Illustrations by the Early Travelers

An Appreciation of a Lost Art

By: Donald White

Originally Published in 1992

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The following 15 North African coastal scenes were executed by four artist-explorers between roughly 1820 and 1865. The geographic region is shut in on the west by the desolate Syrtic Gulf (Figs. 2-4) and to the east by Egypt’s scorched Western Desert that begins just outside of Alexandria (Fig. 5). The bulk of the views record the upland eastern Libyan gebel cut by the densely wooded, plunging wadis or ravines (Figs. 6, 14) that surround Cyrene or depict the ancient monuments belonging to the regional capital (Figs. 7-11, 13) and its companion-city, Ptolemais (Figs. 12, 15). Unfortunately none illustrate Cyrene Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone which had to wait until 1910 before being captured on film.

Adventuresome 18th and early 19th century travelers plan­ning to recoup their expenses from printed accounts of their ex­plorations were routinely expected to double as cartographers, architec­tural draftsmen, and landscape art­ists. There is nothing here that cannot be easily paralleled in other contem­porary travel books describing Greece and Asia Minor, the Middle East, India, and the Americas. But by the time of R.M. Smith and E.A. Porcher’s British Museum-sponsored mission to Cyrene in 1860, the photographic camera had begun to take its place as an integral piece of expedition equipment, and the end was near for book illustrations of the sort shown here.

Some of the grander expeditions of the day were made up of entire teams of specialists. When, for example, Baron II. von Minutoli left Alexan­dria in 1820 to explore the Oasis of Jupiter Amun at Siwa, his party included at least four people who bore the title of Doctor, including his draftsman, Herr Prof. Liman. Such was more the exception than the rule, however. When Captain George F. Lyon, R.N., attempted to cross the Sahara from Tripoli, he simply set forth with a Mr. Ritchie who had the had luck to die in Murzuq, leaving the talented naval officer to provide the expedition’s colorful illustrations (Figs. 2, 3). Lt. Frederick Beechey (R.N.) and Henry Beechey were the sons of the illustrious portrait painter Sir William Beechey (1753-1839). Frederick, besides being a highly competent surveyor, was a gifted artist (inside front cover, Figs. 4, 12). The Frenchman Jean-Raymond Porcher

Some of the grander expeditions of the day were made up of entire teams of specialists. When, for example, Baron II. von Minutoli left Alexan­dria in 1820 to explore the Oasis of Jupiter Amun at Siwa, his party included at least four people who bore the title of Doctor, including his draftsman, Herr Prof. Liman. Such was more the exception than the rule, however. When Captain George F. Lyon, R.N., attempted to cross the Sahara from Tripoli, he simply set forth with a Mr. Ritchie who had the had luck to die in Murzuq, leaving the talented naval officer to provide the expedition’s colorful illustrations (Figs. 2, 3). Lt. Frederick Beechey (R.N.) and Henry Beechey were the sons of the illustrious portrait painter Sir William Beechey (1753-1839). Frederick, besides being a highly competent surveyor, was a gifted artist (inside front cover, Figs. 4, 12). The Frenchman Jean-Raymond Pacho struggled on alone after his companion fell seriously ill at Derma (Figs. 5, 8-9, 13). The British Museum team’s illustrator was Commander E.A. Porcher, the third in this series of Royal Navy explorers, whose personal capabilities in this instance encompassed cartography, architec­tural rendering, and watercolor land­scapes (Figs. 1, 6-7, 10-11, 14-15).

We are lucky to be able to repro­duce one of Porcher original water­colors (Fig.14). This lovely scene of the Wadi Bel Gadir, painted below the site of Cyrene’s Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone, is one of a number of Porcher works owned by the British Museum that were not selected for the 1864 publication. It therefore appears here as an unpub­lished original.

The conditions under which the plans, drawings, pen-and-ink washes, and watercolors of these artist-explorers were executed would have been at times appallingly difficult, and one wonders at the skill and accuracy of their various renderings. Many of the ancient monuments plotted on their site plans either no longer exist today or have been severely damaged. And, unlike the rest of the Mediterranean region, the area covered by these illustrations remains largely cut off and unfamiliar to most modern travelers.

Lyon, whose genre pictures have a “primitive,” Henri Rousseau-like directness, is perhaps the least pol­ished of the four artists represented. Frederick Beechey’s and Porcher works are more painterly and hence deliberately atmospheric, while Pa­cho excels in rather dry, academic­ally precise architectural elevations and scrupulously observed render­ings of trees, plants, and animals. The Beechey brothers were without ques­tion the most proficient surveyors and mapmakers (see inside front cover). Deprived of their efforts, our knowledge of this remote corner of the ancient world would be sadly impoverished.

Cite This Article

White, Donald. "Illustrations by the Early Travelers." Expedition Magazine 34, no. 1-2 (July, 1992): -. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/illustrations-by-the-early-travelers/


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