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By Brush and Lens: Revealing the Sphinx, Occasional Paper

Before the advent of the photographic print, black and white wood cuts, engravings and etchings mainly documented the wonders of Egypt. Many were copied from watercolor sketches made by enthusiastic, early explorers, scholars, and would be Egyptologists. These printing techniques were used until the popularity of photography in the Nineteenth Century lessened their appeal. Early explorers used the brush and later pioneer photographers the lens to excite interest and knowledge about Egypt.

The first part of this paper will present an overview of engraving techniques for illustrations in publications by early explorers. A brief account will be given about how they documented the monuments of the Giza Plateau, and the resultant changes and improvements made in engravings of the site from the early 1600s to the 1800s.

Comparisons can be made between each traveller and differences noted in their interpretations. Sometimes they were under the spell of ancient historians, or personal experiences. Emotional reactions were influenced by religious belief, versus scientific observations and opinions. Not only can we actually see diverse, artistic interpretations on how the great monuments of Egypt were viewed, but also through written impressions. Also these images reveal the condition of the monuments at certain periods, which are useful for comparative study. The efforts of these early explorers reflect stages in the development of early documentation, which contributed to the science of Egyptology.

The second part will bring into focus, a few pioneer photographers and the trailblazing photographic processes that brought a new type of visualization of Egypt in the mid-1800s.

Printing Techniques Emerge

Beginning in the 1400s an event of much importance occurred. Mechanical techniques were introduced and pictorial records were now possible in “duplicate,” exactly, cheaply, and in vast quantities. First was woodcutting, followed by engraving and etching. These creative processes brought a visual knowledge of Egypt to Europe.

The earliest process for multiple copies of images was the wood cut, which had a long popularity. It is a relief process, which later developed into a more refined wood engraving. An image was cut, or engraved, into end wood, then inked, wiped, and pressed to paper. Books contained many illustrations in wood cut and individual prints were also available.


Figure 1. Engraving of a scholar/artist sketching in a tomb, 1798. McClung Museum Collection, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Metal plates were in use in the 1600s, with various tools utilized for engraving. The technique differs from the wood cut in that a metal plate is employed instead of a wood block. Tools such as burins, or gravers, were held and pushed against a copper plate, resting on a moveable padded support, to create an image in line. In the etching process, however, a metal plate is coated with an acid resisting material called the ground, into which an image is engraved with a sharp needle-like tool. In both engraving and etching an inked plate is pressed to paper, expediting the duplication of prints. An engraving press also made larger prints possible.

Another popular printing process to be mentioned was invented just before 1800 called lithography. The basic process involves an ink-coated roller being passed over a stone, which has had an image drawn on it with a greasy crayon. The illustrated stone is wetted and pressed by the roller to paper. The ink adheres to the crayon, but not to the dampened areas on the stone.

In preparation for these printing techniques, early travellers and scholars sketched monuments and scenes as best their talents allowed. One early engraving from the monumental French publication Description d’Égypte (Figure 1.) records a typical scene of documenting the monuments during the early days of exploration. Although the scholar/artist looks relaxed, he had more often than not, exhausting difficulties in accomplishing his tasks under stressful conditions, the hot sun, and a dry, dusty environment of Egypt, not to mention insects such as pesky flies! Nevertheless, a resultant watercolor sketch, or careful drawing, would be skillfully translated by an engraver for duplication. Some artists also used the camera-lucida invented in the Sixteenth Century for more accuracy.

Some Early Explorers

In this summary of how early explorers of the pyramids and Sphinx at the Giza Plateau recorded their experiences, we will start with a few of the more outstanding persons who pioneered the way for those who followed. Each expressed different points of view, artistically and stylistically as well as in their own words.
The first explorer of note is George Sandys (1578-1644), who faced arduous trials in his travels. Steeped in British history as a British antiquarian, in 1610 Sandys decided to travel extensively in the Middle East for a year, which he covered in his 1615 publication. Unlike many of his time, he believed correctly the Great Pyramids were royal tombs, but thought the builders excessively boastful.


Figure 2. Etching of the pyramids and Great Sphinx, probably derived from a sketch made by George Sandys of his entourage, 1610.

