Entertainment » Books

Out There :: Egyptian Treasures

by Roberto Friedman
Saturday Aug 15, 2015

Summer is breezy and cool in San Francisco, but Out There spent last week sweltering as if under a Sahara sun as we read "The Obelisk and the Englishman - The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes" by Dorothy U. Seyler (Prometheus Books).

William John Bankes (1786-1855) came from landed gentry and served several terms in Parliament, but made his greatest contributions as an early Egyptologist. Bankes' archeological work in Egypt and Syria produced drawings and notes on temples and tombs otherwise lost to history. His copies of hieroglyphs helped scholars decode the language. And his contributions of art and design to his estate Kingston Lacy, one of the great houses of Britain, made lasting contributions. But his clandestine homosexual life proved his undoing in homophobic Regency-era England.

For OT, Seyler's book provided three main areas of interest: first, in its depiction of the homosexual-homosocial world of Cambridge, where Bankes was good friends with bisexual Romantic poet Lord Byron, and intramural fumblings under the sheets were not unheard-of.

Then there are descriptions of Bankes' early explorations of Egypt, Nubia (now Sudan), Petra and other ancient sites. "Even though the Rosetta Stone had been in England for more than 10 years, no one was yet close, in 1815, to understanding the Egyptian language," but nothing dampened Bankes' curiosity about the ancient civilizations. He went further up-river on the Nile than any previous European.

Finally, Seyler tells the tragic story of Bankes' eventual downfall due to homosexual scandal. In 1833, Bankes was arrested in a "public convenience" near his home for getting busy with Thomas Flowers, a guardsman. They were charged with meeting for "unnatural purposes." (Sodomy was a capital offense in England until 1861, and remained illegal well into the 20th century.) Among his character witnesses at trial was the Duke of Wellington , who vouched for his manliness. As if that were a sign of heteronormativity. Bankes was acquitted.

But in 1841, a second illicit encounter with another hunky guardsman, this time outside in Green Park, resulted in another arrest, this one not as easily dismissed. Faced with trial and conviction, Bankes left England for end-of-life exile based in Venice, Italy. After all of his contributions to government, the arts and sciences, his name in English society was besmirched. Ridiculous.

The book has 16 color plates depicting Bankes' collected art, drawings of ancient Egyptian ruins, the Philae obelisk he brought home, and interiors and art from his estate at Kingston Lacy. There are also bibliographic notes, an index, and a chronology of ancient Egyptian kingdoms and dynasties. This last is very useful to a reader like OT, who doesn't know Ramesses from a hole in the ground.

Duke of the Uke

Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro, often referred to as the Miles Davis of his craft, will be bringing his four-string, two-octave instrument to Davies Symphony Hall in SF on Sun., Aug. 16.

A native of Honolulu, Hawaii, Shimabukuro is a ukulele virtuoso, composer, and inspirational speaker. His music ranges from jazz, blues, and rock to bluegrass, classical, and folk. His career skyrocketed after he uploaded a cover of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" onto YouTube. Since then he has collaborated with artists including Yo-Yo Ma, Jimmy Buffett, Bette Midler, Cyndi Lauper, Ziggy Marley, Dave Koz, and Lyle Lovett, as well as orchestras around the world. More info is at sfjazz.org.

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.ebar.com


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