Patricia Usick, Honorary Archivist, Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum
The archive of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan has recently acquired a fascinating collection of letters from Joseph Bonomi (1796-1878) to his friend and colleague Samuel Sharpe (1799-1881). Both men were important figures in early Egyptology with close connections to the British Museum; their friendship and interests are reflected in this lively, scholarly, and intimate correspondence of 1857-1878.
Bonomi’s contribution to Egyptology and his long and productive career have not been sufficiently appreciated.
Bonomi, artist and sculptor, Egyptologist curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum, and Sharpe, Egyptologist and biblical scholar, first met in 1837 when Sharpe was publishing inscriptions from the British Museum. They developed a close friendship while collaborating on the Egyptian Rooms at the Crystal Palace, and numerous biblical and Egyptian publications, including the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, which the architect and collector John Soane had purchased when the British Museum Trustees, alas, refused it.
Bonomi had joined Robert Hay’s expedition to Egypt as his artist in 1824, producing drawings and helping to make the plaster casts of Egyptian reliefs which are now in the British Museum along with Hay’s collections. Bonomi subsequently spent nine years in Egypt in the company of many of the eminent scholar-travellers of the day. In England, Bonomi illustrated John Gardner Wilkinson’s books on Egypt, made drawings for a Panorama of Egypt, and worked in the British Museum arranging exhibits. He designed the first hieroglyphic font produced in England for Samuel Birch, Keeper of Oriental Antiquities in the British Museum, and even designed an Egyptian temple façade for a flax mill in Leeds. Birch thought that, after Gardner Wilkinson, Bonomi knew more about Egypt than anyone of his time.
The letters touch on many of the Egyptological issues of the day: damage to Egyptian monuments, both natural and the deliberate ancient effacement of the name and image of the god Amun; the embalming of animals; their joint publication of the Soane sarcophagus – and how well their publications were selling; the statue of Khaemwaset (now EA 947), which Sharpe purchased and presented to the British Museum; Schliemann’s discovery of Troy; the provenance of a disputed basalt stone in Bologna and a fragment of a sarcophagus with the Asiatic Society; excavations at the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III in Thebes; the mathematical papyrus ‘in Birch’s room’ (The Rhind Papyrus P. BM 10058); the discovery of the famous Moabite Stone, the oldest Semitic inscription then known; and the Museum’s paintings from the tomb of Nebamun.
Bonomi considered Rev. Lieder’s collection ‘inferior much to Mr. Hay’s’, though worth a visit, and Birch had bought ‘20 pounds worth’. Rev. Rudolph Theophilus Lieder was a German missionary and collector who worked in Cairo for many years under the Church Missionary Society and collected Egyptian antiquities. In 1861 Lord Amherst purchased his collection of 186 items for £200, the inventory of which is in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan archives. A glimpse of what must be Rev Lieder’s son in 1869 is revealing; ‘I found Mr Lieder with eyes denoting neglected ophthalmia hand trembling from much tobacco and perhaps excess in wine. I knew him a little boy in Cairo as I then thought much neglected by his mother’.
Despite tragedy in Bonomi’s private life – his four young children died of whooping cough in one week in 1852 and he was left to bring up his four following children when his wife Jessie, the daughter of the painter John Martin, died in 1859 aged 34 – his output was enormous, and his humorous observations and cheerful disposition bring a seminal figure to life.