In the spring of 1834, Robert Hay sailed away from Egypt for the last time. He had spent more than eight years recording the ancient temples and tombs along the Nile, not merely with sketches and brief descriptions, as earlier travelers had done, but completely, with architectural plans and detailed copies of the murals and inscriptions. It was a vast project, one of the most thorough ever undertaken in Egyptology's early days. A man of some wealth, he had engaged more than half a dozen qualified artists and architects to do the copy work, which he checked closely for accuracy, while he reserved his own talents for the panoramic views. The results were extraordinary.
The Hay expedition's renderings of Theban tomb decorations are among the most delightful—and accurate—anywhere. Hay's own panoramic views provide reliable documentation of the small villages that bordered the Nile almost 200 years ago, and his artists' evocative drawings of Islamic monuments, many of them no longer standing, show them as they looked in the 19th century, not yet hemmed in by the modern buildings of Cairo.
Had Hay's work been published in full it would have, in the words of the eminent scholar Gardner Wilkinson, represented "Egypt itself," and established Hay as one of the foremost scholars studying the land along the Nile. But astonishingly, aside from one book—Illustrations of Cairo, published in 1840–none of Hay's work ever saw the light of day.
On returning to Scotland early in 1835, Hay seems to have lost the impetus he needed to bring his work to public attention. Indecisive, dispirited by an apparently uninterested public, taken aback by misunderstandings with his artists and overwhelmed by the high costs of publication, Hay gradually put his interest in Egypt aside until, finally, it faded entirely.
It could hardly have been the result he had envisioned when he first arrived in Cairo in 1824. Then only 25, Hay had recently inherited the family estate at Linplum, Scotland and, in keeping with family tradition, had decided to set out on the Grand Tour, accompanied by an artist to record the sites he visited. The artist was Joseph Bonomi, a young sculptor of considerable talent who, after some months' studying in Rome, had found himself deep in debt and was quite ready to accept Hay's offer.
After a few weeks touring Italy, Hay and Bonomi arrived in Malta, where Bonomi introduced Hay to his friend Frederick Catherwood. Catherwood had just returned from Egypt, where he had produced a portfolio of drawings of the temples along the Nile. Hay was so inspired by them that he immediately decided that he too must see as much of Egypt as possible.
Soon afterward, Hay and Bonomi set out for Cairo.
In 1824 Egypt was in a considerable state of flux. The country had been a medieval backwater of the Ottoman Empire when Napoleon invaded in 1798, but under the Ottoman pasha Muhammad Ali, who ruled from 1806 to 1848, Egypt had begun to modernize. In his effort to industrialize and develop Egypt's mineral resources, Muhammad Ali actively sought the help of westerners. One who was swept up in this effort was James Burton, a young Englishman from a family of successful architects and builders.
Burton had initially worked with a geological survey to search for coal deposits in the Red Sea Hills, but by the time Hay met him he had drifted away to explore the tombs of the West Bank at Thebes. He was often joined there by the young Gardner Wilkinson, whom Burton had met in Italy before coming to Egypt. Hay had been given letters of introduction to both Burton and Wilkinson, and soon called on Burton.
The meeting seems to have gone well and, with Burton's descriptions of Thebes adding to his enthusiasm, Hay set off with Bonomi for Nubia on Christmas Day 1824. After brief stops at a number of ancient sites, including Beni Hasan, the party reached Abu Simbel on March 18, 1825. It was all Hay and Bonomi could do to even begin to put down what they saw.
From the start Hay insisted on maximal accuracy in his work, and Bonomi, ever ingenious, fashioned a drawing frame for each of them—a device like a large viewfinder, equipped with a sight and a string or wire grid—to help the men draw the temples' interior decorations, then still in brilliant color. The working conditions, however, were less than ideal.
"I am obliged to strip to my drawers and then I am perspiring as much as in a Turkish bath which is no agreeable thing for drawing," Hay wrote in his journal. He made particular note of the difficulty of working with a hard pencil on damp, soft paper.
