Article by Eugene Warmenbol, in collaboration with Luc Delvaux and Jean-Marcel Humbert
Eugène Warmenbol, Brussels, professor at the Université libre de Bruxelles (Centre de Recherches en Archéologie et Patrimoine), firstname.lastname@example.org
Luc Delvaux, Brussels, curator of the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, email@example.com
Jean-Marcel Humbert, Paris, honorary curator of Heritage, firstname.lastname@example.org
From Egypt to the Orient: through pharaonic furniture
The King of Siam’s Egyptomania
The authors have already published several times the synthesis of Egyptomania in Belgium[i]. This time, they choose for the analysis of an exceptional work, a piece of furniture almost certainly manufactured in Egypt, but certainly not in Belgium.
They can bring together a selection of ‘Egyptomaniac’ furniture, as many works were inspired by ancient Egypt, often in the pastiche genre, unrelated to the pharaonic[ii] models, or even ancient models. The ‘Egyptomaniac’ or Neo-Egyptian furniture remains, to this day, very little studied; it’s most of the time indicated with the expression ‘Retour d’Egypte’[iii]. A well-known, often reproduced, magnificent piece of furniture is the with silver raised mahogany medallion made in the workshop of Jacob-Desmalter for Dominique Vivant Denon between 1809 and 1819[iv] (fig. 1); another, also often reproduced, is the library designed for the storage of the ‘Description de l’Egypte’ (‘Description of Egypt’) by Edme-François Jomard and realized by Charles Morel between 1813 and 1836[v] (fig. 2).
Egyptianized show/bookcase (E.W.)
The ‘Egyptianized’ show or book case that we will be studying, nowadays in the gallery Victor Werner in Antwerp[vi] (fig. 3), is exceptional in many respects. It includes not only the mention of the cabinetmaker or the workshop, but also the date of manufacture and even the name of the person who ordered the show/book case, a crowned head.
All this information is supplied in Egyptian hieroglyphics, whose transliteration has proved to be decisive for the study of this piece of furniture, stylistically close enough to the "Napoleon III" style, and so far systematically dated from this period. It dates, in fact, as we shall see, from the year of the cession of the Congo to Belgium by Leopold II: 1907. It was, however, conceived long before that date (see fig. 21).
The show/book case is 226 cm high, 176 cm wide and 66 cm deep. It is made of ebonised and lacquered fruit wood, gilded at some places, with gilded bronze ornaments, and ivory (partly colored) and wooden inlays (fig. 4). The back is red lacquered, in a very ‘Far Eastern’ style.
The central part has two glass doors, of which the joint is hidden by a torus; the two lock plates taking the form of a serpent erected on a lotus flower. The base is supported by five feet imitating lotus-shaped capitals, each wearing a protome of a winged ibis. The feet are resting on stretchers which are shaped like those of the pharaonic sledges. The summit affects the shape of a concave cornice, ornated in its middle with a gilded vulture with spread wings and gilded flowers on his left and right side. Two columns emerging from a quadrangular base adorned with hieroglyphs and ending in a capital formed by four faces of the goddess Hathor sistrophor, are framing the central body, without really supporting anything. On the column appear - in symmetry - in the lower section, the representation of a Hathor sistrophor, and in the next segment the image of a goddess with a crown of feathers (fig. 5), as well as serpents wrapped around the column in the last segment. A second roof overhangs the whole, separated from the first by eight figures of falcons, also affecting the shape of a concave cornice. It is decorated this time by the winged solar disk, the top shows erected serpents forming a continuous frieze that closes the composition.
The sides each have, in the lower part, an extension. The front shows a column of hieroglyphics, the side within a frame of white and ebonised ivory and wood, a head in profile executed in gilded metal and gilded drawings of lotus flowers and a vulture with the eternity sign, while a sculpture of a sphinx rests on the top (fig. 6). The lateral decoration on the upper half, also has – within a frame of white and ebonised ivory and wood - a head in profile in gilded metal, again appearing to emerge from a floral gilded composition, while a gilded vulture embraces the sign of eternity flies above the head.
This piece of furniture is absolutely a master piece in its genre, particularly flourishing at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century.
It was acquired in Bangkok (!) by the Italian colleague from whom Victor Werner bought it. This will seem not so unusual at the end of our study.
The source (E.W.)
The cabinetmaker, who was not an Egyptologist, used common literature as a source of inspiration, identifiable in terms of images, but not in texts. The general shape of this piece of furniture is undoubtedly directly inspired by the 53rd plate of the ‘Architecture’ part of the Atlas de l’Art égyptien (Atlas of Egyptian Art) by Emile Prisse d'Avennes, published plate by plate from 1858 to 1878. The drawing reproduces the niche of the mammisi (The House of Births) next to the temple of Dendera, which dates from the Greco-Roman period[vii] (fig. 7).
