This group statue, depicting a seated figure identified as Mehernefer and his young son, was carved from a single block of limestone during the early years of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, between 2400 and 2300 BC.
‘At the time, the art of ancient Egypt was in its stylistic infancy,’ explains Claudio Corsi, head of Christie’s Ancient Art & Antiquities department in London. Queen Cleopatra wouldn’t be born for another 2,400 years; her reign, during the Ptolemaic dynasty, was closer to the era of the iPhone than to the creation of this work offered in The Exceptional Sale in London on 7 July.
‘It is a brilliant early example of the principles of Egyptian portraiture that were laid down by the Pharaohs themselves, and which would endure for thousands of years,’ says the specialist.
The man’s powerful physique suggests virility. The boy, represented holding the index finger of his right hand to his mouth in the standard Egyptian gesture of youth, affectionately places his left arm behind his father’s back and rests his hand on his shoulder.
The sculpture’s surface, which would once have been brightly painted, has faded, but inscriptions along its base reveal that both figures were named Mehernefer. The boy, a later inscription records, went on to reach the prominent rank of ‘God’s Servant/Prophet of the Wadjet and King’s Agent in Nubia’.
It is possible that the pair were originally joined by the figure of the elder Mehernefer’s wife, which was subsequently chiselled off. ‘We know this was sometimes done in antiquity after a divorce,’ says Corsi, adding that an example in the Brooklyn Museum may give an indication of its original form.
The quality of the workmanship points to the studios of Memphis, Egypt’s northern capital at the time. The inscriptions, however, suggest that it was intended for interment in the son’s tomb, which is likely to have been in the shadow of Giza’s Great Pyramid.
The sculpture’s recorded history begins in the middle of the 18th century, when it was acquired by Sir James Porter, a British diplomat. Porter had an illustrious career as a trade envoy and consul in continental Europe. He collected this piece during his time as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople, between 1746 and 1761.
As a foreign representative of the British crown, Porter was familiar with the custom of diplomatic gift-giving, and he sent this sculpture to King George III.
The king was an avid collector. At the time of his ascent to the throne in 1760, aged 22, he already owned fabulous engraved gems, prints, books and a set of Canaletto paintings. Eight years later, and by then a supporter of Thomas Gainsborough, Johann Zoffany and Benjamin West, he granted the Royal Academy of Arts his patronage, together with premises at Old Somerset House, then a royal palace.
When the statue arrived at the royal court it was one of the oldest Egyptian artworks in England. Little was then known about Egyptian antiquity, and artefacts such as mummified cats and sarcophagi were generally consigned to antiquarians’ ‘cabinets of curiosities’.
It would not be until 1822 that the French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion began to decipher hieroglyphics. Consequently, when George III presented the sculpture to his friend Thomas Worsley some time before 1778, it was wrongly identified as portraying the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris.
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Worsley was a well-connected gentleman — Prime Minister John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute, was an old friend from Eton. Stuart helped Worsley rise to become Surveyor-General of the Office of Works, a role through which he grew close to the king. In appreciation, George presented him with this sculpture, as well as Giambologna’s masterpiece Samson Slaying a Philistine, now at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Ever since, the Egyptian statue has remained on display at Worsley’s Palladian country house, Hovingham Hall in Yorkshire.
‘So few of these sculptural groups survive, and even fewer are in private hands,’ says Corsi. ‘To find one with royal provenance is exceptional.’