Curator's Choice: Amber Druce picks a tomb painting from Pharaoh: Reborn

By Ben Miller | 03 April 2013

Curator's Choice: Amber Druce, Collections Officer of World Cultures, chooses a watercolour from the Pharaoh: Reborn exhibition at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery...

A photo of a woman looking at a watercolour of an Egyptian tomb
"The watercolours are copied from KV17, the tomb of Pharaoh Sety I, in the Valley of the Kings, and are based on paintings from the 19th Dynasty, 1294-1279 BCE.

KV17 was the first tomb in the Valley of the Kings to be completely decorated; every wall and pillar from the entrance onward is covered with scenes from the Book of Gates, the Amduat, the Litany of Re, the Book of the Heavenly Cow, and the Opening of the Mouth ritual.

All these were recorded in the watercolours created by Giovanni Belzoni, an Italian engineer and explorer who made some incredible watercolours with his team between 1817 and 1820.

They’re showcased in the exhibition, and are the highlight of our extensive Egyptian Archaeology collection.

A photo of a watercolour showing figures from a tomb of Ancient Egypt
Pharaoh Sety I before the goddess Isis and the jackal headed god, Anubis. Pharaoh's spirit was thought to have been guided into the Afterlife by various gods and goddesses. They each had different roles, so it was vital that he met them all to have complete protection© Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives
The Ancient Egyptians didn’t consider the tomb paintings and hieroglyphs to be purely decorative. They were thought to magically transform when the time came for Pharaoh to use them.

It was believed that describing the Afterlife would aid Pharaoh, because to possess knowledge of something was to have power over it.

In 1821, the watercolours were exhibited as part of a scale model of Sety I’s tomb in London and Paris.

Huge crowds attended and the tomb is one of the most well known in the Valley of the Kings, even to this day.

Since the tomb’s discovery it’s been severely water damaged, so Belzoni’s paintings provide the most complete record of the decoration that once existed.
When Giovanni died, his wife, Sarah, inherited the watercolours. She left her estate to her goddaughter, Selina Tucker, who left the residue of her estate to her cousin Sarah and her husband Charles Wilson, of King Edward's School, London.

More than 300 of Belzoni’s watercolours were donated to Bristol Museum in 1900 by Mr Wilson. There’s speculation that Sarah Belzoni was a Bristolian, which might explain why they were donated to Bristol.

Thirty watercolours will be in Pharaoh: Reborn. It’s an accompanying exhibition to Pharaoh: King of Egypt, which is currently on loan from the British Museum.

As well as the paintings, there will also be objects displayed relating to Pharaoh Sety I and Egyptian tomb building.

It’s really exciting to have the paintings on display again. They’re a beautiful collection with a fascinating history."

  • Pharaoh: Reborn runs April 20 – September 29 2013.
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