That the cabinetmaker has absolutely used this source is confirmed by the identification of the heads in profile that adorn the sides of the cabinet. The left side, at the bottom, shows the head of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III, copied by Emile Prisse d'Avennes in the Theban tomb of Khaemhat, illustrated by him on the 38th plate of the ‘Sculpture’ part of his Atlas (fig. 8). On the left, at the top, we see the profile of queen Tiyi (fig. 9), the wife of the former, represented in the same tomb, but also on the same plate of his Atlas. And we find Emile Prisse d'Avennes and the same plate of the Atlas on the right, since below and above we see the profile of king Taharqa as the god Amon (which explains the ram's horns), as represented on the colonnade which he had erected at Karnak (fig. 6). The head at the top, like the two heads on the left, is made of metal, the one at the bottom, on the other hand, is made of wood and a copy of the head above. There is hardly any doubt that it replaces the head of Taousert, queen of the 19th dynasty, and model for Taousert in the Roman de la Momie (The Mummy Novel) by Theophile Gautier, copied in her tomb in the Valley of the Kings, a queen who completes the quartet assembled on the plate in Prisse d'Avennes, as it probably completed, originally, the quartet on the cabinet.
The two volumes of the l’Atlas de l’Art égyptien (Atlas of Egyptian Art), richly illustrated with lithographs in bright colors, had unprecedented success among artists and decorators, without a doubt because they were financially accessible otherwise than the volumes of the Description de l’Egypte (Description of Egypt) published under the aegis of Edme-François Jomard, or the Denkmäler aus Ägypten und Äthiopien (Monuments from Egypt and Ethiopia), published under the direction of Richard Lepsius. We find them used, among others, by the painter-decorator Henri Verbuecken on the occasion of his restoration in 1901 of the Pavilion of the Elephants of the Zoological Garden of Antwerp, pavilion that looks like an Egyptian temple[viii] ...
The date (E.W.)
The date of manufacture is an essential element to our study. It can be read without difficulty in the bottom of the ‘large’ inscription on the left: ’1907’, with a sign for the thousand, nine for the hundreds, and seven for the units (fig. 10).
The author and the place of manufactury (J.-M. H. & E.W.)
It is the signature of the cabinetmaker who opens the ‘large’ inscription on the left (fig. 10). It is Giuseppe Parvis, who signs his work under the name of ‘Joseph’ Parvis[ix], whose family name we took, during a preliminary study, for the name of the city of ... Beirut[x]. It is also followed by signs O 49 and X 1 (from the Gardiner list), which normally ‘determine’ a city name[xi]. This group is followed by a combination of the G 17 and the M1 which must refer to, in one way or another that we have not seized, to the city or one of the cities where Giuseppe Parvis was active.
Giuseppe Parvis[xii] was Italian, born in Bremen (Lombardy), not far from Alessandria and Turin, in 1831, and died in Cairo or Turin (where his tomb is) in 1909[xiii]. He is said to have been "one of the brightest pupils of the Accademia Albertina di Belle Arti in Turin (Piedmont)". He arrived in Cairo in 1859, and he created very early, at the beginning of the 1860s, furniture with an Arabic and Greek-Roman looking design, often made from ancient elements. Above all, he had the genius of commerce, and created in Cairo a kind of bazaar/department store where Egyptian-style furniture mingled with ancient Greek-Roman and Arab-Islamic furniture, which had to be made in Egypt, Lebanon[xiv] or other nearby countries, which explains that their character sometimes lacked precision (Parvis stopped bringing over the bronzes from France).
He is, among others, the author of the furniture, clearly from the same ‘series’ as ours, from the Schloss Schneeberg (Grad Sneznik) Egyptian drawing-room, dated 1906, carrying inscriptions that can be read as Pirwis' or 'Paruis' ("deren Zeichen als ‘Pirwis' oder 'Paruis' gelesen werden können"[xv]).
