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A Little Bit of The Pharaohs In Piccadilly

Egyptian House 170-173 Piccadilly is one of those functional early 20th century buildings that in the next hundred or so years people will begin to love.

It’s a bit of a hybrid, echoes of Georgian and Victorian architecture muddled up with just a glimpse of what was ahead in terms of Art Noveau and Art Deco. It’s a very functional building, shops at the bottom with offices above it. It is fair to say it’s not on my list of favourite buildings in London, but obviously it does have a place in the development of the city. No matter what your opinion is, one thing that most would agree on is that in no way could it be classed as Egyptian.

It was completed in 1906, a good decade before the craze for all things Egyptian took the country by storm, so why the name?

It is a nod to the building that stood on the site before it. A very different building in both style and function. It was called the Egyptian Hall.

Opened in 1812 it was an exhibition hall built to the designs of Peter Frederick Robinson. The Hall exhibited artworks and Napoleonicera relics. The hall was later used for popular entertainments and lectures, and by the end of the 19th century had developed an association with magic and spiritualism, becoming known as “England’s Home of Mystery”.

The building was commissioned by William Bullock and was completed at a cost of £16,000, equivalent to around £1.1 million today. He had a vast collection of curiosities including items brought back from the South Sea voyages of Captain Cook. Bullock had made his fortune as a jeweller and goldsmith in Birmingham and seems to have lavished his fortune on his collection. It is estimated that he had in excess of 32,000 items.

The Hall was the first ever building in England to be influenced by Egyptian architecture and was partly inspired by the success of the Egyptian Room in designer and fellow collector Thomas Hope’s house in Duchess Street, which was open to the public and had been well illustrated in Hope’s Household Furniture and Interior Decoration.

The venture was a considerable success. An exhibition including Napoleon’s carriage taken at the Battle of Waterloo being seen by about 220,000 visitors.

In 1819 Bullock sold his ethnographical and natural history collection at auction and converted the museum into an exhibition hall.

Subsequently, the Hall became a major venue for exhibiting works of art; it had the advantage of being able to exhibit really large works. Usually, admission was one shilling.

In 1825 Bullock sold the venue to the publisher George Lackington. He went on to use the facilities to show panoramas, art exhibits, and entertainment productions. The Hall became especially associated with watercolours with William Turner exhibiting at the Hall for a number of years.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Hall was also associated with magic and spiritualism, as a number of performers and lecturers had hired it for shows. In 1873 impresario William Morton took on the management of the Hall.

In 1904 the Hall was demolished to make way for the current building and at the time the decision to knock it down was much criticised, prompting the artist Muirhead Bone to produce an etching of its demolition.

The only remaining part of the building that still exists today are the two statues that formed the centrepiece of the facade. They now stand guard either side of the goods lift in the basement of the Museum of London. Sadly they are not on public view.

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