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Victorian Egyptian c. 1840—c. 1890
|The shadowy but awesome image of ancient Egypt
has haunted Western civilisation for the last two thousand years. The
pyramid form was used in imperial Rome for funerary monuments; the Emperor
Hadrian collected and displayed Egyptiana at his villa at Tivoli; ancient
obelisks were re-erected at many civic focal points in Rome during the
seventeenth century, one of them in the very centre of Bernini’s huge
forecourt to St Peter’s Cathedral; Piranesi designed ‘Egyptian’ fireplaces
and chimney-pieces in the eighteenth century.
A decorative, Rococo use of Egyptian motifs was well estabished in Europe by the end of the eighteenth century, but the archaeological basis for an Egyptian revival came from one of the lasting achievements of Napoleon Bonaparte’s few short years in Egypt between 1798 and 1802—the staggering, twenty-one-volume Description d’Egypte.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Egyptian Revival was observable as a minor, ‘alternative’ idiom in Britain, France, Italy and Germany. The style made a strong showing in the United States, where one of its major monuments was John Haviland’s lowering, ponderous New York Halls ofJustice and House of Detention (succinctly dubbed ‘The Tombs’). One should not forget, either, that on the main axis of the Mall in Washington, DC, rises the colossal nineteenth- century obelisk of the Washington Monument.
Several ‘Egyptian’ synagogues were build in the United States in the early 1840s, and at about the same time three synagogues using the style appeared in Australia—in Hobart [fl], Launceston  and Sydney  (the Sydney synagogue being demolished in about 1918). An attempt was being made, it seemed, to establish a Jewish synagogue style, and ‘Egyptian’ was a reminder that in ancient times the Children of Israel had learned architecture the hard way as they toiled in captivity to build for the Pharaoh.
The rules of the Egyptian style were not difficult to learn. A generally weighty feeling was obligatory, with large areas of blank, solid wall. Where possible, walls were to be built with a ‘batter’, or slope inwards towards their tops, and window openings were to have a similar, upward-tapering shape. Crowning the wall, a large concave (cavetto) cornice was required. The principal entrance was to be flanked by a pair of massive Egyptian columns displaying either the lotus or the papyrus on their capitals.
When a monument rather than a building was required, the needle-like Egyptian obelisk had three great virtues: it was a familiar shape, it made a prominent landmark, and it needed very little space. Beside Sydney’s Hyde Park, a lofty obelisk both commemorates a lord mayor and serves as a sewerage vent
Obelisk, Captain Cook’s landing place, Kurnell, NSW. Architect unknown, 1870. A interpretation, in sandstone ashlar, of an ancient monolithic obelisk.
The Synagogue, St John Street, Launceston, Tas. Architect unknown, i8. The Egyptian temple form expressed in brickwork.
"A Pictorial Guide to Identifying Austrlian Architecture; Styles and Terms from 1788 to the Present"
RICHARD APPERLY, ROBERT IRVING, PETER REYNOLDS. PHOTOGRAPHS BY SOLOMON MITCHELL.
Angus & Robertson Sydney 1995 ISBN 0207 18562 X
Copyright © 1989 by Richard Apperly, Robert Irving and Peter Reynolds.