A piece of furniture similar to ours, with the same metallic adornments (winged ibis heads, heads of Hathor sistrophor) and undoubtedly created by Giuseppe Parvis, was on sale at Philippe Farley's in New York in 1991 (fig. 11). He attributed it, erroneously but significantly, to "Charles Morel, ca. 1840" (see above). The inscriptions at the base of four columns supporting the roof of this cupboard contain no hieroglyphic texts, but decorative motifs, ‘crowned’ by an erected serpent, ‘emerging’ from a lotus flower (see the pattern of the lock plates of the cabinet under study)[xvi]. A desk of the same series, with always the same types of adornments, but apparently made - at least partly - with other molds, was on sale at Olivier d'Ythurbide & Associé in Saint-Ouen in 2014 (fig. 12). The few hieroglyphs on the furniture and, even more strikingly, in the scenes, are purely decorative. The two desk units are indeed decorated with pharaonic scenes, like that of a Ramesses shooting his arrow from his chariot, scenes from which we have not been able to trace the source[xvii]. Overall, the quality of the finish is inferior to the finish of the two previous pieces of furniture (fig. 13). Another piece (a console), still unsigned, but attributable to the same workshop, is not a work in lacquered, enamelled wood and gold, like the previous ones, but in mahogany inlaid with ivory and ebony. The metallic adornments which reproduce the heads of the Hathor sistrophor used at Dendera as a column capital do not leave any doubt that they were made at the Parvis’ workshop (fig. 14).
The identification of the cabinetmaker, almost at the time of the printing of this article, will undoubtedly lead to the realisation of a real catalog of his work.
The client (L.D. & E.W.)
The name of the client occupies the ‘large’ inscription on the right (fig. 5).
We first[xviii] thought that it was a certain ‘Parmentier’, whom we identified, according to the following, to Henri Parmentier (1871-1949). An architect by training, he came to Indochina in November 1900, as a pensionary of the Ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient (EFEO), which was just been created. He became the head of the EFEO Archaeological Service in 1904 and organized in that same year a mission to Angkor, with H. Dufour and Ch. Carpeaux[xix]. Angkor will remain the principal goal of this man who will make of Indochina his second homeland. The other signs in the cartouche, on the other hand, reveal the name, or rather the title, ‘Maha Chulalongkorn’, carried, among others, by King Rama V of Siam, who reigned from 1868 until his death in 1910.
However, it was difficult for us to understand why Henri Parmentier would have liked to associate his name with the name of a king of Siam, especially since France and the Siam of Rama V were at war in 1893, which led to the surrender of Laos to France. We were aware, however, of the cession by Rama V in (March) 1907 of the Battambang and Angkor provinces of Cambodia, at that time it was still French Indochina, an act that made him welcomed with open arms by France that same year. (see below).
The name ‘Parmentier’ seamed to appear, without good reason, in the inscription which includes the name of ‘Maha Chulalongkorn’. The solution lies in the complete titulation of King Rama V: Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poraminthra Maha Chulalonglorn Phra Chunla Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua (fig. 15). It should have been read ‘Poraminthra’ and not ‘Parmentier’! This new way of reading was the starting point of this article.
Outside the inscription, the name of the king is followed by the hieroglyphic sign (the sign A9 of Gardiner's list), representing a crouched character with a basket on the head, which may designate the architect, in this case the architect of his own nation, of which the name follows: ‘Siam’, Thailand today (see also below).
The ‘small’ inscriptions (J.-M. H. & E.W.)
The two ‘small’ inscriptions are likely to be read one after the other, the one on the right first (fig. 10) and then the left one (fig. 5). The first sign (the eye D4 in Gardiner's list) apparently tells us, in this inscription, that it involves the furniture manufacture (see the second and third signs, M 17 and N 35, which say – somehow - ‘made by ...’). Next, again, follows the name of Parvis, but the sign D 21 (which reads ‘r’) is missing, for which there is still place, while the Z 7 is replaced by the V 4 (with, presumably , the same value ‘v’) and the S 29 by the O 34 (with, presumably, the same value ‘s’[xx]). The signs on the left are the G 17 and M1 of Gardiner's list, referred to above, this time followed by the signs O 49 and X 1, all together probably referring (see above) to one of the places of activity of the workshop.
As the ‘small’ inscriptions clearly follow one another, the right before the left, we think that it is probably the same case for the ‘large’ inscriptions, which would then open, nobility obligates, with the name of Chulalongkorn. We propose for the ones the reading ‘Made by Parvis, in the City (of Cairo?)’, for the others ‘Phra Poraminthra Maha Chulalongkorn’, the architect of Siam’ and ‘Joseph (= Giuseppe) Parvis, in the City (of Cairo?) (and) 1907’. The ‘small inscriptions’ are obviously generic, the ‘large’ ones specific.
King Chulalongkorn, or Rama V, thoroughly renovated Thailand[xxi] (fig. 15). He is absolutely regarded as the founder of the modern state; nowadays, he is still, the subject of true worship[xxii]. He was the first sovereign who represented Siam by travelling to Europe. Two voyages - the first and official in 1897, the second and unofficial in 1907 - took him to Europe. On the occasion of this last journey, during which he also visited Germany and Scandinavia, he returned four times to Paris, from June to September. Despite the fact that it was a private trip, we are relatively well informed about his daily life, due to an ongoing correspondence with his daughter, Princess Niphanoppadon, published under the title Klain ban[xxiii] (‘Far from his own people’).
