Echoes of the Antique: The Egyptian Revival in American Silver, 1840-1900



Altenburger, Carley C

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American silver design, like most design, does not exist in a vacuum. It is a reflection of the culture and society that creates it. Throughout the nineteenth century there was an explosion of designs that “revived” past styles, such as the rococo, or drew inspiration from foreign cultures, such as the Japonesque. One of the many “revival” styles that came to the fore around mid-century was Egyptian-style design, commonly referred to as Egyptian revival. The rediscovery of Egypt, and the subsequent birth of Egyptology in the mid-nineteenth century, had a far greater impact on American silver design than is generally recognized by current scholarship. The term “Egyptian revival” seems to have its origins in architectural history. In architectural terms, the use of ancient Egyptian design truly was a revival; architects and designers did base “new” designs on extant ancient Egyptian architecture. They did, in fact, revive elements used in ancient architecture. But the same cannot be said for silver. Unlike architecture, there is no ancient precedent in silver form for modern silversmiths and designers to emulate; therefore in the medium of silver, it should more accurately be termed “Egyptian-style,” indicating that the designs have ancient Egyptian origins but were not found in ancient Egyptian silverwork. The concept of the Egyptian-style which appeared in American silver during the nineteenth century was not new; it had existed as a design style in silver, mainly in Europe, since Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt. However, in America the surge in Egyptian-style design at mid-century was unique in that it was more a result of a growing interest in ancient Egypt which would become known as Egyptomania. Nineteenth century Egyptomania grew as a result of a European presence in Egypt, which quickly made it a popular location to visit, as well as study. The midnineteenth century witnessed the emergence of Egyptology as a field of study, which attempted to understand ancient Egyptian art and culture. As works were published by scholars describing the artwork and designs of ancient Egypt, they were picked up by designers and were incorporated into the repertoire that comprised the aesthetic movement. While the Egyptian-style did not become a predominate style in American silver design, it did gain and still retains an important place amongst the myriad of aesthetic movement styles and is frequently seen incorporated into pieces reflecting the design reform movement. The study of Egyptian-style American silver has largely been neglected by scholars. While the study of other forms of eclecticism and revivalism in silver have been discussed extensively, most notably Japonisme and the rococo revival, the Egyptian-style design in silver has been reduced to a footnote in the design history as it pertains to American silver. The most notable discussion of the topic is found in Silver in America 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor by Charles L. Venable, who proposed that the Egyptian “revival” in the decorative arts may have been sparked by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1870, and that American Egyptian “revival” design was based on European examples. This explanation leaves a rich source of understanding unexplored, namely the cultural changes which led to the scientific study of Egypt during the nineteenth century and subsequent cultural/artistic interest in the findings as they were published by scholars. This document discusses the origins of the Egyptian-style designs highlighting the many origins found outside of pattern books of designers, such as Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament; and provides other motivations for the appearance of Egyptian-style design elements in silver. It will provide a greater understanding of the Egyptian-style, its presence in the American silver of the nineteenth century, and its connection with the aesthetic movement through an examination of the growth of interest in Egyptian-style design in nineteenth century American silver. It will provide sources available to American silver designers in the nineteenth century, such as; contemporary literature, the cultural and design environment, and illustration of how the Egyptian-style was manifested in American silver through comparison of existing pieces and design drawings done during the study of ancient artifacts. This thesis will argue that American silver in the Egyptian-style design was influenced not just by the works of contemporary designers such as Owen Jones or Christopher Dresser, and notable events like the opening of the Suez Cannel. It was also heavily influenced by the “opening” of Egypt to the West which resulted in the publications by notable early Egyptologists such as Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, and many others; and an increased popular interest in ethnography by scholars and the public.



Egyptian Revival, Decorative arts, Silver, Design, Egyptomania, Nineteenth century