A review by Jaromir Malek, published in Bulletin n° 54 of the Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East:
Bruno Cassiers has produced an interesting, and in several respects pioneering, book which occasionally provides a few challenges for those interested in the history of travel and exploration of Egypt between the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. It is satisfying to be able to state that the time has, at last, arrived when the interest and value of early records of Egypt, such as drawings, watercolours and photographs, are being generally recognized. For some they are primarily works of art in the romantic and occasionally slightly titillating Orientalist tradition while others regard them as an important testimony to the Egypt of their day and a potential source of ‘hard core’ information for Egyptologists, Islamic and Coptic art historians and social anthropologists. Books which make use of such early records are increasing in number and L’Égypte Dessinée is a distingushed addition to the genre. It has not come as a complete surprise: we were alerted to its gestation by the paper which the author gave at the ASTENE biennial conference in Oxford in 2011.
Those who acquire this substantial volume of 319 pages get value for their money. There is a good-size image, often in colour, on almost every 24.5 by 27 cm page, accompanied by a succinct text specifically referring to the image. Cassiers is informative without descending into over-specialized discussion. Although organized into chapters, there is no continuous narrative as such except in the ‘Introduction’. The author has tried to use as much as possible the original artwork gleaned from archives and similar institutions rather than reproductions which appeared in contemporary publications. The selection of the drawings clearly aims at originality. Many of the artists are not so well known and quite a few of them are, at least for me, new. Particularly noteworthy are the drawings by those accompanying Napoleon’s expedition, such as François Cécile, Nicolas Jacques Conté and André Dutertre. Howard Carter’s ‘The sailmakers’ bazaar’, dating to 1906, i.e. the period between his resignation from the Antiquities Service following the Saqqara bust-up and the beginning of his association with Lord Carnarvon, is interesting because it shows his skills as an artist. Among the images published for the first time are the views of Kom Ombo, probably by Robert Hay, and of Dabod by Charles Barry, and a panoramic view of Philae, probably by Frederic Catherwood. True to the book’s title, no photographs have been included.
There is an ‘Introduction’ (pp. 9-12), nine chapters which divide the material geographically (pp. 13-275) and a tenth chapter which reproduces some memorable passages from books by early travellers, especially Amelia Edwards (pp. 277-87). The Annexes on pp. 289-317 are particularly valuable. There is a list of sites and monuments with indications of which artists worked there, a chronologically arranged list of 166 artists active in Egypt between 1737 and 1934, a list of sources of the images reproduced, a list of books, starting with de Bruyne’s Voyage au Levant published in 1700, which contain images of Egypt, an index of authors of such publications, and a list showing where the main collections of the original drawings are kept. The book can thus be approached from several different starting points.
Geographical limits of the book are defined by Cairo in the north and Abu Simbel in the south. I must confess that this I find somewhat perplexing: most of the travellers to Egypt arrived by sea in Alexandria and from there then proceeded to Cairo and further south. The absence of Alexandria, with its harbours, obelisks and Pompey’s Pillar, can only be explained by the author’s preferences for images of buildings or by practical difficulties which he faced when making his own sketches. The Delta sites, on the whole, were less attractive for early artists and so, understandably, their complete absence in the book is due to the lack of early coverage. The area between Cairo and Thebes (Chapter 5) has only a limited selection of sites. Surprisingly, there are no images of the Great Sphinx at Giza, mirroring a similar lack of interest by Herodotus some 2,500 years earlier. Chapter 8 (‘Between Thebes and Aswan’) includes the only Coptic monument, the monastery of Apa Simeon at Aswan.
Almost all illustrations in the book are accompanied by Cassiers’s own drawings, over a hundred of them, made between 1991 and 2009. These show the monuments in their present state and make the book special. The buildings on Cassiers’s sketches are, of course, ‘cleaned up’, without the blemishes and minor injuries brought about by the passing of time, but a picture often says more than a thousand words and makes the comparison between old and contemporary easier. The idea is not new but, as far as I know, this is the first substantial attempt at comparing old records with the current state of monuments. There are also very useful and beautifully clear maps and plans, for example of Cairo, Karnak, Luxor, the Theban West Bank and Nubia.
One thing which attracts one’s attention immediately is the unusually large number of illustrations of Islamic monuments: four chapters out of nine, i.e. nearly a half. This probably correctly reflects the attention paid to them by the early artists, at least partly encouraged by the relative ease with which the drawings could be made. In the same way, practicalities were probably decisive when the author was making his own sketches.
Cassiers’s ‘Introduction’ occupies a mere four pages but contains several perceptive observations. One of them concerns the relationship between drawings and photographs and here he introduces a word of caution into the use of drawings as a source of information on the state of monuments. The definition of the artist’s aims behind many of them, given by the French painter Eugène Fromentin as ‘to seek the truth above the exactitude’, should be a warning to many uncritically enthusiastic scholars. To recognize how far an old visual record can be trusted is one of the main difficulties facing an archive researcher. The author also points out the pitfalls of trusting too much engravings or lithographs in contemporary publications: they were often made by engravers or lithographers who had no experience of Egypt.
This is a carefully prepared and attractively produced book. It is a joy to read or just to browse through and one will want to return to it on many occasions in the future.