A journey from abused child to Egyptian antiquities collector

Updated 26 May 2017

A journey from abused child to Egyptian antiquities collector

Major Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson has given his name to one of the most enjoyable cultural outings in Cairo, a visit to the Bait Al-Kretliya, which consists of two beautifully restored old Islamic houses joined together by a bridge, popularly known as the Gayer-Anderson Museum.
For the first time a biography, “Gayer-Anderson: The Life and Afterlife of the Irish Pasha” explores the fascinating life of a man who was a colonial government representative and also received the title of Pasha by King Farouk. Known also as John, and P.U.M. (a mysterious acronymic nickname that his identical twin brother Thomas gave him), Robert Grenville Gayer-Anderson studied to be a surgeon, but he was also a soldier, an adventurer, an enthusiastic collector of antiquities and a passionate Egyptologist. In this intimate portrait of a multifaceted and enigmatic figure Louise Foxcroft attempts to reveal the person behind the persona.
Gayer-Anderson is mostly remembered for acquiring a most remarkable collection of antiquities, mostly from ancient Egypt. He had always expressed his wish to visit an empty tomb. This rare privilege finally took place in 1923, a year marked by an extraordinary event, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb by Howard Carter. Gayer-Anderson was at the time posted in Egypt as assistant Oriental secretary. He was, therefore, a member of the official party invited at the private opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
When Gayer-Anderson entered the tomb, he immediately noticed the charming models of ships, baby chairs and chariots. The following day, he mentioned in a letter that he believed Tutankhamun was a youth about 17 or 18 years old. An X-ray examination proved that he was right: Tutankhamun was just under the age of 18 when he died. At the end of the visit, Gayer-Anderson decided that he had not seen enough and he made up his mind to return for another visit to the tomb with his mother.
Gayer-Anderson was very close to his mother, Mary. In an unpublished memoir, “Fateful Attractions,” on which this book is based, Gayer-Anderson acknowledges that he inherited from her a profound love of beauty, which he compared to the “bread of life.” His father, Henri Anderson had a violent and cruel nature. He submitted his child to a Spartan upbringing, which was deeply resented by young Pum and his siblings. Placed in a row in front of their father, the children were subjected to painful things. “He would give a sudden shout, quickly raise a threatening hand, tickle our ribs, pinch us or pull our hair… in spite of which none of us must show the slightest emotion of any sort. If we flinched, flushed, giggled, gasped, laughed or even flickered an eyelid we were shouted at and slapped,” writes Gayer-Anderson.
Henri Anderson played these mean and nasty games during their last year in North America. During their harrowing stay, Henri Anderson managed to make some money in real estate and a very young Pum developed his passion for collecting. He found some lead bullets and chipped flint arrowheads.
During his life, Gayer-Anderson had the knack to find exceptional pieces. He has a remarkable flair for discovering precious antiquities. One of his first important finds was an unusual bone, which he discovered during a walk over the Medway after the family had returned to the United Kingdom. He showed it to his form-master who suggested that he send it to the Royal Geological Society. The bone was a humerus, which turned out to be part of an unknown type of pterodactyl, or “flying dragon.” This fossil was the first in a long list of gifts that Gayer-Anderson gave to museums.
Henri Anderson decided that his son should become a doctor like his two uncles. At the age of 17, he started training at Guy’s Hospital in London and qualified five years later as Member of the Royal College of Surgeons and Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians.
During that time, he also found a man’s portrait in oils on a broken panel that he bought for a shilling. With his usual flair, Gayer-Anderson had noticed the signature of Van Dyck at the back. It was later confirmed by experts as authentic. Gayer-Anderson had become more than ever addicted to collecting. “It became both a vice and a mania,” he wrote.
When he finished his medical studies, Gayer-Anderson was appointed assistant house surgeon to William Arbuthnot-Lane. He had been encouraged to aim for a Harley Street career but that was not the life he wished to lead. He was looking for something else, something more adventurous. He was just 23 years old, young and restless, so he decided to follow his twin brother and join the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1907, he was posted to Egypt with the rank of major.
“Pum’s lifelong affair with Egypt, its culture, and its people had begun” writes Foxcroft.
