Thank you dear Amelia Edwards…

for making a researcher’s day….and bequeathing ALL your archives to the one institution!

Front cover of Amelia Edwards' Travelogue "One Thousand Miles Up the Nile"Novelist, journalist, travel enthusiast, artist and illustrator, Amelia Edwards was one driven Victorian. Born in 1831 to middle class parents she was educated at home by her mother. From an early age she showed prodigious talent and energy and was writing and publishing poems, stories and articles in a number of magazines and newspapers, eventually becoming a professional writer. Sounds unconventional already for the era? She then went on to be one of Britain’s main champions of Egyptology.

In 1873-4 Edwards travelled with friends to Egypt for the first time and began the life-changing journey up the Nile which was to make her a household name. Entranced with the scenery, the people and the rich archaeological history she wrote an account of her adventures in “A Thousand Miles up the Nile” –  her chatty asides and personal anecdotes making her book an instant best-seller. She opens her first chapter with the scene in the dining room at the famous Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo,  home away from home and watering-hole for anyone and everyone of European colonial society.

Shepheards_hotel Shepheard's


“IT is the traveller’s lot to dine at many table-d’hôtes in the course of many wanderings ; but it seldom befalls him to make one of a more miscellaneous gathering than that which overfills the great dining-room at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo during the beginning and height of the regular Egyptian season. Here assemble daily some two to three hundred persons of all ranks, nationalities, and pursuits ; half of whom are Anglo-Indians homeward or outward bound, European residents, or visitors established in Cairo for the winter. The other half, it may be taken for granted, are going up the Nile. So composite and incongruous is this body of Nile-goers, young and old, well-dressed and ill-dressed, learned and unlearned, that the new-comer’s first impulse is to inquire from what motives so many persons of dissimilar tastes and training can be led to embark upon an expedition which is, to say the least of it, very tedious, very costly, and of an altogether exceptional interest.

His curiousity, however, is soon gratified. Before two days are over, he knows everybody’s name and everybody’s business ; distinguishes at first sight between a Cook’s tourist and an independent traveller ; and has discovered that nine-tenths of those whom he is likely to meet up the river are English or American. The rest will be mostly German, with a sprinkling of Belgian and French. So far en bloc ; but the details are more heterogeneous still. Here are invalids in search of health ; artists in search of subjects ; sportsmen keen upon crocodiles ; statesman out for a holiday ; special correspondents alert for gossip ; collectors on the scent of papyri and mummies ; men of science with only scientific ends in view ; and the usual surplus of idlers who travel for the mere love of travel, or the satisfaction of a purposeless curiousity.

Now in a place like Shepheard’s, where every fresh arrival has the honor of contributing, for at least a few minutes, to the general entertainment, the first appearance of L. and the Writer, tired, dusty, and considerably sunburnt, may well have given rise to some of the comments in usual circulation at those crowded tables. People asked each other, most likely, where these two wandering Englishwomen had come from ; why they had not dressed for dinner ; what brought them to Egypt ; and if they also were going up the Nile…”

Amelia Edwards
Amelia Edwards

Can you not picture her and her friend? single women in their early forties, arriving at this celebrated hotel, extraordinary crossroads and  meeting place for adventurers and sightseers from all corners of the world?  Dusty and exhausted from their overland journey from Alexandria,  going in to dinner, not dressed for the evening as everybody else was in the celebrated dining room, people’s heads turning to see the arrival of the new Englishwomen?

 Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo Main dining hall
Shepheard’s Hotel, Cairo Main dining hall

Amelia was a prodigious sketcher, and completed detailed and skilled watercolours as she travelled, recording the sites she saw. Fascinated with ancient Eqyptian archaeology, she meticulously recorded her findings. Her drawings formed the basis of the illustrations for her travelogue One thousand Miles Up the Nile. To a Victorian reader illustrations added authenticity and entertainment, the writer had seen it, and in their drawings lay the ‘truth’. Her frontispiece claims


Note the “On The Spot”! This then was what the East was really like…Amelia had been there and drawn on the spot…and was enabling all the armchair travellers back home in England to be there as well.  Herein lies my research, for surely this is an interpreted ‘truth’, Egypt told through the eyes of an English woman. What do her drawings reveal of her thinking of the East? How are they shaped by her class, her gender, her nationality?

The wonderful thing I discovered this week, is that when Amelia died in 1892, as an established Egyptologist she left her entire papers; letters, diaries, scrapbooks, sketchbooks and finished watercolours all in ONE PLACE – Somerville College in Oxford. For a researcher that is a dream….


Who travels the Orient and brings the piano? Alexine does…

Who travels the Orient in the 1850s and 60s, with a piano, wrought iron beds, a mother, an aunt, five pet dogs and hundreds of servants?

There is no one quite like the remarkable Alexine Tinne….and nothing quite like her story…

Portrait of Alexine Tinne in the National Archives in the The Hague
Portrait of Alexine Tinne in the National Archives in the The Hague

Born in 1835 into a wealthy Dutch family, Alexine Tinne is a fascinating figure.  Her father died when she was ten, making her the wealthiest heiress in the Netherlands. She and her mother travelled the continent extensively, but arrived in Cairo in 1861, apparently running as far as possible from the attentions of an unwelcome suitor of Alexine’s. Mad with the contemporary obsession of searching for the origin of the Nile, they travelled from Cairo up the river into the Sudan to the frontier town of Khartoum whose primary reason for existence at the time  was the trade of ivory and slaves.

