By Amara Thornton (Research Officer, Ure Museum)

In 1947 the Museum of Greek Archaeology at the University of Reading received a bequest.  A small number of Egyptian antiquities came into the Museum’s collection courtesy of Miss Henrietta Lawes.  She also left over 30 books, all of them on Egypt (archaeology, travel, history), to the University’s Library.

On loan from University of Reading Special Collections.

Henrietta Lawes was a Berkshire resident. She grew up in Caversham, where her father ran a mill.  But she also lived in Tilehurst and eventually died in Wokingham.  Thanks to local historian Sidney Gold who wrote a short biography for Reading Museum on Henrietta Lawes, we now know that in 1890 at age 29 she started her formal higher education at the Reading School of Art on Valpy Street.

Subsequently she was among the first cohorts of students at the newly established University College Reading. In 1897, five years after it was established, she obtained an Art Master’s Certificate, and was awarded a prize for her work at the end of the session.  The Certificate would have enabled her to teach art, although there is no evidence at present that she did this.  One of her contemporaries on this course was Allen Seaby, later Professor of Fine Art at Reading, who had obtained his Art Master’s Certificate two years before.

During this time she was the Treasurer of both the University College Reading “Vacation Sketching Club” (Seaby was a fellow member), and from autumn 1897 the “Talbot Art Club”. Both Clubs had exhibitions of work, so perhaps her first public outing as an artist was as a part of these Clubs.  Late the following year (1898) she set out for Egypt as a volunteer, paying her own way, on an archaeological excavation.

The excavation in question was directed by Flinders Petrie, Professor of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London, and his wife Hilda (Urlin) Petrie.   They had married the year before, so Hilda Petrie was still relatively new to the field.  Joining the team on site at Hu, where cemeteries were being excavated, were Beatrice Orme, a friend of Hilda’s, and some of Petrie’s (male) students-in-training – David Randall MacIver and Arthur Mace.

Henrietta Lawes’ art qualifications and training came into good use as she drew excavated pottery.  She and Beatrice Orme were also responsible for looking after and keeping track of the ceramics and skeletons that were unearthed during the season.  But she also had time off. Petrie’s field journal, sent back to the UK and circulated among his supporters, reveals that she took a trip to Abydos (a site that was to be the next one Petrie turned his sights on) with Sarah Amos, a resident of Cairo and friend of Petrie’s for many years. Amos was also an active and vocal supporter of women’s suffrage.

Excavation seasons in Egypt at that time ran between November and March, and it was the Petrie’s habit to arrange exhibitions in London of excavated antiquities after each season.  So some of the antiquities that Henrietta Lawes had carefully catalogued and managed on site were on display for three weeks at University College London. Henrietta Lawes most likely helped to arrange the exhibition and her name was included in the catalogue.  Later that year she facilitated the acquisition of antiquities from Petrie’s excavations at Hu for Reading Museum.

As the 20th century dawned, Henrietta Lawes continued exhibiting her art.  As a member of the Berkshire Art Society (established in 1898 to promote the work of Berkshire artists) she showed works at Reading Museum and Art Gallery in 1901 and 1902.  She gained good reviews for her watercolour “Market Day at Nagh Hamadeh” (a town very close to where she had worked at Hu). One reviewer noted that “she has caught the effects of the rich colouring of the East”, while another declared it was “a strongly-coloured and well-drawn sketch … – a very pretty picture”.

By the 1920s she was living in Tilehurst with her sister Jessie, a militant suffragette who had been arrested more than once (including for a raid on the House of Commons in June 1909 along with their first cousin Emmaline Pethick-Lawrence).  Henrietta Lawes continued her interest in archaeology as a member of the Berkshire Archaeological Society.

It’s clear that throughout this time she was also increasing her own personal library. The books she left to University of Reading Library at her death show her acquiring both scholarly and popular works on Egyptian history and archaeology. Alongside a collection of works by Petrie are books by other students trained by him – including her Hu colleague Duncan Randall-MacIver, and Arthur Weigall and Margaret Murray.

One of Lawes’ books, Baedeker’s Egypt: a Handbook for Travellers will be on display at the Ure Museum in “Egypt in Reading: Stories from the Liverpool Collection” until 5 May 2020. Find it in the section on Britain in Egypt.

The artefacts Henrietta Lawes bequested to the Museum of Greek Archaeology (Ure Museum) in 1947. Photo: M. Knight/Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology.

Henrietta Lawes also left eight antiquities to the Museum of Greek Archaeology (now the Ure Museum).  It is not clear how these were acquired or what sites they are from. Most of them can be seen on display in the Museum today.

