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ANCIENT EGYPT IN YORKSHIRE & THE FESTIVE SEASON


Detail of one of the Undercliffe sphinxes complete with snow by John Dewhirst @jpdewhirst


This month’s blog looks at some of the most amazing Egyptian-inspired architecture in Yorkshire, and at this very special time of year was inspired by this fabulous photo (above) of one of the sphinxes in Bradford’s Undercliffe Cemetery taken by John Dewhirst.


First encountered back in the late 1980s when we set up our ‘Ancient Egypt in Yorkshire’ project, the Bradford Sphinx and its duplicate mate are all part of a ‘Monumental Yorkshire Journey’ we put together as a travelling exhibition back in 2017, with the first stop Barnsley of course. 



Having planned everything down to the wall colour and border of Egyptian gold stars to the layout of the advertising, all brilliantly turned into reality by Barnsley Museums’ amazing curators Alison and Natalie, the content too had been very carefully chosen.


Very much inspired by the black and white albumen prints of Egypt’s ancient sites within an album once owned by the Spencer Stanhope family of Barnsley’s Cannon Hall, the images had been taken around 1873 by Cairo-based photographer Pascal Sébah and portrayed Egypt’s best known monuments. From the earliest pyramid built for King Djoser at Sakkara c.2650 BC to the Great Pyramid of Khufu at Giza, c.2570 BC and examined first hand by York-born George Sandys way back in 1611, the album also featured Giza’s Great Sphinx. Created from an outcrop of rock around 2550 BC by Khufu’s son Khafra to guard his own Giza pyramid, this 240 foot long figure, combining Khufu’s face and nemes headcloth with the body of a lion, was still partly covered in drifting sand when the photo was taken in the late C.19th.


Pascal Sébah’s 1873 image of the Great Sphinx within the Spencer Stanhope photo Album (courtesy Barnsley Museums and Archives)


So with the support of Barnsley Museums and Archives, we were able to bring together our original research (now being used by others who have published it verbatim without acknowledging us – naughty!), focusing on the sphinxes, pyramids, obelisks and temples built all around Yorkshire over the last 300 years and now part of our regional landscape. 


Built to memorialise specific men, women and children, from industrialists and academics to soldiers and miners, these monuments celebrate military victories, commemorate tragedies, emphasise industrial heritage and enhance grand buildings, and certainly resurrect something of the spirit of ancient Egypt. For they reflect the West’s enduring fascination with monuments long regarded as the ultimate symbols of immortality, celebrating resurrection and eternal life which now seems most appropriate as we reach midwinter, when the sun may be at its most minimal but from this point on will only grow stronger.


Photographers Jen and Lynne with Jo at the Illingworth Mausoleum (thanks to Dr Stephen Buckley for taking the photo!)


So having put together our itinerary of places to photograph, Barnsley Museums commissioned Jen Robertson LRPS and Lynne Fletcher (no relation) of Yorkshire-based Kyte Photography to accompany us on our wintertime journey when the background of trees were at their most minimal yet most striking. The black and white images we wanted would tap into the original C.19th photos while also capturing the gothic atmosphere of Victorian England, when the close association of black as the colour of mourning again fits this idea of eternal life. For black robes were worn by the great mother goddess Isis (see Isis in the Ancient World: from Egyptian myth to Mexican surrealism (immortalegypt.co.uk)), not only as she wept for her deceased partner Osiris but as she then revived him, symbolising the way the black fertile mud on the Nile’s banks brought forth the crops each year in an otherwise desert environment. So with black the ancient Egyptian colour of life and resurrection played out against a golden solar backdrop, the sun’s role as supreme life bringer was our final touch, the subtle addition of gold to small areas of our exhibition photographs evoking the life-bringing powers of Egypt’s most ancient deity. 


One of the Illingworth Sphinxes illustrating the ‘Living North’ article about our Resurrecting Ancient Egypt exhibition


And this can best be seen in Bradford’s Undercliffe Cemetery, 26 acres of gothic landscape in which 23,000 marked graves are topped by a sea of crucifixes, urns and angels, although the Illingworth Mausoleum, complete with its sun disks and sphinxes, outshines them all.


Built as a memorial to Alfred Illingworth (1827-1907) who founded the largest wool spinning mill in Bradford, he was Liberal MP for Knaresborough then Bradford West, his non-conformist beliefs, radical views and opposition to Britain’s political intervention in Egypt preventing him from accepting a place in the Cabinet of Prime Minister William Gladstone. 


Yet these same beliefs and political interests were also reflected in his choice of funerary monument. Based on an ancient Egyptian tomb, with sphinxes admittedly much smaller than the Great Sphinx of Giza, the Illingworth versions are nonetheless modelled on a pair of sphinxes created some 750 years later by pharaoh Amenemhat III c.1800 BC, whose nemes headcloth is replaced by a lion’s shaggy mane. Believed to have been originally set up at the Bubastis temple to the feline fertility goddess Bastet, they were then relocated several times around Egypt’s Delta region when usurped by subsequent pharaohs, their discovery at Tanis in 1863 followed by their removal to an early incarnation of Cairo Museum in Giza where they were often reproduced in early photographs, no doubt inspiring the Bradford duplicates.


Amenemhat III’s sphinxes photographed in the 1890s by Maison Bonfils


And with the sphinxes acting as appropriate guardians to the Bradford tomb’s doorway, surmounted by a winged sun disc set over the family name ‘ILLINGWORTH’, a second even larger sun disc - gilded in our exhibition photos - tops the whole structure. Created mainly from slabs of grey granite and prefabricated in a Scottish quarry before its journey south by rail, sea and canal, the tomb’s rear wall, facing east (or at least south-east), features an additional slab of pale quartzite, we like to imagine intentionally placed there to sparkle in the morning sun to acknowledge the ancient practice of harnessing the solar power associated with resurrection and eternal life. 


Yet such close attention to Egyptian detail ends with the architecture, as both Illingworth and his wife Margaret were cremated, their ashes placed in ornate urns inside the structure more accurately to be termed a columbarium than an actual tomb. These were then sealed behind ornate doors of bronze which were subsequently stolen, to be replaced with a more utilitarian yet more practical metal security door. There was even an attempted theft of the sphinxes themselves, but with the mausoleum now restored and a Grade 2 listed monument, it is cared for by the wonderful Undercliffe Cemetery Charity whose newsletter not only features the Illingworth winged sun disc but their logo is, most appropriately, one of our guardian sphinxes.




The Illingworth Mausoleum is certainly one of the star destinations within our Monumental Yorkshire Journey, appropriately appearing as ‘December’ in a fundraising calendar we helped create for Barnsley Museum and Heritage Trust and featuring Kyte’s evocative images.


Resurrecting Ancient Egypt in Scarborough (courtesy Marie Woods)


Then after leaving Cannon Hall in Barnsley in 2018 after some great visitor numbers Ancient Egypt exhibition pulls in the crowds | Barnsley Museums & Heritage Trust (bmht.org), our travelling exhibition went on to Scarborough to exactly coincide with the Tutankhamun centenary in November 2022, alongside our ‘Tut ‘22’ exhibition back in Barnsley for a Yorkshire-wide Egypt fest. And it really looked the part within the beautiful surroundings of Scarborough Art Gallery, where staff Ela, Tim and Jamie brilliantly recreated our original layout and vision, as seen on the 3D virtual tour here at Immortal Egypt Home | Immortal Egypt

And as we’re already working with our third Yorkshire venue for 2024, the New Year is already shaping up to take a suitably Egyptian form, as we wish everyone a very happy festive season!

Jo at Abu Simbel_edited.jpg

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