My blog went up at the crack of dawn last week (well, before 10 AM is dawn to me) because we were driving down to NYC for the day, so that I could see Napoleon on the Nile: Soldiers, Artists, and the Rediscovery of Egypt, at the Dahesh Museum http://www.daheshmuseum.org/
I had never heard of this museum before reading a review of the exhibition in the New Yorker. It is a very interesting place, and I highly recommend it to those interested in academic art of the 19th and early 20th century. Anyone interested in a little more insight into some of the historical background of Mr. Impossible would probably enjoy it, too. If you can’t get there, please do visit the website, which includes a podcast, a short video tour, and pictures.
Museums–and not only living history museums like Old Sturbridge Village–are important research tools for me. For those of us without quick access to the British Museum, the collections and exhibitions within driving distance are research oases.
At certain nearby museums are Regency-era portraits, for instance, that I revisit as one would visit old friends. Susan/Miranda can tell us far more about these portraits than I ever could–her comments on the portrait of Sarah Churchill used on the cover of Duchess enhanced my understanding of the work tenfold. But even without really understanding them properly, I get a great deal out of viewing them. For one thing, a painting in a museum is the real McCoy, not a small reproduction in a book. One of the portraits I visit repeatedly is of a couple, and the painting is enormous, the subjects about life size. A picture is a whole different experience when you see it full size, when you can see the texture of the paint. And in some mysterious way, one seems to absorb a sense of the time in which it was painted.
The same holds for engravings, I discovered.
The bulk of the Dahesh exhibition includes engravings from the Description de L’Egypte. This massive work–published between 1809 and 1829 and comprising in its first edition, according to my catalog of the exhibition, “ten volumes of explanatory text and thirteen volumes of engraved folio plates”–was the work of an army of artists and scholars Napoleon took with him on his Egyptian campaign. The military campaign (1798-1801) ended in failure. The Description de L’Egypte, however, is a world wonder, an extraordinary scholarly achievement. It’s mentioned several times in Mr. Impossible because, if not for it, Daphne would not be in Egypt because she would never have discovered hieroglyphs. Not only is the Description considered the foundation of Egyptology but it gave rise to the burst of interest and travel (and many other things, good and ill) of the early 19th C often referred to as the “rediscovery” of Egypt.
I have a small reproduction volume of the collection of engraved plates as well as some larger reproductions in various works I consulted while writing Mr. Impossible. I have seen scholars on TV opening its pages, so I had an idea of the size. But nothing prepared me for the engravings themselves.
The works are big, averaging about two feet by a foot and a half in size. Some are larger, some smaller. The detail is simply astounding. And it is its details that make the Description invaluable to Egyptologists. In some cases, these engravings provide our only accurate record of monuments now lost. In other cases, they provide a clean, sharp, and reliable record of hieroglyphs and images that over time–and with abuse of various kinds–have been marred, dulled, or destroyed.
Among other stunning accomplishments was a replica of a papyrus: They copied down every last image and hieroglyph exactly–not that the papyrus was the only example of this. Wherever they found hieroglyphs–basically everywhere, and at the time, completely indecipherable–they copied them…each and every one. This strict attention to detail was priceless later, when scholars finally were able to decipher hieroglyphic writing.
However, I am not an Egyptologist and I can’t read hieroglyphs and my story wasn’t about ancient Egypt but about early 19th C Egypt, and here, again, the Description was indispensable because, in addition to meticulously recording monuments (as well as imagining, based on what remained, what these might have looked like in their prime), it records the “modern” Egypt of about 1800. Since that Egypt had not changed much as of 1821, when my story takes place, the Description offered the equivalent of photographs of the people and places my char
acters might have seen.
The Description engravings were not the only interesting objects in the show. Among other eye-openers for me were some 1830s reprints of James Gillray caricature prints from 1799. Once again, size matters. All my late 18th C and early 19th C caricature prints are little reproductions in books. The real prints (and reprints) have a completely different impact–and the wit comes through more clearly, I found–when one can see every detail and read easily the bubbles over the characters’ heads as well as the lengthy titles of the works. Seeing these prints life-size gave me a stronger sense than ever of their impact on the public–and why a character like my Lord Rathbourne of Lord Perfect would not want to see himself featured in such prints. These are not like the small political cartoons one sees in the newspapers. Imagine yourself pilloried on a colored engraving 10 inches by 14 inches prominently displayed in a shop window on a London street where your family, friends, and enemies might see it as they stroll by.
I imagine such things as I write my stories, and it helps me understand my characters and the world they live in. My world includes photography, film, video and the instant gratification of the internet–to see pix of illustrations from the Description de l’Egypte, all one need to do is look it up in Google Images. The bulk of my research is via books but always I crave visual images. For those of us writing in the pre-photography era, the art of the time is our window into the past. And when it comes to art, there truly is nothing like the genuine article.
Still, I’m the writer not the reader, and I know that not everyone finds museums stimulating. Some of you have expressed your opinions about how much history you want in a story. My question is, Do you go looking for more? Do you like to? Is there any fiction or non-fiction you’ve read lately that has compelled you to do some Googling or make a trip to your library or a museum? Do you like museums–and if you do, which do you like best?
Yes, it’s a lot of questions, because I’m nosy. Feel free to dive in anywhere.