The exterior work presented less of a problem. Hay drew a fine view of the head of the northernmost of the four great statues of Ramesses ll using a camera lucida, a newly invented device with a prism and lenses that enabled him to view an object simultaneously with the image of it that he was sketching on the drawing paper. "A most correct instrument, but not so great a favorite with me as my eye," wrote Hay, who nevertheless relied on the camera lucida to ensure the accuracy of his work.
In late April Hay and Bonomi left Abu Simbel, stopping to record several Nubian temples before arriving at Kalabsha (Beit al Wali), where Bonomi worked long hours making a number of plaster casts of the reliefs. After another six weeks at Philae they continued north, reaching Thebes in October.
Thebes, like Abu Simbel, was to figure large in Hay's portfolio. During all his stays there, including this first one, he lived in or near the small village of Qurna (Gourna), within easy reach of the Tombs of the Nobles, the Valley of the Kings, the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu, all of which he recorded over many seasons.
As antiquaries, Burton, Wilkinson and Hay had much in common. But they had differences too.
Burton was interested in exploring both the Eastern Desert and the tombs of the West Bank. He made copious notes of everything he found. Wilkinson's primary interests were the hieroglyphs and wall decorations that helped him understand the way the ancients lived, the subject of his first and perhaps most famous book, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837). Like Hay, he made faithful copies of the tomb decorations, but Wilkinson always worked alone and couldn't compete with Hay when it came to the sheer volume of work turned out.
Hay and Wilkinson were great friends, however, and shared a tomb dwelling when they were in the area, then the standard housing for villagers and visitors alike.
And so things went: Burton explored the tombs, Wilkinson studied the hieroglyphs, and Hay and Bonomi recorded the antiquities. But tension was in the air.
From the first, it appears, Bonomi planned to enhance his own reputation by producing drawings and casts for himself, in addition to working for Hay. This plan was contrary to the terms of the contract between them, however, and the misunderstanding—sharpened by Bonomi's belief that Hay was paying him an unusually low salary—led to a series of arguments.
Matters finally came to a head in July 1826 when the frustrated Bonomi told Hay he was leaving. The drama of his announcement was much diminished, only a few days later, by the arrival in Thebes of a young man who would later become one of England's most prominent scholars of Arabic, Edward William Lane.
Hay and Lane had met a few months earlier in Cairo and Lane now agreed to serve as Hay's assistant. It was an arrangement that would benefit both men. Interested in the literature and customs of the country, Lane would be able to visit most of Egypt at Hay's expense. For his part, Hay would gain a surprisingly competent artist: Lane's uncle was the noted painter Thomas Gainsborough, and before arriving in Egypt, Lane had worked as an apprentice to his brother Richard, one of the foremost engravers in England.
Lane worked with Hay at Thebes from July through October, when he returned to Cairo. In January 1827, Hay arrived in Cairo himself, and over the next few months the two men visited the city's Islamic sites, the Pyramids at Giza, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara and the Faiyum. In September they returned to Abu Simbel, taking with them a "plaster man" named Nasciambene, whose primary task was to cast the great head of Ramesses II that Hay had uncovered on his earlier visit—a head so enormous that the cost of casting, shipping and storing it would ultimately cost Hay very dear.
In February 1828, Hay returned to Scotland to clear up pressing legal and estate matters, and also to raise money for further work at Abu Simbel. Though he approached several influential bodies in Britain, Hay failed to find the funding he wanted.
In that time, he also married—not a Scotswoman but a young Greek woman named Kalitza Psaraki, the daughter of the chief magistrate of Crete, whom he had rescued in Egypt. Like many of her compatriots, Kalitza had been captured by the Turks during the Greek war of independence (1821-1829) and transported to Egypt. Alarmed by their plight, Hay ransomed Kalitza and several other young women, and went on to pay for their education at an English school. The marriage to Kalitza—which apparently took place in Malta en route to Scotland—would be a happy one: Hay wrote in September 1829, "I should counsel all travellers never to travel with any other companion than a wife....".
