It’s lovely to be able to put a face to a name – as it were. One difficulty with researching long dead people is the formality in text that can prove a formidable façade. The plague of the initials and the title/last name combo is rife.* How can we see beyond these fashions of a bygone era as we examine the myriad contributors to past events?
I’ll give you an example: the story of “Mrs George”. In researching annual exhibitions in archaeology during my PhD I came across lots of names – the catalogues for these displays were full of them. Very useful for identifying the number and gender of contributors to a particular season’s work, but sometimes frustratingly vague: Mr-s and Miss-s galore.
In some cases it was easy to confirm full names, but in other cases (particularly if the individual was female and not a well-known scholar) confirmation was not so easy. “Mrs George” was one of the latter. She was an artist, and was married to an architect, Walter Sykes George.
Just before the First World War Mr and Mrs George were in Sudan, where Walter George was working as architect for John Garstang’s excavation at Meroe. Mrs George, like numerous other artists on sites in the early 20th century, was engaged in copying ancient paintings.
In 1913, “Mrs George”’s works were on display alongside her husband’s site plans at the Society of Antiquaries as part of the fourth exhibition of antiquities from Meroe. The exhibition catalogue indicates that some of her work, including scenes of “local colour”, was for sale. Next door at the Royal Academy yet more artists were taking part in the annual Summer Exhibition, in its final month.
On finding evidence of Mrs George’s contribution to the interpretation and display of Meroe in London, I wanted to find out more about her, and, if I could, discover her first name. At the very least this would ensure that work credited to her would reflect her distinct identity as well as her marital status. But initial searches for “Mrs George” proved fruitless.
An aside in one of Walter George’s letters gave me the clue I needed. In said letter he referred to his wife exhibiting two works at the 1914 Autumn Exhibition of Modern Art at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery. The 1914 catalogue is (luckily) still extant; scanning the list of contributors, there she was – Mrs Lena George, exhibiting in the Miniatures Room. Bingo.
Mrs George was no longer nameless in my records. With her first name I found references to other works attributed to her, including the (undated) oil painting "Travellers on the Outskirts of Town", sold at Christie's in 2010. Such references to her work outside of archaeology help to illuminate her as an artist within the early 20th century contemporary art scene.
Many contributors to excavation in the past were ephemeral – on site for a season or a couple of seasons and then gone from the archival or published record. And there were many other participants in the archaeological process – locally employed diggers, basket boys and girls, foremen and others who have only recently begun to be recognised and named, where possible, for the work they did.
The exhibitions after each season, ephemeral too, were one way to document the contributors to archaeological work year by year. The Egypt Exploration Society’s recent pop-up exhibition “Excavating Egypt” is a modern recreation of these past exhibitions. The display and accompanying events have showcased the treasures of the Society’s archive where behind-the-scenes stories and people can be found. (For more, see the exhibition website.)
Butler, R. 2012. The Anglo-Indian Architect Walter Sykes George (1881-1962): a Modernist Follower of Lutyens. Architectural History 55.
Corporation of Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery. 1914. Forty-Fifth Autumn Exhibition of Modern Art Catalogue.
Garstang, J. and George, W. S. 1913. Excavations at Meroe, Sudan, 1913, Fourth season. Guide to the twelfth annual exhibition of antiquities discovered. Institute of Archaeology University of Liverpool.
Janssen, R. 1992. The First Hundred Years: Egyptology at University College London, 1892-1992. London: Petrie Museum.
Quirke, S. 2010. Hidden Hands: Egyptian Workforces in Petrie’s excavation archives 1880-1924. London: Gerald Duckworth.
Thornton, A. 2015. Exhibition Season: Annual Archaeological Exhibitions in London, 1880s-1930s. Bulletin of the History of Archaeology.
*A post on the subject has recently been published on the Palestine Exploration Fund’s blog.