This Egyptianized bookcase from Southeast Asia, decorated with hieroglyphics, was found amidst a pile of junk in Bangkok. How it came there and what its history had been could only be conjectured. With the help of the Egyptologist Professor Dr Eugène Warmenbol of the Université libre de Bruxelles, however, some of the questions have now been answered.
On the front left of the bookcase is an inscription that reveals the cabinet-maker’s name: Joseph, with Birouty or Beyrouthias a surname or place of origin. Who this individual was remains a question. In 1991 a piece of furniture came up for sale that had similar decorations by the same hand, but nothing more was known. In the only available photograph, which appeared in the Architectural Digest that year, the hieroglyphic script is illegible. Very probably ‘Joseph’ worked in Paris – the name of the city is also mentioned – but this is not absolutely certain. Below the name is a date, 1907, presumably the year in which the bookcase was made.
The bookcase’s maker found his inspiration for the design and the decorations in the two-volume richly illustrated Atlas de l’art égyptien by Émile Prisse d’Avennes, which was published in instalments between 1858 and 1877 and was hugely successful, likewise among artists and decorators. The general shape of the bookcase was almost certainly derived from the niche of the mammisi or ‘birth-house’ at Dendera (vol. Architecture, pl. 53). On the left side are the heads of Amenhotep III and his first consort Queen Tiye, which Prisse d’Avennes copied from a Theban tomb. On the right side are the profiles of King Taharqa, portrayed as the god Amun, as he is on the colonnade he erected at Karnak, and Tausert, a queen from the nineteenth dynasty.
The name and profession of the person for whom ‘Joseph’ made the bookcase are also revealed by the long inscription on the right: Parmentier and architect. Following these details is Siam, the old name for Thailand. Surprisingly, this is followed by Maha Chulalongkorn, a title borne by the king of Siam. Undoubtedly the architect in question was Henri Parmentier (Paris 1871 – Phnom Penh 1949), who worked in French Indochina from the early years of the 20th century until his death. He was a pensionary of the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), which commissioned him to study the country’s art, architecture and archaeology. The excavations at Angkor became his life’s work. Why Siam should be mentioned in the inscription seems something of a puzzle: Parmentier did not work in Thailand. In 1907, however, Rama V of Siam ceded territory, including Siem Reap Province, where the Angkor temple complex is located, to Cambodia – or, more accurately, to what was then French Indochina. Before that date Parmentier’s beloved Angkor had indeed been in Siam.
Whatever the case, Indochina was Parmentier’s second home. Among those with whom he had close contacts was Georges Maspéro, one of the two sons of Gaston Maspéro, who was one of France’s most renowned Egyptologists. But in 1907 – the year in which the bookcase was built – Parmentier returned to Paris for a few months. It was presumably then that he had it made and shipped to Southeast Asia. Pieces of furniture in the Egyptianized style are not unusual in themselves, but this is the only known example to have been to the Far East and back.
Black-painted fruitwood withgilt woodandmetalornaments
Signed and dated 1907 in the inscription on the front left
H. 280 cm, W. 175 cm, D. 67 cm
Exhibition: Edouard and Cleopatra. Egyptomania’s from the XIXth century, 20 September 2012 – 10 February 2013, Brussels, Villa Empain, Boghossian Foundation
Sources: ART-A, p.88-90; Boghossian Foundation, p. 36; Marchal, H., p. 93-101; Prisse d’Avennes, É., vol.Architecture, pl. 53; Veldeman, M., p. 44-47; Warmenbol, E.