[Egypt], 1824. Watercolor, pencil, and ink on wove paper. 16 x 21¾ inches sheet size. Signed lower right: “F. Catherwood 1824.”
An extremely important drawing from life of this Egyptian monument. To our knowledge the largest Catherwood drawing offered for sale in recent decades.
An incomparable Egypt-interest piece, being one of the first drawings from life of the Great Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. Catherwood executed it just seven years after the Abu Simbel complex had been uncovered by Giovanni Battista Belzoni in 1817. This drawing and its companion piece were taken while he participated in a ground-breaking survey of the monuments of the Nile, decades before they would be made world famous by the likes of David Roberts and Francis Frith. Catherwood’s Egyptian drawings were never published and themselves stand as almost-forgotten relics of the earliest English Egyptology.
This drawing occupies an important place in Catherwood’s oeuvre; it is among the earliest extant ruin drawings by him, and it is substantially larger than almost all of his other drawings we have located. Indeed the drawing’s architectural form, drama, and size surpass those of even his best Mayan drawings that have come to market in recent decades.
Today Frederick Catherwood is revered as the foremost 19th century artist of the architectural relics of Mayan civilization, and along with John Lloyd Stephens, as their rediscoverer. However, this drawing and its companion establish his role as a principal artist and rediscoverer of Ancient Egyptian architecture as well. The genesis of Catherwood’s first journey to Egypt and generally of his love affair with ancient monuments lies in his early years studying Giambattista Piranesi at the Royal Academy with Sir John Soane. There he became acquainted with the master’s work and began on a trajectory that would eventually have Aldous Huxley say of him: "Catherwood belongs to a species, the artist-archaeologist, which is all but extinct. Piranesi was the most celebrated specimen and Catherwood his not unworthy successor."
After concluding his studies in England, Catherwood travelled to Rome in 1821. He established himself there, becoming enmeshed in the aristocratic British expat community. By early 1824, he and two other English denizens of Rome, Joseph Scoles and Henry Parke, had made their way to Egypt to undertake an expedition down the Nile. Catherwood and his companions faced real danger on their journey. Although a few other expeditions had made it as far south as Abu Simbel – namely Burckhardt’s, Salt’s, and Belzoni’s – it was still hostile Nubian territory. Despite their precarious position, the party took time sketching and mapping along the way. This constituted perhaps the first assessment of Egyptian monuments undertaken by professional English architects. Drawings from this, Catherwood’s first Egyptian expedition, are extremely rare; far rarer than his still very scarce Mayan series and second Egyptian series.
After returning to Alexandria from Abu Simbel, Catherwood and his partners met the budding Egyptologist Robert Hay. According to Peter Koch (page 32): “It was Catherwood’s exquisite drawings of Egyptian ruins that piqued the young lord’s fervor for antiquities.” From Alexandria, Catherwood travelled to Athens, which was then in the midst of a long-running multifaceted war, and from there to Rome and eventually London, which he reached in January of 1826. Catherwood intended to put his youthful peregrinations behind him and set up as a practicing architect. This proved more difficult than anticipated, and in the following years he was sometimes required to sell Egyptian drawings to supplement his meager earnings.
Edward Lear did this similar - but smaller - watercolor from the same perspective 40 years after Catherwood's.
Condition: Several edge tears and one through the center, very expertly repaired on verso. Backed with extremely thin archival tissue.