This is strikingly evident in his comments, after arriving in Egypt and gazing at the architectural spectacles before his eyes (Figure 2). Seeing the pyramids Sandys (1615, 127) wrote:

“… aloft on a rocky level adjoining to the valley, stands those three Pyramids (the barbarous monuments of prodigality and vain-glory) so universally celebrated. The name is derived from a flame of fire, in regard of their shape: broad below, and sharpe above, like a pointed Diamond. By such the ancient did express the originall of things… uniting all in the supreme head, from whence all excellencies issue.”

He later adds thoughts about the Great Sphinx:

“Not far off from these the colossus doth stand… wrought altogether into the forme of an Aethiopian woman: and adored heretofore by the countrey people as a rurall Deity.”

Sandys’ opinions were slightly misguided, but in keeping with religious views and of his time.


Figure 3. Wood engraving of the Interior of Great Pyramid by John Greaves Demonstrates his Skill and Accuracy, 1638.

The next important explorer of the Giza plateau to consider is John Greaves (1602-1652), a scholar, who was totally fixated by the Great Pyramid and leaned heavily on the ancient authors such as Manetho, Africanus, Herodotus Strabo and Diodorus.. Greaves was an English mathematician, astronomer and Orientalist. In 1638, he went to Egypt to measure the Giza pyramids, a goal he accomplished with great accuracy (Figure 3.). It is believed that in a way Greaves could be called an Egyptologist, a scholar of ancient Egypt before his time. He made the first scientific and systematic study of the monuments of the Giza plateau that had been undertaken.

A puzzlement arose in his mind about a possible connection between the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. Concerning this Greaves (1646, 88–89) said:

“On the East side of this room …there seems to have been a passage leading to some other place. Whither this way the Priests went into the hollow of that huge Sphinx …or into any other private retirement, I cannot determine….”

Greaves, had proposed at this early time, a question that many subsequent scholars and Egyptologists tried to answer.

Another explorer of notice was the well educated British clergyman and antiquarian, Thomas Shaw (1694–1751). A Professor of religion and Principal of St. Edmund Hall at the University of Oxford, he visited the pyramids in July 1721. This resulted in his producing some excellent maps, including one of Egypt and includes the pyramids. It is found in his book Travels, or Observations relating to several parts of Barbary and the Levant.
Although Shaw’s eloquent publication contains no engravings of the pyramids or Sphinx, he writes of his observations. About the Great Sphinx he (1757, 374) observed:

“… the sands were so far raised and accumulated about it, that we could only discover the back of it; upon which, over the rump, there was a square hole, about four feet long, and two broad, so closely filled with sand, that we could not lay it open enough to observe, whether it had been originally contrived for the admission of fresh air; or, like the well in the great pyramid, was intended for a stair-case.”

Apparently it had not occurred to Shaw of a possibility the hole may have been made by treasure seekers, who thought to discover a secret chamber of piled riches inside the body. Long after Shaw, certain intriguing mysteries of the Great Guardian continued. Some scholars believed that when it was cleared in the Nineteenth Century the idea of treasure had been an incentive. Even today many believe the Sphinx has yet to reveal all its secrets.

Not much is known about another Eighteenth Century British explorer Charles Thompson, Esq. (?-1750?). He travelled in Egypt from 1734-1735, and has been included, not for any depictions, but for his vibrant, descriptive imagery. Thompson spent much time and care examining and measuring the interior of the Great Pyramid and the dimensions of the Sphinx. As explorers before him, he embraced the ideas of well known ancient record keepers and refers to them and to the work of “Our learned and ingenious countryman, Mr. Greaves….” (1744, 280). However, his words about the Sphinx (1744, 282) reveal another dimension to his thinking, which sound quite hilarious to us, today:

“Before I leave this place, I must take some Notice of a Colossus, at least the Head of one… It is usually called a Sphinx, which is a fabulous Monster, having the Head and Breasts of a Woman, the Wings of a Bird, the Claws of a Lion, and the Body like a Dog…. They likewise made use of it in their Hieroglyphics to represent a Harlot; intimating the Danger of being captivated by the Charms of a faithless Woman, whom the fond Lover in the End finds as cruel and rapacious as a Lion…”


Figure 4. Engraving of the Great Sphinx and the Second Pyramid by M. Tuscher in 1744 from a drawing by Norden.