Before returning to Egypt, Hay made a side trip to visit Edward Lane in London. Lane had returned to Britain at about the same time as Hay and gradually took on the role of Hay's "man in London," sending supplies and finding replacement artists as needed. It was a job not without its frustrations.
Although Hay was a well-meaning man, he seems to have been unusually lax about sending specific instructions, particularly about money. One small example of this tendency is reflected in a letter from Lane dated "novr. 9th 1832":
My dear Hay,
Why are you not more explicit in your directions?
Why not say that you want watches at about such a price? By 'a good plain silver watch' some men wd. understand one at 6 or 7 guineas; another might think about 10 or 12 gs. I have got them at 7 gs. each....
The problems were multiplied many times over when it came to engaging artists. Nevertheless, after losing the services of at least one potential assistant thanks to Hay's procrastination, Lane did manage to engage two talented young architects in July of 1829.
After some preparation, Owen Browne Carter and Charles Laver arrived in Egypt early in 1830 and spent their first few months sketching the great monuments of Cairo. Their sketches became the basis of Hay's one and only book.
Hay and Kalitza had arrived in Egypt some time earlier but were content to stay in Cairo until May 1830, when the entire party left for Beni Hasan. Here the group remained for two months copying the extraordinary Middle Kingdom tomb decorations, which had intrigued Hay ever since he saw them on his first trip down the Nile. Another two months were spent at Amarna before the group moved on to Asyut- where they unexpectedly encountered Bonomi. Having finally put his finances in order, Bonomi was on an antiquarian journey of his own in company with two French artists.
Enthusiastic as ever, Bonomi must have presented quite a contrast to Laver and Carter, who were exhausted by the physical demands of working at the sites along the Nile. Hay had little enough to say to Bonomi on this occasion, but a few months later—after both Carter and Laver had announced their decision to leave because of their deteriorating health—Hay offered to reinstate Bonomi at a considerably higher salary than before. Bonomi at first demurred, but, after more persuasion from Hay, he finally agreed to rejoin the group, bringing with him one of his traveling companions, the artist A. Dupuy.
That was in July 1832, some months after Lane had contracted with the architect Francis Arundale to leave his London firm to assist Hay in Egypt. In a letter to Hay, Lane noted that "I have seen his specimens, which are very beautiful. He draws the figures well, as well as picturesque scenery, & topographical plans—& makes very good coloured sketches." He added that, although Arundale "has occasionally had fainting fits,...his general health is very good."
In fact, Arundale was consistently ill. Nevertheless, he produced a large number of beautifully drawn plans of the most prominent temples in both Thebes and Nubia, as well as a series of watercolors depicting local scenes. He was also remarkably cheerful, writing home about the artists' daily processions to the tombs and temples of Thebes, invariably headed by Arundale's dog, Pasha.
In September, Frederick Catherwood, whom Bonomi had introduced to Hay some eight years before, also joined the expedition. Catherwood, now back in Egypt for his second visit, undertook as his principal assignments with Hay to draw plans of Thebes and the Colossi of Memnon, and to excavate the latter, as Bonomi explains in a letter to Hay dated April 13, 1833: "Cath. Has made an excavation under both statues and the vocal one is so undermined that unless you have it filled up before the next inundation the statue could certainly move as well as speak...."
One other person joined the group at this time. George Hoskins was not an artist at all, but an antiquary traveling through Egypt on his way to Ethiopia. He and his artist Luchese Bandoni were excellent draftsmen, but Hoskins's real talent was as a writer. His description of a visit with Hay and Catherwood to the Kharga Oasis makes it clear that working with Hay was not everyone's cup of tea:
I remained a fortnight among these ruins, not only working from the rising of the sun until twilight, but often engaged also at night, in copying the hieroglyphical inscriptions along the dark recesses of the temple.... As the rooms were quite dark, it was the same whether we worked there during the night or the day. The night before we left El Kharga, I was there until three in the morning, and Mr. Hay remained in the place until breakfast.