We learn that during his trip, he visited the workshop of the French medalist Henri-Auguste Patey, in charge of the execution of medals with the image of Rama V, and that of the brothers Susse Frères, founders of the equestrian statue realized for Bangkok by the French sculptors Georges-Ernest Saulo and Clovis-Edmond Masson[xxiv] (fig.16). He also visited, twice, the Grand Palais, as well as the grand ... department stores. Therefore, it is not surprising, that he returned to Thailand with furniture in his luggage, although the choice of furniture in the Egyptian style may seem – at least - unusual.
A picture of the king of Siam Chulalongkorn made in 1897 that the viceroy Abbas II Hilmi received (in Alexandria ?, in Cairo?) is to be mentioned here (fig. 17). It reveals to us or recalls his obligated passage by the Canal of Suez in order to travell from Asia to Europe, but also probably his passage desired by Cairo or Alexandria, where he undoubtedly also visited the department stores. Amongst these stores of course the one of the inevitable Parvis, who was possibly represented in the European[xxv] department stores as well. We do not exclude that the above mentioned desk, which was also acquired in Thailand[xxvi], formed an ensemble with our cabinet, but it does not seem impossible that it is a local imitation (Siamese, therefore)!
Henri Parmentier leaves Indochina in the beginning of July 1907, for health reasons, and returns in the beginning of January 1908. At that moment, more exactly from May to October 1907, une ‘Exposition coloniale’ (Colonial exhibition) is held at the Bois de Vincennes in Paris, presenting - amongst others - an ‘Indochinese village’, with native ‘actors’, typical for the period[xxvii]. There is no doubt that Henri Parmentier was involved in representing the École Française d’Extrême-Orient, and that he did not return from Saigon just for health reasons. We do not know if king Chulalongkorn visited the ‘Exposition coloniale’, but this sounds very unlikely. We do not know if Henri Parmentier met him, but this seams even more unlikely!
Quite a few private individuals ordered their own library (an erudite reference to the famous library of Alexandria, that’s for sure), or installed an other room with pieces of Egyptianizing furniture, but we actually do not know other examples made for a customer of the Far East, than the one we are actually studying.
It is with pleasure that we make the comparison with the ‘Hindu Palace’ built in 1907-1908 near Cairo for Edouard Empain, the Belgian industrial entrepreneur, completely incongruous under the Egyptian sun, but inspired by the monuments of Khajurâho and Fatehpur Sikri[xxviii] (fig. 18). One could say : ’’From one east to the other East’’ …
Nothing more exotic, above all, to find the name of a king of Siam on this piece of furniture. However, Queen Victoria’s name features in hieroglyphs on the architrave of the Egyptian Court of Crystal Palace, in Sydenham (South-London) in 1854; and the name of king Leopold I of Belgium features on the architrave of the Egyptian temple in the Antwerp Zoo, in 1856[xxix]. Egyptomanie is indeed a universal phenomenon !
The ‘Egyptomaniac’ or Neo-Egyptianizing furniture were for the last (?) time en vogue during the ‘Toutankhamun years’, resulting in the production of a large number[xxx] of ‘pharaonic’ furniture, still in Egypt (Madrasa Craft School). These pieces were sometimes duplicates or very similar copies, but most of them were more free interpretations (fig. 20). Egypt maintained very briefly manufacturing furniture of this high quality level, the time of ‘Pharaonism’[xxxi] during the reign of Fouad I …
Annex: Giuseppe Parvis, a discovery ! (J.-M. H. & E.W.)
Giuseppe Parvis soon became internationally renowned, thanks to the ‘Expositions Universelles’ or ‘Internationales de Paris’ (Parisian Universal or International exhibitions) in 1867, in Philadelphia in 1876, in Milan in 1881 and in Turin in 1884, where a cabinet identical to the one under study was exhibited (fig. 21) [xxxii].
In particular, Parvis was appointed as the supplier of the khedives, and decorated the palaces (and especially the palace of Abdine). He works both in ‘Arab’ and ‘Egyptian’ styles. As a ‘court supplier’, he quickly became a key figure in Cairo (fig. 22). However, he will realise many orders, which are rarely entirely preserved, as is the case for Schloss Schneeberg in Slovenia (Fig. 23).
The cherry on the cake: Giuseppe Parvis, born in 1832, died in 1909 and is buried in the monumental graveyard Cimetero in Turin, in a granite sarcophagus of the Old Kingdom[xxxiii]! (fig. 24). The inscription reveals how much he was appreciated: "Onoro la Patria nella Terra dei Faraoni".
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