On a trip to Khartoum where he was replacing a local surgeon who had been taken ill, Gayer-Anderson bought a beautiful bronze Horus from a wealthy dealer. In time, he realized that he should be more careful and buy only from “less known and less-knowing” dealers, men who knew little and lacked the expertise so that one could buy rare antiquities for very little money.
After two years, Gayer-Anderson returned home for a holiday. As he was sailing back to England, he realized how much he had changed. He was no longer interested in medicine, and he desperately wanted to return to Egypt. At the end of 1909, he was posted back to Egypt as inspector of recruiting for the Sa’id, the seven provinces of Upper Egypt.
As he traveled along the Nile several times a year, he got to know local traders who would run after him as soon as they spotted his boat. Gayer-Anderson was doing an astonishing amount of dealing and collecting. In fact, collecting became his main occupation to the detriment of his service ambitions. Egypt was a cradle of civilization and Cairo was a center for Middle Eastern and Far Eastern art including India, China and Persia. Gayer-Anderson was particularly fond of Fayoum. Fayoum is the largest oasis in Egypt and the closest to the Nile and Cairo. It has a host of archaeological sites from the Middle Kingdom when Fayoum was a center of political power. Gayer-Anderson wrote in his memoires that Fayoum was the “most exciting and fascinating place I know from a historical and antique-collecting point of view. Nowhere in the world can one see history and pre-history more abundantly and consecutively written.”
He could find in Fayoum a pre-dynastic vessel, an early dynasty stone-relief, Ptolemaic statues, Greek terracotta figurines or Roman glass bottles, the choice of objects was endless and the price was very low.
Gayer-Anderson was becoming an expert in ancient Egyptian and Saracen antiquities. “He bought from the shopkeepers or from the original finders, the sebakheen, who had an ancient and legal right dating from the days of the Turkish suzerainty to sift the sebakb, the dust and debris from a site. And from these families he got the rarest pieces for a fraction of their final value. In this way, he amassed large collections of all sorts. He sold some of them, making himself good money but he also bought for many of the larger museums in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and America,” writes Foxcroft.
Gayer-Anderson now in his early 30s had amassed a certain wealth and yearned to live the life that really pleased him. However, he would still have to wait a few more years. He had enjoyed “supreme happiness” during the first decade of the 20th century unaware that the world was “on the brink of a volcano.” During World War I, he was posted in Egypt and in Gallipoli on the Turkish coast. He ended his official career in Egypt with a post of senior inspector in the Ministry of Interior and was finally appointed Oriental secretary to the high commissioner where he remained for about a year. He retired from the Egyptian government in 1923. He was only 42 and he wanted to spend the rest of his life with his antiques and writing poems and articles for magazines.
In the 1930s, he was offered a job as director of the Anglo-American Nile Tourist Company, which gave him the possibility to continue searching for antiques. During that period he purchased one of his most precious pieces known as the Gayer-Anderson Cat, the first life-size bronze cat he had ever seen. He would eventually bequeath it to the British Museum. His last philanthropic action was the internal renovation of the Bait Al-Kretliya.
He was allowed to live in this old Islamic house during his lifetime in order to restore it. When he died, it was returned to the government as the “Gayer-Anderson Pasha Museum of Oriental Arts and Crafts.” The Bait Al-Kretliya has been magnificently restored. The Damascus room is stunning with its ceilings and walls covered in inlaid and gilded wood. A scene from a James Bond movie, “The Spy Who Loved Me,” was filmed in Bait Al-Kretliya. Gayer-Anderson also entertained many visitors including the King of Siam, Howard Carter and Freya Stark.
The eight years Gayer-Anderson spent at Bait Al-Kretliya were the happiest of his life. He would certainly be proud to see how his beloved home is one of the most visited museums in Cairo.
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What We Are Reading Today: Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

Updated 21 January 2019

What We Are Reading Today: Inheritance by Dani Shapiro

  • The memoir is Dani Shapiro’s most intimate memoir to date

A compelling exploration of paternity, identity, and belonging, Inheritance centers on a shocking discovery about the author’s ancestry. 

This is an excellent memoir about a woman who decides to do an Ancestry.com DNA test. 

She did it on a whim, not expecting to find out her father is not her biological father. 

The memoir, which is in four parts, is Dani Shapiro’s most intimate memoir to date.

“Shapiro’s account is beautifully written and deeply moving — it brought me to tears more than once,” said Ruth Franklin in a review published in the New York Times.

Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. 

She lives with her family in LItchfield County, Connecticut.