Undeterred by her surrounds and her dubious fellow Europeans, from there, Alexine launched an expedition to discover the Nile’s source. In 1862 hiring the only steamer available (upsetting Sir Samuel Baker who had wanted it for himself) and contracting several barges she and her long suffering mother  travelled extremely slowly and  in great  style, at times travelling with hundreds of servants and porters. Such numbers were necessary when one took the piano, the iron bed frames from Holland, five pet dogs, photographic and painting equipment, materials (including a bricklayer) to help build a house when one got to a suitable location and all the necessary food, crockery and silverware etc. Dozens of people were needed to pull the steamer and barges with ropes from the shore, when the waters of the Sud (as the boggy marshes of the Upper White Nile were known), prevented them from moving.

Wealth and luggage could not insulate her from the terrible conditions, however, and Alexine nearly died of fever on their first expedition as far as Gondoroko and her mother actually did die on their second expedition to discover the Bahr el Ghazar, the Sudan’s Western tributaries to the White Nile. Her two trusted Dutch maids also died on this trip, along with a distinguished botanist Hermann Steudner accompanying them. Her Aunt who had been waiting for their return died, again of fever, soon after Alexine’s return to Khartoum.

Alexine with her household
Alexine (centre) with her household

After these tragedies Alexine returned to Cairo where she set up a household of approximately 30 people comprised of Dutch servants and freed slaves. She refused to return to Europe. She had long planned to travel to see the famed Tuareg Arab Tribesman of the Libyan desert, and in 1869 aged 34  she set out, the first woman to attempt to cross the Sahara. Here her adventures were cut tragically short as her party was ambushed and  she was murdered by Tuareg tribesmen, the very men she had been so fascinated to meet. According to eye witnesses her hand was severed and she received a blow to the neck which caused her to fall to the ground and bleed to death. The rest of her party fled and her body was never recovered.

Alexine was an accomplished photographer, and had converted a carriage into a dark room back home in The Hague. She was also a serious botanical artist, and her detailed drawings led to the publication in 1868 of Plantae Tinnanae which had professional engravings based on her drawings.

But what intrigues me most are her sketchbooks. Dozens of watercolours of the places she went, the rooms she stayed in and the people she saw… I have only seen a handful of them, the rest are in the Historisch Museum in the Hague which I will go to in November.

Alexine's watercolour of pass
Alexine’s watercolour of a pass, from her sketch book in the Historisch Museum in the Hague

The few I have seen are delicately painted, calm, serene and convey nothing of the harsh conditions, the disease and the constant danger to which Alexine  subjected herself. This was a time remember, when women of her class were expected to be accompanied by a man to go in to dinner! To be in charge of a party which goes searching for the source of the Nile, and to attempt to cross the Libyan desert, is extraordinary.

Let me introduce you to the extraordinary Florence Baker…

Florece photo 1868-75 from images.rgs.orgThe story of Florence Baker has been hidden away in history behind the figure of her more acclaimed husband Sir Samuel Baker, England’s famous nineteenth century explorer of the White Nile…

Legend has it that Sir Samuel Baker, on a hunting tour of Eastern European the late 1850s, first set eyes on her as a beautiful sixteen year old in a white slave market in Hungary. He promptly bought her freedom; in return she became his life-long companion. They may (or may not) have married immediately in Budapest, either way, Florence was his inseparable companion. Whilst still in her teens, she travelled with Baker to the Sudan to look for the source of the Nile in the early 1860s. Her youth, reputed beauty, fluency in English, Turkish and Arabic, handiness with both pistol and rifle, bravery in withstanding native raids, skill with nursing and possession of enough physical and mental strength to endure years of hardship in killer conditions, make her an intriguing figure.

Having discovered Lake Albert and the Murchison Falls in Uganda, the pair were celebrated by Victorian society on their return home to England in 1865. Despite Florence’s incredible achievements, Queen Victoria refused to shake her hand, the rumours of her ‘past’ and unofficial marriage being insurmountable.

A vivid and detailed letter writer and diarist, Florence leaves no paintings or drawings for me to explore. Accounts of her endless sewing of tents, fashioning of uniforms for the soldiers that accompanied their party, making of practical costumes for her and her husband and papering the walls of their temporary homes along the White Nile with pictures she ordered from England tell us, however, of her practical abilities and strong sense of aesthetic.

Florence is the first adventuress into the Orient I came to know of, the first European woman to go up the White Nile into Uganda, and the beginning of my obsession with this subject…

Welcome to Painting the Nile…

Welcome to Painting the Nile as I chart the progress of my PhD exploring women artists and travellers in the Orient in the nineteenth century. The numbers of European women travelling to the Orient (a nineteenth century term for the area we now know as North Africa and the Middle East) increased greatly as the century progressed.

Egypt - Seton-Thompson, Grace (Gallatin) © The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Egypt – Seton-Thompson, Grace (Gallatin) © The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

Some women published their experiences in the popular genre of travel writing, other recorded their journeys in private diaries, letters and sketchbooks. A few were professional artists, although their paintings were invariably overlooked in deference to male artists; a consequence of the times…I’ll be doing a lot of detective work looking through auction catalogues, trawling through footnotes, and searching museum archives to find these paintings. They will be worth the search, as is evident in the beautiful, refined painting of Henriette Browne, a professional French artist who visited the Orient in the mid nineteenth century.

Fellah Nord Africaine by Henriette Browne 1867
Fellah Nord Africaine by Henriette Browne 1867