Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilkinson, John Gardner

732983Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 61 — Wilkinson, John Gardner1900David Samuel Margoliouth

WILKINSON, Sir JOHN GARDNER (1797–1875), explorer and Egyptologist, born on 5 Oct. 1797 and baptised at Chelsea on 17 Jan. 1798, was the son of the Rev. John Wilkinson of Hardendale, Westmoreland, and descended from Sir Salathiel Lovell [q.v.] His father was a member of the African Exploration Society and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and his mother Mary Anne, daughter of the Rev. Richard Gardner, was a classical scholar. He is said to have developed a taste for antiquities and sculpture at an early age, his childish pleasure being to see the plates published by the learned societies to which his father belonged. His parents died while he was a minor, leaving him a competency. He became the ward of the Rev. Dr. Yates, who sent him in 1813 to Harrow school, to which he in later years manifested his attachment by presenting it with a collection of Egyptian and classical antiquities, such as he thought would have helped his studies when a schoolboy; and indeed he appears both at school and at Exeter College, whence he matriculated on 1 April 1816, to have utilised every opportunity that he had for familiarising himself with architecture and the history of art. He seems to have left the university without a degree (Foster, Alumni Oxon. (1715-1886), and in 1820 he went, partly for the sake of his health, to Italy. There he became acquainted with Sir William Gell, by whose advice he resolved to take part in furthering the study of Egyptology, which the researches of Thomas Young and Champollion were beginning to open out.

Wilkinson arrived at Alexandria in 1821, and, making Cairo his basis, spent twelve years in Egypt and Nubia. After devoting some time to the acquisition of Arabic, both spoken and written, he visited in 1823 the eastern desert of Upper Nubia in company with D. Burton. His account of this journey did not, however, appear till 1832, when an extract from his diary was published in the Geographical Society's 'Journal.' He twice ascended the Nile as far as the second cataract, and many times as far as Thebes, where he spent much of the years 1824, 1827, and 1828, and where in 1827 he carried on elaborate excavations and caused many of the tombs to be uncovered. During his residence in Egypt he became acquainted with many of the pioneers of Egyptology, and studied Coptic in order to be able to follow their researches; and he arrived independently at conclusions similar to those of Champollion (whom he never met), to whose interpretation of the hieroglyphs he contributed criticisms and corrections rather than positive additions. His first work bearing on Egyptian antiquities, called 'Materia Hieroglyphica: containing the Egyptian Pantheon and the succession of the Pharaohs from the earliest times to the conquest of Alexander, with Plates and Notes,' was printed at Malta in 1828, and followed by 'Extracts from several Hieroglyphical Subjects, with Remarks on the same,' printed at Malta in 1830, but with a dedication to Sir W. Gell, dated from Thebes, 1827. Both of these were printed in a limited number of copies, in some of which the author supplemented with his own hand the deficiencies of the Maltese printing-office. In 1830 he completed his 'Topographical Survey of Thebes,' of which the Royal Geographical Society undertook the publication.

His long residence in Egypt having begun to affect his health, Wilkinson returned to England in 1833, where he was elected F.R.S. on 18 Dec. 1834, and in 1835 published his first popular work, 'The Topography of Thebes and General Survey of Egypt,' which he had intended printing at Alexandria some years before, but had been prevented by the printer's death. This work contained the chief results of the author's researches in Thebes, where his discoveries in the tomb quarter by Karnak and the Ramesseum constituted his chief advance on the work of the authors of the 'Description d'Egypte;' but it also was intended to be a practical guide to European travellers. In the opinion of Letronne it was the completest and most substantial work on Egypt that had appeared since the French description, and the favourable reception accorded it induced the author to give the world his most important book, 'Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians' (3 vols. London, 1837), to which two more volumes on Egyptian religion and mythology were afterwards added. In this standard work the statements of ancient writers about Egypt, together with the results of modern excavations and researches conducted by the author and others, were lucidly arranged, explained in a fascinating style, and richly illustrated with plans, engravings, and coloured plates. Wilkinson's remarkable acquaintance with botany, zoology, and the technique of the arts, together; with his command of ancient literature, gave him unique qualifications for the treatment of this subject; and it was acknowledged that he had brought to light many new facts connected with Egyptian manners, history, and religion. The work brought the author into general notice, both as a savant and as a popular writer; and on 26 Aug. 1839 a knighthood was conferred on him by Melbourne's administration in recognition of his services to literature, public attention having been previously called to the fact that his researches, unlike those of Champollion, Rosellini, and others, had received no assistance from government.

