Sphinxes Outside Islington Houses
Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was a national hero when he died in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. He is still a household name as we have Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.
In 1798, Nelson won the Battle of the Nile defeating the French Napoleon. Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt had raised public awareness of Egyptian imagery and Nelson’s victory had made ancient Egyptian motifs fashionable.
Egyptian Revival Architecture
You can find Egyptian Revival Architecture all over London from the more obvious Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment to tombs and mausoleums in cemeteries such as Abney Park and Highgate.
Cleopatra’s Needle is one of a pair with the other in New York. They are both genuine Ancient Egyptian obelisks, but are actually older than Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt as they were already over a thousand years old in her lifetime making this the oldest man-made structure in London. It was given to the British Government in 1820 as a memorial to the victories of Nelson and Abercromby over the French in Egypt but it took until 1877 to arrive in London. Apparently, the two replica sphinxes at its base should be facing away to protect but the Victorians preferred them facing inwards as they thought it looked nicer.
Richmond Avenue, Islington
But why are there sphinxes outside a row of terraced houses in Islington?
Between 1801 and 1841 the population of the parish of Islington grew from c.10,000 to c.56,000. Joseph Kay, who had previously been responsible for town improvements in Greenwich and Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury, became the chief architect and surveyor for the Thornhill estate in Islington. George Thornhill’s estate was around 86 acres and building work began in about 1820. The Thornhill estate land was owned by a family which held land chiefly in Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire and this influenced a number of street names. The land here had previously been used for dairy farming.
The classic white stucco-fronted terraced houses of Islington were clearly influenced by John Nash, the chief architect to the Prince Regent who became King George IV.
Building started on Richmond Avenue in the late 1820s, which was called Richmond Road before 1938, to stimulate the development. Joseph Kay laid out Richmond Avenue in 1829 with giant Ionic pilasters on the end houses and doorways with Greek Doric columns.
It was not until the 1840s that William Dennis built the southern terrace in Richmond Avenue with sphinxes, as fierce as any hunting dog, guarding the steps. On each side of numbers 46 to 72 the entrance steps are flanked by graven sphinxes which have attracted the interest of many photographers. It has been noted most of the noses have broken off over the years but many have been restored (often badly).
The period 1839 to 1841 was one in which Britain was much concerned with Egypt. In 1840 England, Russia, Austria and Prussia undertook to expel the forces of Ibrahim Pasha from Syria. A succession of victories and the capture of Acre induced them to quit Syria. These sphinxes were ‘motifs’ of this period and not directly the influence of Nelson’s Nile victory over 40 years before although most attribute them to be.
More Egypt in London
You can find out about more places in London with Egyptian influence on the UCL Blog, at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and the Egypt in London flickr group is great too.
While I’ve not found an Egyptian-themed London hotel or hotel suite you can enjoy Egyptian cotton bedding in many London hotels.
Laura Porter writes the About.com London Travel site and is also a VisitBritain Super Blogger. She fits in further freelance writing while sustaining an afternoon tea addiction to rival the Queen’s. Laura is @AboutLondon on twitter and @AboutLondon Laura on Facebook. You can find out more about her at about.me/LauraPorter.