The following explorer is well known for his exceptional drawings in his coverage of Egypt. Frederic Lewis Norden (1708-1742) was a Danish naval captain and traveller sent to Egypt in 1738 by King Christian VI to record all he could about that country. Norton stayed for a year, resulting in an outstanding 1792 publication illustrating the antiquities, ruins and natural world of Egypt. It is filled with engravings, which far outdistance the work of earlier explorers. His image of the Great Sphinx (Figure 4.) is a brilliant portrait for its time.

Following in Norton’s footsteps were the savants whose work was published in the famed Description de l’Égypte. The first edition was printed from 1809-1822 in a sumptuous twenty-four volume publication, filled with stunning engravings and explanatory text of what was seen. This enormous corpus had been ordered by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), when he invaded Egypt in 1798. He brought with him some one hundred and sixty-seven of the best scientists, engineers and artists of France with him to document ancient and modern Egypt,. The results of their meticulous and painstaking explorations were a major influence on Europe’s view of Egypt.

Dominique Vivant Denon (1747–1825) was one of the leading players in the French, Scientific Commission of 1798 to document Egypt and all its antiquities. Denon was a talented French antiquarian, artist, and author. He met Napoleon at a fashionable salon and later joined the Commission to explore and sketch monuments in Egypt. His engraving of the Sphinx is well known. The depiction shows men using a ladder to mount and measure the stone monument. One man drops a plumb line, while another man assists his colleague up and out of a hole found in the head. Denon correctly observed (1998, 119-120) that the Sphinx was a: “…colossal lion with a human head, cut-out of the Rock, guarding the necropolis, which represented the pharaoh Chephren ….” He continues with a sensitive description:

“The expression of the head is sweet, pleasing, and tranquil; the character is African; …a fineness of execution truly admirable; it is flesh and life…the art has without a doubt a high degree of perfection.”

Our next explorer, a mariner born in Genoa, Italy, used his seafaring instincts to great advantage. Giovanni Battista Caviglia (1770-1845) arrived in Egypt in late 1816, just when Henry Salt (1780-1827) had assumed the post of Consul-General of Egypt. Among other duties, Salt was the financer of Caviglia’s excavations and also the collector of antiquities for the British Museum. Caviglia, a fellow of boundless energy and creative ingenuity, made important discoveries, including four chambers above the burial chamber of the Great Pyramid, a small temple between the Sphinx’s paws, stelaes of the New Kingdom pharaohs Thutmose IV and Rameses II., and the large, fallen beard of the Sphinx.

Salt had trained as a portrait painter and, in addition to his duties as British Consul-General, his artistic background enabled him to make numerous drawings as records as well as collect antiquities. Salt wrote (Halls, 1834, 43) to a friend:

“I have myself been engaged…in making researches at the Pyramids, in conjunction with a Captain Caviglia, who discovered a new chamber and long passage in the great pyramid, and who laid bare the fore-paws of the Sphinx, in which he found a small temple…. Of these I have made sketches, which …will be soon forwarded to England.”


Figure 5. Lithograph by Sarony & Major Lith. NY, after a drawing by Henry Salt. From Francis L. Hawks, The Monuments of Egypt, Second Edition. New York: Geo. P. Putnam, 1850.

In addition to his professional activities, Salt was able to make a great number, which filled some fifty sketch books. His image of the Sphinx (Figure 5) is remarkable in that it shows the monument after having been partly cleared of sand by Caviglia. Salt was a man of many talents. In 1825, he also publishedEssay on Young’s and M. Champollion’s Phonetic System of Hieroglyphics, with some additional discoveries…, ofwhich “Champollion himself was full of praise” (Manley and Rée, 2001, 228).

