inscribed with the Amduat, a funerary text whose name means ‘what is in the netherworld’. Intended as a guide to the afterlife for the deceased, it describes the journey through the Underworld of Re, the Egyptian sun god.
A painted wooden funerary stela of Nakhtmontu, a priest of the Egyptian god Amon-Re, is displayed in a striking frame commissioned by the Prince on his return to London.
The Prince also had a number of ancient scarabs set into pieces of Egyptian-style gold jewellery, some of which he presented as gifts to his fiancée, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, to mark their marriage in March 1863.
If you would like to read The Prince of Wales’s handwritten Journal of his tour you can do that by clicking here.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013