William John Bankes, born on 11 December 1786 was the second son of Henry II Bankes and his wife Frances. 

William set off in 1812 on a Grand Tour. Initially he spent time in Spain and Portugal but then travelled on to Alexandria. Egypt captured his imagination and he started to plan a longer trip south, up the Nile. He wrote to his father that he would be travelling “en grand seigneurI have a noble barge with a cabin” and he engaged a gentleman called Giovanni Finati as his guide. Finati greatly assisted William during his time in Egypt and they became close friends on their travels, with the two collaborating on a narrative of their journey that was published in 1830.

William embarked on his first journey up the Nile in September 1815, and travelled through Middle and Upper Egypt, passing the first cataract on the Nile and reaching Nubia. It inspired in William an interest in Egyptian architecture and hieroglyphics: he realised that a breakthrough in understanding this ancient language was a possibility.

After that initial trip, he travelled through eastern Europe but yearned to explore Egypt further. He returned in 1818 where he met Henry Salt, the British Consul General. From October 1818 to the early summer of 1819, William made his second, longer Egyptian expedition leading Henry Salt’s flotilla in a 14-oared Nile boat, otherwise known as a Canja. Salt described William as:

‘a most delightful companion, from his extraordinary powers of memory, and the opportunities he has had for observation’.

William John Bankes

Panoramic view of the River Nile at Wadi Halfa. Watercolour by William Bankes (n.d.)

Reference: D-BKL/H/J/6/12/C/15b  

William had an eye for perspective and architectural detail and recorded his journeys along the Nile through Egypt by way of copious sketches and paintings. On his first journey in 1815, he sketched alone. On his second more ambitious trip in 1818, made in the company of Henry Salt, the party included three talented artists: Henry Beechey, Dr Alessandro Ricci and L.M.A. Linant de Bellefonds (a young French midshipman).

Scene with Neferhotep in front of Horemheb and attendants. Qurna, Theban necropolis. Ink & colour drawing by A.Ricci. 1818

Reference: D-BKL/H/J/6/2/A/6  

During William’s second journey up the Nile, the party visited and recorded numerous tombs and temples that they encountered on the route. According to Finati’s memoir, “The progress up the Nile was very slow because every quarry and every tomb in the ridge of the Mokattam was examined and explored”. These included sites such as the necropolis at Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt, Thebes (now Luxor) and the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt.

Painting showing Nebamun fowling in the marshes on a boat accompanied by wife and daughter. Qurna, tomb of Nebamun (now lost). Painting by L.M.A Linant de Bellefonds.

Reference: D-BKL/H/J/6/2/A/2  

Tomb wall paintings typically contained images of the deceased undertaking everyday activities or performing some great deed or achievement. They also contained pictures of offerings and ritual sacrifices to the gods. The tombs of kings, queens and nobles were typically decorated with murals showing images of deities and people known to the deceased. Transportation to the afterlife was believed to be accomplished via barques (a type of ship), the most important of which carried the dead pharaoh on his journey to becoming a deity. As a result models of these vessels were frequently placed in the tombs of pharaohs.

Watercolour on tracing paper by W.J. Bankes, showing alternative designs for mounting the Philae obelisk.

Reference: D-BKL/H/J/6/21/F/37  

William was fascinated by the sacred island of Philae, which was south of Aswan and upstream of the first cataract. On his first visit to Philae in 1815, William discovered a fallen obelisk that must once have stood at the entrance to the temple.  He engaged Giovanni Belzoni to bring the Philae obelisk to Kingston Lacy in an operation that started inauspiciously when “the monument plunged endlong into the river almost out of sight”. William recorded the hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions on the obelisk and later produced lithographs of its bilingual inscriptions, which were to play a significant part in unravelling the mysteries of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The obelisk itself was transported back to England in the summer of 1821 and the Duke of Wellington laid the foundation stone in 1827. The entire monument was finally completed by 1839.

View of the temples of Abu Simbel, with Bankes' boats and tents Sketch by A.M. Linant de Bellefonds. Jan/Feb 1819

Reference: D-BKL/H/J/6/11/A/106  

In March 1819, Henry Salt amongst others in William’s travelling party fell ill. This unfortunate turn of events, combined with the threat of war in Nubia, forced William to end his expedition. However, William’s adventures in Egypt produced a wonderful collection of approximately 1,800 images, which remain well-preserved within the Bankes Archive and are a highlight of the collection.

Further reading about the Egyptian explorations of William Bankes:

Anne Sebba

The Exiled Collector

Dorothy Seyler

The Obelisk and the Englishman

Patricia Usick

Adventures in Egypt and Nubia: The Travels of William John Bankes (1786-1855)

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