David Roberts (1796-1864) was an artist/explorer, who lovingly documented Egypt and produced extraordinary works of visual poetry, which reflect the deep admiration he had for Egyptian monuments. Roberts, a Scotsman of modest background, but brilliant talent, became the first true artist to explore the Middle East. The resultsof his travels of 1838-1839 were published as magnificent, hand-tinted lithographs, based on his on his sketch-book drawings. During his visit to the pyramids and Sphinx, Roberts also revealed (Mancoff, 1999, 43) his deep feelings and excitement: “What sensations run through us at first sight of these stupendous monuments of antiquity.”

Of a differing opinion was the Englishwoman Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), who travelled to Egypt in 1847-1848 and devoted a chapter to the pyramids and Great Sphinx in her well written and instructional book. Of her travels to the Giza plateau Martineau (1868, 63-64) wrote:

“We set out for Geezeh at half-past eight, on fine handsome asses…. Being intent on the Pyramid before me, I had taken the Sphinx for a capriciously-formed rock…. “

She was half-afraid of it (1868, 82) and went on to exclaim: “…this full gaze, and the stony calm of its attitude almost turn one to stone. So life-like—so huge—it is really a fearful spectacle.”

One might imagine how startled a mid-Nineteenth Century woman might feel as she stood beneath such an enormous, stone beast looming above her. This did not deter her, though. She made thoughtful observations, including exacting comments about the painted face, the loss of its nose, and the tablet peeping out of the sand covering its paws from view. She thought the embracing sands impeded an understanding of the strangest object she ever saw.

Our next traveller of mention is Edward William Lane (1801-1876). Lane came from an artistic family, which included his great-uncle Thomas Gainsborough. Lane’s brother was famous for his excellent lithographs. At a young age, Lane had studied the art and technique of engraving under the tutelage of his brother. According to Jason Thompson (Thompson, 2000, xiv), it is no wonder Lane’s sketches and drawings of Egypt were minor works of art in which he strove for the most accuracy. Lane not only became a leading Arabic scholar while in Egypt, but also produced numerous sepia-tone watercolor sketches. These were later translated into woodcuts, engravings, or lithographs. To assist him in the endeavor was the camera-lucida, which he used to great advantage, including a fine drawing of the Sphinx. Lane described the Sphinx (Thompson, 2000, 189) in minute detail and observed:

“Notwithstanding the injuries it has sustained…there is yet observable, in the countenance of the Sphinx, a peculiar sweetness of expression which has excited a high degree of admiration in several travellers; and which is very difficult to portray.”


Figure 6. Wood engraving of the Sphinx and pyramids from Edwards’ pocket sketchbook, prepared by Percival Skelton, then engraved by G. Pearson, 1877.

Although a number of other exceptional explorers recorded the pyramids and Sphinx, we must not omit Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards ( 1831-1892), a British Egyptologist, writer, explorer and artist of considerable merit. Her many books attest to her outstanding writing skills, which also reflect her enthusiasm for the monuments of Egypt and its people. Among her accomplishments is the founding of the Egypt Exploration Society and the Department of Egyptology at University College London. Her book A Thousand Miles up the Nile first published in 1877, with some seventy illustrations produced from her finished drawings on site, remains a valuable resource. Edwards had this to say (1877; xii) about the illustrations:

“Where engravings of this kind are executed …from water-colour drawings which have not only to be reduced in size, but to be, as it were, translated into black and white, the difficulty of the work is largely increased. Of the engraver’s work …I will only say that I do not know in what way it could be bettered.…”

Edwards had chosen the engraving over the photograph (Figure 6). Interestingly, photographs of her drawings were copied directly onto wood plates, a method expediting the engraving process.

Photography Makes a Difference

With the advent of photography we enter the world of the photographic print and its growth in importance. In the late 1830s, an Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) made the first photographs using paper negatives. In 1840, he patented the Talbotype, or calotype process, which printed from a paper negative onto light sensitized paper. Hundreds of photographic prints could now be duplicated from one negative and published.

The Talbotype, however, was superseded in the 1850s by the negative collodion-on-glass. Glass proved superior to paper negatives. A glass plate with a collodion coating was a better surface for light sensitive chemicals. The process was in common use until the 1880s. The collodion process combined perfectly with albumen paper, which was first introduced in 1850. Thin paper was coated with an extract of egg white, ergo, the “albumen” print, which dominated photography and continued in use until the early 1900s. The photograph had a major impact upon people’s visualization of Egypt. The photograph had taken its place in the sun.