Bonomi, who by this time seems to have become the expedition's second in command, stayed on at Thebes to continue work there with Arundale and Dupuy.
For the first time, Hay had now assembled enough talent to make real progress, and for the next several months the work went ahead at a lively pace. But as Arundale had noted soon after his arrival, Mr. and Mrs. Hay were already weary of Egypt, Kalitza in particular longing to return home to Crete. It was evident to everyone that things were coming to a close.
In February l833 Hoskins left for Ethiopia and in March Hay set out for Nubia, where he remained until May, turning out 105 drawings in 75 days. At times he was joined by Arundale, who during this period alternated between Thebes and Nubia.
Meanwhile, Bonomi, Catherwood and Dupuy, sometimes helped by Arundale, continued to turn out an enormous quantity of work at Thebes. Unquestionably this was the Hay expedition's most productive period, with copies and sketches of most of the tombs and temples in both Thebes and Nubia accruing by the minute. But the end was in sight.
In May Catherwood set out for Cairo, soon to be joined by Bonomi and Arundale. Together the three artists would journey on to Palestine, with Hay and his wife arriving in Cairo just in time to see them off. As the only assistant still with Hay, Dupuy was assigned to make color renderings of Hay's early copies of Beni Hasan, while Hay went back to Thebes to pack up. Dupuy joined him there in January, and in the spring of 1834, some months after their first child was born, Robert and Kalitza Hay began their rather leisurely journey home. Hay left 200 cases of casts at the pier to be shipped as soon as possible.
Hay's journal entry for March 8, 1834, written just before leaving Egypt, is a rather poignant one. Looking back on his years of work, he wrote sadly "of my coming departure, and all that I must leave unfinished."
Nevertheless, Hay's collection of drawings and casts was enormous, and when he finally arrived in Scotland in 1835 he seems to have known exactly what use he wanted to make of them: He would make a grand panorama of Thebes, working with Frederick Catherwood. He would place his vast collection of plaster casts in the British Museum. And he would do a book, Illustrations of Cairo, the first in a series that would also include architecture and antiquities.
If Hay had been in London, those projects might have moved along as he planned. Instead, he communicated with his artists from Scotland by the same sort of vague and infrequent letters that Lane had found so frustrating. By spring, Catherwood, lacking definite instructions despite his pleas, had veered so widely from the original plan for the panorama that Hay, apparently feeling he was being pushed out of his own project, shelved the whole idea.
The plaster casts presented an even bigger problem. In his letters to Hay, which were every bit as urgent as Catherwood's, Bonomi tells of casting the reproduction of the great head from Abu Simbel which, combining plaster and water, weighed five tons. And the weight was nothing compared to the expense, for Bonomi had had to engage several laborers, and the cost of storage was spiraling upward into enormous figures.
"What will you do with this immence head is the question of every body who sees it and indeed one of some moment as it is time to decide on something," Bonomi wrote on October 2, 1837.
It would indeed have been to Hay's advantage to deal quickly and efficiently with the British Museum, which wanted the heads for its collection, but he dithered over the terms of payment instead, and the more he procrastinated, the less the museum was interested. In the end, after years of expensive storage, the large heads and two of the other casts went to the British Museum with the single stipulation that a present of £100 be given to Bonomi for all the work he had done. Hay received nothing.
The book project followed a similar course. Lane, a disciplined artist and writer, was clearly the man for the job. But Hay wanted to dedicate the book to Lane, so he asked Charles Carter to do the drawings and James Burton, who was even less decisive than Hay, to do the writing. Thanks largely to Lane's prodding, the book was finally published in November 1840, beautifully printed, lavishly bound—and expensive. The public passed it by, and Hay lost almost £2000–the equivalent of £95,000 ($150,000) today.
"I heard from Mr Bourne, who did some of my Plates, that you had not paid your expences, this I can easily understand, for Gentlemen Publishers like Gentlemen Farmers seldom make money by their operations. But what I cannot understand is the great amount of your deficit... as I consider your Book one of the very best that has appeared.
