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Who was John Gardner Wilkinson?

Written by
Luigi PradaEgyptologist, University of Oxford
A painting of Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, the Egyptologist, by Henry Wyndham Phillips, in the collection at Calke Abbey
A portrait of Sir John Gardner Wilkinson by Henry Wyndham Phillips | © National Trust Images/Mike Williams

Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (1797–1875) was a nineteenth-century traveller and pioneer of Egyptology, the modern science devoted to the study of ancient Egypt. Today, a library of Wilkinson’s books remains under the care of the National Trust at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, the home to his heir. Find out more about Wilkinson’s work here.

Wilkinson the traveller

From a young age, John Gardner Wilkinson was fascinated with travel. Having failed to obtain his degree from the University of Oxford, he decided to explore the world for himself and embark on the Grand Tour: a fashionable occupation for young gentlemen at the time, who would travel the continent admiring the glories past of Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance.

On his tour, Wilkinson became increasingly interested in reports about the lost civilisation of ancient Egypt, which was just then resurfacing from oblivion. Egypt’s pharaonic past had come to western attention following Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition (1798–1801), and a wave of Egyptomania was sweeping Europe, particularly France and Britain.

In 1821 Wilkinson sailed to Egypt, where he remained for 12 years, travelling the entire length of the country and exploring its ancient monuments.

Wilkinson the Egyptologist

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Wilkinson’s chief aim was not collecting antiquities. Instead, his main interest in Egypt was of a scholarly nature. Over his long trip and four shorter visits to Egypt in later years, he amassed a huge wealth of papers – notes, watercolours and drawings – about the country and its monuments.

Back in Britain, Wilkinson published several scholarly works based on this material. His main achievement is entitled Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, first published in 1837 with many later re-editions. The publication was a great success, both introducing the Victorian public to ancient Egypt in an accessible way and earning Wilkinson a knighthood.

View of Gardner Wilkinson Library at Calke Abbey. Sir Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875) was a great C19th antiquarian and archaeologist He left his manuscripts and sketches to Sir John Harpur Crewe.
View of Gardner Wilkinson Library at Calke Abbey. | © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The Legacy of John Gardner Wilkinson

After his death, Wilkinson’s papers and library were taken to Calke Abbey, his heirs’ residence, where a small library of his books remains on display today. The manuscripts were later deposited in the Bodleian Library, at the University of Oxford.

Their value for scholarship has increased with time, as they provide a record of many monuments and antiquities that were damaged or destroyed shortly after Wilkinson’s time, through the industrialisation of Egypt or looting. Egyptologists continue to study them today.

Both Calke Abbey and Wilkinson’s manuscripts in Oxford are now in the care of the National Trust.

This article was written by Luigi Prada, an Egyptologist at University of Oxford, specialising in historical, linguistic and textual studies. Luigi conducts research both in the field, as a member of archaeological expeditions to Egypt and Sudan, and in museum and manuscript collections. This is a Trusted Source article created in partnership with University of Oxford.

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