The lens of the camera became an alternative to the brush of the artist and hand of the engraver. Photographs were true. They revealed the inaccuracies in paintings and engravings from earlier explorations and thereby provided an important tool for detailed study. The difficulty for explorers had been in making objective, pictorial representations of archaeological and ethnological subjects. As was noted earlier, stylistic and other pre-conceptions had often intervened, with the use of pre-photographic methods. The camera did not lie.

Early Photographers of Note

One of the earliest photographers in Egypt was Maxime Du Camp (1822-1894), a cultivated French traveller, who visited there in 1849-1850, with the French author Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880). Du Camp’s book of 1852 was illustrated with one hundred twenty five photographic plates made from calotype paper negatives. As they stood before the Sphinx Flaubert described (1987, 50) the experience: “We stop before the Sphinx; it fixes us with a terrifying stare; Maxime is quite pale; I am afraid of becoming quite giddy….” Of Du Camp’s work Flaubert added (1987, 50): “No drawing that I have seen conveys a proper idea of it—best is an excellent photograph that Max has taken.” It was Du Camp who took the first true photographs of the Great Sphinx in 1849.

A few years later the well known photographer Félix Teynard (1817-1892), a French civil engineer and also a student of Champollion, travelled throughout Egypt. He took calotypes of monuments and sites in 1851-1852 and again in 1859, travelling along the Nile from Cairo to Nubia, documenting what he saw with his camera. The result was the most valuable photographic record to that date. While photographing the Great Sphinx,Teynard carefully studied aspects of the sand covered body, with its hind quarters hardly visible and the legs and paws also covered over. As was Teynard, photographers had to be skillful, when just being able to take views of the head against a vast sea of a desert setting. The drifting sands would continue in ever constant and quiet ways.

Francis Frith (1822-1898), an enterprising Englishman of age twenty-eight opened a photographic studio in Liverpool, England and became one of the best and earliest to photograph Egypt. In 1856, at age thirty-four, he was in Egypt taking numerous photographs by the wet-collodion process. His photographic prints were an immediate success and sold like hot cakes, including his memorable photographs of the pyramids and Sphinx.


Figure 7. Albumen Print of the Great Sphinx and Pyramid of Khafre by Smyth, 1865. Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas, Austin.

Although Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was not a commercial photographer, but an Astronomer Royal for Scotland and Professor at Edinburgh University, renowned for his mathematical skills, he is legendary for his pioneer negatives of the pyramids and Sphinx. Also, he made a detailed examination of them with special measuring devices and photographic methods. Smyth had designed a system of small one inch, wet collodian, negative images suited to great enlargement. On the side of his hand made camera, now in the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, is a label which reads: “A tin camera employed at the Great Pyramid in 1865 by Piazzi Smyth…Solar focus of lens -1 inch… size of picture -1 inch size of glasses….” They were so small they were tucked in his waistcoat pocket! Smyth felt “monumental research” could not be effective without the camera, but the apparatus had to be small. A master innovator like Smyth knew a small negative image could produce a large image.

As a man of the Victorian period Smyth viewed the Great Sphinx (Figure 7) in terms of his Christian background, making his comments (1979, 507-508) about the monument far less scientific:

“…that monster, an idol in itself, with symptoms typifying the lowest mental organization, reek with idolatry throughout the built portion of its substance.”

Smyth went on to describe the construction:

“…the internally joining surfaces of the blocks had been figured full of the idol gods of the most profane and Cainite Egypt…so soul-repulsive a creature…, the chosen symbol for a Pagan Empire….”


Figure 8. Albumen print of the Great Sphinx by G. Lékègian & Co., circa 1880s. McClung Museum Collection, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.]