In 1839 he published a paper 'On the Nile and the Present and Former Levels of Egypt' in the 'Journal' of the Geographical Society, of which he was that year elected a fellow; and in 1842 he revisited Egypt and made a 'Survey of the Valley of the Natron Lakes and of a part of the Bahr-el-Farg,' which appeared in the same journal in 1843; and in 1843 he also published an enlarged edition of his topography, with the title 'Moslem Egypt and Thebes' (2 vols.), in which, besides an abundance of archæological and topographical information, the very fullest directions were given for travellers, including a good vocabulary of modern Arabic. This work was afterwards incorporated in Murray's series of handbooks, and was frequently reprinted. Towards the end of the same year he started for Montenegro, and spent 1844 in travelling through that country, Herzegovina, and Bosnia, where he surveyed, sketched, and collected inscriptions. During his stay at Mostar he made an attempt, unfortunately ineffectual, to mitigate the cruelties practised by Turks and Montenegrins in their wars. His account of this journey, which appeared in 1848 (2 vols.), contains valuable notes on the manners, traditions, and condition of the people he visited, as well as carefully compiled historical notices, and gives an accurate history of the Paulician heresy, as well as other valuable digressions. Some of the political forecasts of that work have since been verified by events. The winter of 1848-9 he again spent in Egypt and Nubia, and the results of this journey appeared in an article in the Geographical Society's 'Journal' for 1851: 'On the Country between Wady Halfah and Jebel Berkel.'

For the winter of 1849-50 Wilkinson returned to Italy and studied the Turin papyrus, in which Champollion had first detected the royal lists, which had been pieced together by Seyffarth and edited by Lepsius; and owing to the fact that the latter had omitted to reproduce the writing on the back of the papyrus, Wilkinson judged it wise to publish a fresh facsimile, which was printed by subscription in 1851 and issued together with dissertations by Wilkinson and Hincks. A short treatise 'On the Architecture of Ancient Egypt,' which was published by subscription in 1850, contains some of the results of his studies in the Roman museums in 1849. On 23 June 1852 he was created D.C.L. of Oxford University.

In 1854 he published 'A Popular Account of the Ancient Egyptians,' which was an abridged edition of his larger work brought into uniformity with Lane's 'Modern Egyptians.' In 1855 he visited Thebes for the last time. He met with a sunstroke, which, however, did not permanently injure him.

On 16 Oct. 1856 he married, at Llanover, Caroline Catherine, eldest daughter of Henry Lucas of Uplands, Glamorganshire, authoress of a work on 'Weeds and Wild Flowers,' which appeared two years later. In 1857 he published a companion to the Crystal Palace Egyptian collections, called 'Egypt at the Time of the Pharaohs,' and also made important contributions to the notes appended to Rawlinson's translation of Herodotus. In 1858 there appeared his treatise on 'Colour and Taste,' in which some articles contributed by him to the 'Builder' in 1855 were incorporated. His purpose in that work was to bring before the English public canons of taste which he had learnt in his studies in continental museums; but it also shows that the author had been influenced by Ruskin. He lays down artistic principles in it with unusual precision, endeavours to detect æsthetic errors in a variety of English usages, and pleads earnestly for the Sunday opening of museums and galleries.

In 1860 he was in Cornwall, and contributed a paper on the antiquities of Redruth to the 'Transactions' of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. In 1864 he made a collection of shells in the Bay of Cadiz, and in the following year published in the 'Zoologist' (vol. xxii.) an account of a new British oyster which he had discovered at Tenby, where he was then residing. In 1867 he pleaded successfully in the 'Archæological Journal' for the preservation of an ancient gateway at Tenby, the destruction of which was threatened. Various other papers were contributed by him to the 'Transactions' of the Royal Society of Literature, and to other literary and scientific periodicals.

He died at Llandovery on 29 Oct. 1875, and was buried there on 3 Nov. His collection of antiquities was presented by him to Harrow school in 1864, accompanied with an elaborate catalogue drawn up by himself; a more modern description by Dr. Budge was published by the school authorities in 1887. Other antiques collected by him are in the British Museum.

[Obituary Notices in Journal of Royal Geographical Society and Archæological Journal; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715-1886; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub.; Lists of the Royal Society.]

D. S. M.