London: Beyond Beauty; Transforming the Body in Ancient Egypt @ Two Temple Place

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I’m not sure how well known Two Temple Place is.  Maybe I’m just out of the loop, and everybody else (the cool kids) knows it’s there, but it somehow managed to escape my attention until just a few weeks ago, even though I used to go to King’s via Temple Station like three times a week.  I mean, it’s right there.  And it has awesome gargoyles all over the outside.  And a golden ship weather vane.  And a bulldog sign hanging out front.

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Two Temple Place was built by American millionaire/robber baron/hotel tycoon William Waldorf Astor in 1895, so it has this fab panelled wood/stained glass neo-Gothic interior, and it’s only open to the public from the end of January-April, when they put on their yearly exhibition.  But when it is open, it’s completely free, which is rad.  This year’s exhibition is all about ancient Egypt, which at first didn’t thrill me (I mean, I thought I’d already seen all there was to see on the subject at the Petrie), but once I got inside the place, I was won over.

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We were greeted at the door by a man who looked oddly familiar.  My boyfriend and I were both trying to place him the whole time we were there, and we didn’t realise that we both recognised him until after we left.  So I don’t know if he was famous, or we both just encountered him at some point in the past (isn’t it annoying when you can’t quite place someone?), but whatever, he took the time to explain the exhibit to us, and also lent us one of their programmes (otherwise I think they were £7.50, but they weren’t really necessary because the objects had fairly detailed captions).  The exhibit was spread out over two floors, with the main gallery in the big hall downstairs, and a couple smaller rooms + gift shop upstairs.

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The Egyptian stuff on the lower level was fine, mostly jewellery and makeup devices (contraptions? accessories? I don’t even know) given that the theme was (beyond) beauty and all, but I found it hard to summon much enthusiasm for it (though I liked the statue of the tattooed lady, and the ship of death).  However, the minute we stepped into the stairwell to head upstairs, I was transfixed by the stained glass roof.  I’m not sure how that survived the Blitz (even if it wasn’t directly hit, you’d think any impact nearby would have shattered it), but jeez.  I wish I was a robber baron and I could build myself shit like this (can I go back in time with the 200 quid in my account and buy a railroad or something?).  I also noticed all the excellent wooden figures on the staircase (apparently characters from The Three Musketeers), and the bulldog statue above the fireplace.  He was so sad (but perhaps that’s just the nature of bulldogs), and reminded me of Garth Williams’s illustrations of Jack the brindle bulldog, from the Little House books.  (I am such a Laura Ingalls Wilder nerd.)

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The best part of the exhibition was actually upstairs, which was useful, as it was also where all the stained glass windows were located.  I love sarcophagi, but I barely ever bother to look at the ones at the British Museum, because you can’t get near them on account of the hordes of tourists.  This is what made me suspect that Two Temple Place is perhaps not particularly well known (granted, it was also about 2 pm on a Monday, but that doesn’t matter to a tourist), because there were only about ten other people there, so I could look at everything for as long as I liked (and take pictures, mummy’s curse be damned (which is perhaps the whole point of a mummy’s curse)).  I gather what they were trying to do with the whole Beyond Beauty concept was to show a different perspective on ancient Egyptian civilisation that wasn’t all about death rituals, but of course the stuff that was directly about death was more interesting than all the beauty accessories (at least to me, but I don’t wear makeup or any of that junk, so I don’t really care about it.  Learning about the tattooed ladies who worshipped Hathor was cool, but then I like tattoos.  And it doesn’t hurt that Hafthor is my favourite competitor in the World’s Strongest Man, and his name sounds a lot like Hathor.  I like to yell it whilst pumping my fist in the air. HAFTHOR!!!!).

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There were a lot of cool artefacts, but I have to make a special point to tell you about Titus, because he was my favourite.  See that gold mask on the right, just above this paragraph?  That was made for a Roman citizen named Titus (surname not Andronicus, sadly enough) living in Egypt, who decided he wanted to be buried in the traditional Egyptian fashion (even though the Egyptians had adopted some artistic styles from the Greeks and Romans by then, so more realistic portraiture was available).  Please zoom in on his face if you can, because he has the most amazing/hilarious expression, and his eyelashes are pretty cool (I’m not sure what they were made of, but it was a different material than the rest of the mask.  Papyrus?).  I was quite taken with him, and I bought a postcard of him from the gift shop.

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I was also very taken with the cows in the stained glass window, but I have a special love for slightly derpy farm animals that has withstood being snubbed by baby goats at the Texas State Fair.

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And that foot covering that actually looks like feet?!  How awesome is that?!  I don’t know, I was obviously quite impressed with the stuff they’d dug up/borrowed from other museums for this exhibit.  I’m running out of things to say about it really, but I want you to see how neat this stuff was, so here’s some more pictures.

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And also the house itself was stupidly attractive (if you’re into lots of wood).  They apparently host events like weddings, as some woman and her mother were being taken around by a staff member, which was rather annoying as they just stood there talking loudly about the facilities available right in front of one of the cases I was trying to look at.

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Annoying future bride aside, I really enjoyed this place.  It’s worth popping in just to have a look at the house, and the free exhibition is a nice bonus.  I guess it’s lucky that the exhibit happens to be quite cool as well (Titus!); I learned some stuff, and I’d definitely recommend it if you’re going to be in London at some point before May (but not on a Tuesday, it’s closed then).  I know people call places “hidden gems” or whatever all the time, and then you go there and everyone else in London is there too, but they really do seem to manage to keep this place on the down-low, and good for them (and I definitely don’t have a big enough audience to risk spoiling that).  Check it out, you’ll like it, especially if you like the ancient Egyptians.  Or late Victorian architecture.   4/5.

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  1. Didn’t he invent the Waldorf Salad? I can imagine he must have made a lot from the royalties.

  2. I love Egyptology but that panelling really knocked me out. I’d be a happy girl to have just one wall of it – and the Three Musketeers figures. That tile/inlay (?) floor in the room with the bulldog statue is pretty wild too. Much louder than I’d have expected given the dark, richness of the rest of the rooms.

    On a side note, I’m sorry if you’re getting this message twice. My computer conked out the first time I sent it – I think.

    1. No, this is the first time I’ve gotten it, don’t worry! Yeah, that flooring is rad. I’m kind of all about those cows and that weathervane though. And of course Titus. I’d probably put Titus in my house even if there was a curse attached.

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