Who was John Gardner Wilkinson?
Sir John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875) was a nineteenth-century traveller and scholar. He was a pioneer of Egyptology, the modern science devoted to the study of ancient Egypt.
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 twelve 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 remains 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.
After his death, Wilkinson’s papers and library were taken to Calke Abbey, his heirs’ residence. The manuscripts were later deposited in the Bodleian Library, at the University of Oxford.
Their value for scholarship has increased with time, as they often record 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.