I am the more sorry for this result as it evidently will be a bar to your publishing anything else."
And so it was. Thoroughly annoyed over the huge sums he had lost and uncertain why his efforts had failed so miserably, Hay sank into the life of a country gentleman, his interest in Egypt displaced by the time-consuming management of a large estate. From time to time he would write to the faithful Bonomi how much he missed their days in Egypt and lamenting his own lack of discipline:
"I am very ill indeed, as far as regards Egypt-not a drawing has been out of the case since I arrived!—I often think of Egypt but do nothing concerning it."
At first Wilkinson urged him to continue publishing his work, regardless of the cost. Lane too kept after him, but when Bonomi wrote to tell Hay that his membership in the Syro-Egyptian Society was expiring, Hay explained what had happened to him, and why:
...but there is no great wonder, living as I do in the most unhealthsome atmosphere of the Lammermoor Hills!—my head being now only full of Hunting, Fencing, Draining, etc etc. We are all the creatures of habit: and if we happen to fall into bad company, we are too apt to get out of the good track and follow the bad! That is my case; no Egyptians or Syro-Egyptians live about the Lammermoors, so that my spirit is dried up within me!—and I go the way of all flesh, & do just as others do about me!
Hay was hurt when both Wilkinson and Lane published their own works to great acclaim, and as a result seems to have grown closer to Burton, who, like himself, published only one book, which he was able to complete only with considerable help from Bonomi and which contained no text whatsoever. It was Excerpta Hieroglyphica, with 61 plates, published in Cairo in four parts between 1825 and 1829.
When Burton died in 1862, Hay paid out of his own pocket a large debt that his old friend had owed to Bonomi for some 30 years. Hay was thoughtful of his tenants and involved in his community, and he was much lamented when, nine months after Burton, he died of pneumonia on November 4, 1863.
But Hay's legacy was not what he might have wished. The great head from Abu Simbel, which was far too large to exhibit successfully, was cut up—"not judiciously"—and stored in pieces in the British Museum, along with most of the casts that the Museum had acquired in 1840.
The antiquities Hay had collected while in Egypt fared somewhat better. After his death, the British Museum purchased 529 items from his estate for £1000. The remaining objects in Hay's collection were placed on public display and then sold to a Boston banker and collector whose son later bequeathed them to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where they formed the basis of that museum's Egyptological collection.
The drawings remained for some time in the Hay estate, but eventually went to the British Library (then part of the British Museum), where they are now housed in 49 portfolios.
Until the 1980's, this huge legacy of drawings had been seen only by interested archeologists and Egyptologists. But Hay's work has since appeared in several popular books, and in recent years an altogether different audience is beginning to see Hay's drawings in Qurna.
In 2001 archeologist Caroline Simpson asked Dr. Michelle Brown, curator of manuscripts at the British Library, whether the library could contribute a work by Hay to an exhibition recreating the history of the people of Qurna. The library responded by donating what now serves as the exhibition's centerpiece: full-size reproductions of two of Hay's largest panoramas, each extending over seven folio pages and some three meters (10') in length.
The panoramas open a window on the daily life of 19th-century Qurna, showing the tomb dwellings of the Qurnawi people, the Theban hills, ruins of tombs and temples, and the villagers going about their daily tasks. They are not finished drawings—they were to have been completed after Hay's return to Scotland-but even in their rough state, they evoke the very essence of life in a small Egyptian village some 170 years ago. In their wealth of detail, their accurate portrayal of the buildings of the time and especially in their lively depiction of the villagers, Hay's drawings are, as Gardner Wilkinson observed so long ago, the closest thing there was to "Egypt itself."
Jane Waldron Grutz, a former staff writer for Saudi Aramco, is now based in Houston and London, but spends much of her time working on archeological digs in the Middle East. She wishes to express her gratitude to Selwyn Tillet, whose 1984 biography of Robert Hay, Egypt Itself, is the source of many of the quotations that appear in this article.