Henry Salt: Lichfield's Forgotten Son

Have you ever Heard of Henry Salt? The answer is probably "no"; but if you are an Egyptologist then you will certainly revere his name as a pioneer in Egyptology.

Our speakers, Marsia Bealby and Tom Hobbs, told us that the story begins in June 1780 when Henry was born in Lichfield, the youngest of eight children, to a local surgeon. Up to the age of eleven he was educated at Lichfield's Free School, before being packed off to boarding school at Market Bosworth. At the age of fifteen years he decided that he wanted to be an artist and, despite some false starts, eventually came under the tutelage of the eminent portrait painter John Hoppner. In this way he was introduced into London's social circles, where he met a man who was to change his life - George Annesley, Viscount Valentia. The two men immediately hit it off and Henry became Viscount Valentia's secretary. In 1802 Valencia agreed to a government request to travel to the Red Sea to survey the coast of Africa, taking Henry with him. Such was Henry's competence that in 1805, upon his return, Henry was invited by the Government to lead an expedition to Abyssinia.

Returning home through Egypt, where he met the Governor, Mehemet Ali Pasha, Henry's interest in Egyptian antiquities was aroused. This was to be his lifelong passion, first manifest by his publication in 1809 of a number of works including "A Geometrical Survey of the City of Alexandria". Suddenly he had made a name for himself and a further expedition to Abyssinia took place under his leadership between 1809 and 1811; after which he returned home to publish, in 1814, another influential book entitled "Voyage to Abyssinia". A year later Salt was appointed British Consul General in Egypt at the young age of 35.

It was from now on that his passion and involvement in Egyptian history blossomed. He became a personal friend of Egypt's ruler, Muhammad Ali, which afforded Henry the opportunity of developing his collections and those for the British Museum. In addition, he was an avid recorder and researcher of in situ antiquities, bringing his artistic skills to bear. His book on Egyptian Hieroglyphs, published in 1825, was a landmark text. He financed exploration and excavations, including those to Giza the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx. His first collection was sold to the British Museum for 2,000, followed by further collections to the French King for 10,000. A third was auctioned after his death for 7,000. His work continued in Egypt until his death in 1827 at the age of 47.

Henry Salt remains a controversial character. His relationship with other Egyptologists could be strained; some accused him of being nothing more than "a dealer in antiquities", lining his pockets at the expense of Egyptian heritage. Others saw him as an innovator, a pioneer in recording, interpreting and preserving precious artefacts. But without doubt, many recognise the major contribution he made to the study of Egyptology. He is remembered at the British Museum and in the Louvre - where his efforts have ensured the importance of their collections. Yet here in Lichfield, which he loved, he is forgotten. Tom and Marsia are trying to spread the word. Here is a person, who despite his failings arguably made as significant contribution to British culture as did our other famous sons of Lichfield.

Roger Hockney
June 2013