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“Up the Nile with Amelia” Clive Barham Carter (EEG Meeting Talk)

On Sunday Clive Barham Carter came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about Amelia Edwards. She was a rather formidable Victorian woman who was the driving force behind the founding of the Egypt Exploration Fund (which became the Egypt Exploration Society). Carter told us about her life, frequently reading from Amelia’s own writings and illustrated by her own watercolour paintings (as far as possible). Amelia was born in the 1830s in Islington, the only child of rather older parents. She described her father as having “indifferent health” and Carter pointed out that this was probably due to her father’s days as a soldier. He’d been a lieutenant in Wellington’s army in the 1812-1815 campaigns which were particularly harsh. Amelia was a multi-talented child – she painted watercolours, she was a musician and she also liked to read. I think Carter said she was educated by tutors, and that her neighbour (a satirical cartoonist) regarded her as having great potential as an artist and so offered to teach her. However her parents didn’t think this was a suitable career for a young lady, and so she became a musician.

When she was 19 she suffered a bout of illness, that coincided with the loss of her position as a church organist and with the break-up of her engagement. I’m not sure whether the illness was cause, effect or coincidental! She then turned to another of her talents in order to make a living. She’d been a published writer since she was 6 years old, but now she made this her main work. She published many short stories in Charles Dickens’s periodicals, including a series of ghost stories (one every Christmas). She also began to write novels, many of which were best-sellers and translated into several languages. In her early 30s she suffered a series of bereavements – first her parents both died very soon after each other, Carter suggested this was in one of the last cholera epidemics in London. After that she moved in with a friend of hers, and her friend’s mother, who lived nearby. But her friend sadly died not long afterwards. Amelia, and her friend’s mother, then moved out of London (feeling it wasn’t a particularly good place to thrive!) to a village that’s now a suburb of Bristol.

Amelia had also enjoyed travelling, and had family in places like Ireland and Paris who she’d visited frequently. In the 1860s and 1870s she began to travel more adventurously – in part to generate material for travelogue books. As a woman of that era couldn’t travel alone she joined forces with a friend, a lady of a similar age to herself who was of independent means (having a wealthy father) and who also wanted to travel. Their first trip was to the Dolomites, where they spent some months walking about visiting the region and Amelia made lots of sketches and several more finished paintings. As an indication of how formidable these two ladies were – they took a maid with them initially, but she went home after a day because it was all too much. When Amelia returned to England she wrote (and provided the illustrations for) a very successful book called “Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys: A Midsummer Ramble in the Dolomites”.

In 1874 Amelia and her friend set off on a another journey – in the book that resulted (“A Thousand Miles Up the Nile”) Amelia says they ended up in Egypt by chance. They were travelling south from Paris, through France and then Italy, and Amelia says it just kept raining and they just kept heading south until they found themselves in Cairo (where it wasn’t raining). This isn’t likely to be true – not only has a recent biographer checked the weather reports for the time period and places in question and seen that it wasn’t raining the whole time, but also Amelia had been interested in Egypt since she was a young child. Once in Cairo, they hired a dahabiyeh (a sort of boat) and sailed up the Nile as far as Abu Simbel and back. Again Amelia painted as she went – both sketches and more ambitious paintings. Carter showed us several of these, which he pointed out compare favourably with other more well known artists of the time who painted Egyptian scenes (like David Roberts). You can see a progression as the journey goes on – her heiroglyphs and reproductions of the scenes on the temples get more accurate. Sadly the versions of her paintings that ended up reproduced in her book aren’t nearly as good – they are prints made by an engraver and a lot of the vibrancy and delicacy of her work is lost.

During this journey Amelia began to get concerned about the state that the Egyptian temples were in, and this is what lead to her formation of the EEF. She also gathered the start of a collection of Egyptian objects, which she continued to add to for the rest of her life. Carter spent a bit of time talking about the relationship (professional & friendship) between Amelia and Flinders Petrie – which presented a rather more human side to Petrie than one normally sees! Despite not being able to be on the board of the EEF (unsuitable for a woman) Amelia continued to work tirelessly to raise funds and raise awareness. This included a lectureship tour of the USA, which she subsequently published as a book.

Amelia died in 1892 after contracting pneumonia. Apparently during one of her last conversations she said “I think I’m better, but don’t tell anyone in case I’m wrong”! She left her papers, collection of Egyptian artifacts and her paintings to be split between Somerville College, Oxford and University College, London. The choice of institutions was significant – both were involved in the education of women, and Amelia had felt later in life that she’d missed out by not being able to study archaeology properly when she was younger. She had also met the Mary Somerville after whom Somerville College was named.

This was a really interesting talk. Clive Barham Carter was a good speaker, who brought his subject to life. And Amelia Edwards sounds like she was formidable, but had a great sense of humour and seems like someone it might’ve been fun to know.