Others on the Scene

Of the many commercial photographers that flocked to Egypt, there was C. & G. Zangaki Brothers, who worked there between 1870s and 1885, the prolific Armenian photographer G. Lékégian & Co., (Figure 8), active in Egypt in the 1880s and the work of the Bonfils family. They are among those who recorded the monuments and helped to satisfy the great demand for prints sought by travellers to take back home. In the tradition of earlier explorers, the pyramids of the Giza plateau and the Great Sphinx continued to be the most popular focus for photographers. Photographic prints were perfect records of the mysterious and grand memorials of the ancient past. They mirrored what amazed all who had stood before such architectural and sculptural wonders. Photographs reduced the need for the water color sketches of yesteryear and became a tool for expediting engravings and lithographs.


This brief overview began with the woodcut and ends with the camera. But the number of selections covered leaves vastly more to tell. Numerous extraordinary explorers and scholars documented the pyramids and that grand, majestic carving from an outcropping of rock. They boldly travelled the less travelled paths. Most of the early investigators of the Giza plateau were stalwart, adventurous men and women, determined to seek knowledge and record the ancient world as it unfolded before them. Whether by brush or lens, each technique used has played an important role in the never-ending quest to reveal the Great Sphinx.

* This paper was presented before members of the Association for the Study of Travel in Egypt and the Near East, July 16, 2001, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland. A version was published in Who Travels Sees More: Artists, Architects and Archaeologists Discover Egypt and the Near East, Diane Fortenberry (ed.), Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007.

Selected Bibliography

  • Denon, Dominique Vivant (1998) Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte: pendant les campagnes du general Bonaparte. Paris, ?ditions Gallimard.
  • Greaves, John (1646) Pyramidographia or a description of the pyramids in Egypt. London, George Badger.
  • Halls, J. J. (1834) The Life and Correspondence of Henry Salt, Esq. F. R. S. & c. His Britannic Majesty’s Late Consul General in Egypt. Second Edition, Vol. II. London, Richard Bentley.
  • Malek, Jaromir and Mark Smith (1983) Henry Salt’s Egyptian copies and drawings. Part I-III. Gèottinger Miszellen 64, 35-52.
  • Manley, Deborah and Peta Rée (2001) Henry Salt, Artist, Traveller, Diplomat, Egyptologist. London, Libri Publications Ltd.
  • Martineau, Harriet (1868) Eastern Life, Present and Past. Vol. II. London, Edward Moxon.
  • Norton, Frederic Lewis (1792) The Antiquities, Natural History, Ruins, and other Curiosities of Egypt, Nubia, and Thebes. London, Edward Jeffery.
  • Sandys, George (1615) A Relation of a Journey begun An: Dom: 1610. Foure Bookes. Containing a description of the Turkish Empire of Egypt, of the Holy Land, of the Remote parts of Italy, and Lands adjoining. London, W. Barrett.
  • Schaaf, Larry (1979) Charles Piazzi Smyth’s 1865 Conquest of the Great Pyramid. In History of Photography,Vol. 3, Number 4, October, 331-354.
  • Shaw, Thomas (1757) Travels, or observations relating to several parts of Barbary and the Levant, Second Edition. London, A. Millar and W. Sandby.
  • Smyth, Charles Piazzi (1978) The Great Pyramid: Its secrets and mysteries revealed, Fourth Edition. New York, Bell Publishing Co. (reprint).
  • Steegmuller, Francis, ed. (1987) Flaubert in Egypt. A Sensibility on Tour. Chicago, Academy Chicago Publishers.
  • Thompson, Charles (1744) The Travels of the Late Charles Thompson, Esq.; containing his Observations on France, Italy, Turkey in Europe, The Holy Land, Arabia, Egypt, and many other Parts of the World: giving a particular and faithful account of what is most remarkable in the Manners, Religion, Polity, Antiquities, and Natural History of those Countries: with a Curious Description of Jerusalem, as it now appears, and other Places mention’d in the Holy Scriptures. The Whole forming a compleat View of the ancient and modern State of great Part of Europe, Asia, and Africa. London, J. Newbery and C. Micklewright.
  • Thompson, Jason, ed. (2000) Edward William Lane. Description of Egypt. Notes and views in Egypt and Nubia, made during the years 1825, 26, 27, and 1828: Chiefly consisting of a series of descriptions and delineations of the monuments, scenery, & c. of those countries; the views, with few exceptions, made with the camera-lucida. Cairo, American University in Cairo Press.