Henrietta Lawes’s book bequest

  • St John, J.A. Egypt and Nubia (1845)
  • Gordon, Lady D, Letters from Egypt, 1863-65. 3rd edn. (1866)
  • McCann, Egypt as it is (2nd edn) [1877]
  • Mariette, A. The Monuments of Upper Egypt (1877)
  • Wilson, E. Egypt of the Past (1881)
  • Ebers, G. L’Egypte: Alexandria et le Caire (2nd edn) (1883)
  • Berkley, E. The Pharaohs and their People (1884)
  • Maspero, G. Life in Ancient Egypt and Assyria (1892)
  • Ryan, C. Egyptian Art (1894)
  • Ward, J. Pyramids and Progress (1900)
  • Petrie, W.M.F. Denderah 1898 (1900)
  • Budge, E.A.W. The Nile Notes for Travellers in Egypt (1901)
  • Petrie, WMF The Royal Tombs of the earliest dynasties, Part 2 (1901)
  • Baedeker, K. Egypt: a handbook for travellers (5th edn) (1902)
  • Brugsch, H. Egypt Under the Pharaohs (3rd edn) (1902)
  • Petrie, WMF Abydos Part 1 (1902)
  • Caulfield, A St G The temple of the kings at Abydos (Sety 1) (1902)
  • MacIver, DR-, El Amrah and Abydos, 1899-1901 (1902)
  • Petrie, W.M.F. Methods and Aims in Archaeology (1904)
  • De Guerville, A.B. New Egypt (1905)
  • Newberry P.E. and Garstang, J. A Short History of Ancient Egypt (1907)
  • Bell, G. L. The Desert and the Sown (1907)
  • Petrie, W.M.F. Memphis 1 (1909)
  • Weigall, A.E.P.B. The life and times of Aknaton, Pharaoh of Egypt (1910)
  • Benedite, G. L’art egyptien dans ses lignes generales (1923)
  • Petrie, W.M.F. Social Life in Ancient Egypt (1923)
  • Jones, M.E.M. Ancient Egypt from the Records (1924)
  • Erman, A. The literature of the Ancient Egyptians (1927)
  • Petrie, W.M.F. Beth-Pelet (1930)
  • Murray, M.A. Egyptian Temples (1931)
  • Petrie, W.M.F. Seventy Years in Archaeology (1931)
  • Petrie, W.M.F. Ancient Gaza Vols 1 and 3 (1931-33)
  • Petrie, W.M.F. Shabtis (1935)
  • Storrs, R. Orientations (1939)

References/Further Reading

Artefacts of Excavation project

The Daily Mail 1909. 116 Arrests. Women’s Raid on Parliament. Inspector Struck by Mrs. Pankhurst. 30 June: 3.

Drower, Margaret (ed). Letters from the Desert: The Correspondence of Flinders and Hilda Petrie. Oxford: Aris and Phillips.

Gold, Sidney. Henrietta Lawes biography [Reading Museum archive]

Lee, Christopher. ‘…the grand piano came by camel’: Arthur C. Mace, the neglected Egyptologist. Edinburgh & London: Mainstream Publishing.

Petrie Diary 1898/9 [Griffith Institute, University of Oxford].

Petrie, Flinders. [1898]. (transc. B. Balanda). Letter to Emily Paterson.  31 Oct. Egypt Exploration Society archives [EES.I.c.28].

Petrie, Flinders. 1898. (transc. B. Balanda). Field Report A.  23 Dec. Egypt Exploration Society archives [EES.I.c.14].

Reading Chronicle. 1901. The Berkshire Art Society. Annual Exhibtion in the Reading Art Gallery. 23 Nov [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting Book 1897-1901].

Reading Mercury. Berkshire Art Society. Third Exhibition at Reading. 23 Nov. [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting Book 1897-1901].

Reading Observer, 1897. University Extension College, Reading. Distribution of Prizes to Students. Speech by Professor Stewart on Greek Culture. 26 Nov [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting Book 1897-1901].

Reading Standard, 1897. Government Science and Art Classes and Schools of Painting. 12 Nov [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting Book 1897-1901].

Reading Standard. 1901. Berkshire Art Society. Third Annual Exhibition. 23 Nov [University History Collection Newspaper Cutting Book 1897-1901].

University College Reading, Calendar 1897-8.

With special thanks to Carl Graves, Stephanie Boonstra, Francisco Boche-Puche Madeleine Ding, Samantha Tabner, Matt Williams, Fiona Melhuish, Claire Clough, Danni Corfield, Siobhan Wood and Ted Simonds.