WE WERE NOT EXPECTING to see anything like it when walking down Chapel Street in the centre of the Cornish town of Penzance. What we saw immediately recalled the pseudo-Egyptian, art deco Carerras Building near Mornington Crescent in London. The building in London is far larger than that we found in Penzance, the Egyptian House. The Carreras Building was built in 1926-28. The Egyptian House was built far earlier, in 1835-36. Admittedly, the two buildings hardly resemble each other but when I saw the one in Chapel Street, I immediately thought of the structure in Mornington Crescent.
The Egyptian House is a regularly shaped building with an extraordinary façade. The front of the building is decorated in colourfully painted bas-relief with ornamentation that evokes thoughts of Ancient Egypt. The windows of this three-storey building are not rectangular. Each of them is framed in isosceles trapezoids (the top and bottom of each frame are parallel, the top being shorter than the bottom, and the sides of the frames form truncated isosceles triangles). All three layers of windows are framed in a large decorative isosceles trapezoid. This creates the illusion that the façade is tapering rather than rectangular. An informative merchant, who spoke to us from his shop across the road from the Egyptian House, pointed out that although the windows on the three floors look different in size, this is also an illusion; they are the same size on each floor.
The decorative features on the building include pillars with lotus capitals, sculpted human heads, a royal coat of arms and an eagle. Above the centrally located front door there is yet another feature, which I will describe soon. But first, a little bit of history.
Numbers 6 to 7 Chapel Street, the building now known as the Egyptian House, stands on the site of an earlier building that had been pulled down by 1835, when John Lavin (1796-1856), a Cornish mineralogist, purchased the site. According to one source (https://medium.com/the-history-of-collecting/the-sir-russell-collection-of-cornwall-mineral-collections-439cfdb2ae2d) Lavin was:
“… was a stationer and bookbinder in Penzance, Cornwall, who was also dealing in minerals by 1830. Such was his success that he was able to build the famous Egyptian Hall, “Lavin’s Museum”, in Chapel Street in 1835–36.”
The building he created was typical of the early 19th century craze for building in the ‘Egyptian style’. It is said to resemble the now long-since demolished Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly and the Oddfellows Hall in Devonport (constructed 1820s). Also, some of the tombs in the older, spookier, part of London’s Highgate Cemetery were designed to evoke the architecture of Ancient Egypt. When Lavin died, his son Edward sold his father’s collection to Baroness Burdett-Coutts for £3,500.
The building became neglected and fell into disrepair. By the 1960s, the façade was in a poor state, In the 1970s, the building was restored, and its original colouring reproduced. Now, it is maintained by the Landmark Trust, which rents out rooms within it to visitors at a high price, so we were informed by a local.
The decorative feature that intrigued me most is on the lintel above the front door. It is a bas-relief depicting two outstretched wings attached to a centrally located sphere from which a pair of bird’s heads each, on their own curved necks project. The bird’s heads are shown in profile with their beaks pointing in opposite directions, one to the left and the other to the right. The style of the depiction of the birds is pseudo-ancient-Egyptian as are many other of the ornaments on the building. As I am fascinated by the double-headed eagles that are used as the symbols of many places including, for example Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Russia, and Karnataka, I was immediately curious as to whether what is above the doorway is a depiction of a double-headed eagle (‘DHE’).
Greatly simplifying matters, the earliest archaeological evidence of the DHE is in sites in Ancient Mesopotamia (3000-2000BC). The civilisations that thrived there were contemporary with Ancient Egyptian civilisations. Although DHE motifs have been discovered in Ancient Egyptian sites, they are not as prevalent there as in the lands between the Tigris and Euphrates. Without getting bogged down with the history of the usage of the DHE, I want to speculate on why Lavin included the two-headed bird decoration on his Egyptian-style building.
Was the centrally located motif simply chosen for its decorative symmetry or was John Lavin aware of some connection of the DHE with Ancient Egypt? Or was he making some reference to Cornish families, such as the Killigrews and the Godolphins, that included the DHE in their coats of arms? Sadly, I have no answer to these questions yet.
Our ‘discovery’ of the Egyptian House in Penzance was just one of many lovely things we saw during our brief first visit to the town. I have already written about the Turks Head pub in Chapel Street and I hope to reveal more of the town’s interesting sights in the near future.