In 1922 the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. It could be considered the first global world media event. It was, and is, a marvellous story about treasure, tragedy and of course, a curse. Despite the significance of the discovery, the first biography of Howard Carter was not written until 1972 and I have yet to write one about Lord Carnarvon!
So I sat down to watch last night’s TV programme about the discovery of Tutankhamun with some anticipation. The problem for Highclere is that the 5th Earl was a real, not a fictional character. He was rather an intellectual, amusing man who had nearly died in a car accident in Schwalbach, Germany. He drove Panhard Levasseurs, an early French car. The accident had so compromised his lungs and health that his doctors advised him to avoid damp English winters and thus he chose to travel to Egypt each winter from 1905/6 onwards. His daughter Evelyn was just 4 years old when he started visiting Egypt and therefore did not travel with him but stayed at home at Highclere. In fact, she did not visit Egypt at all until the winter of 1919/1920, after the First World War.
Lord Carnarvon was introduced to Howard Carter in 1909, through an eminent French Professor, Gaston Maspero, who was Director of Antiquities in Egypt. During the previous two years Lord Carnarvon had completed and photographed his first two years in the Valley of the Nobles which lay on the west bank at Luxor. He was organised and captivated. He and his wife, Almina, would stay at the Winter Palace Hotel, looking across the Nile, crossing each day by boat before riding a donkey to the dig. Egypt is an extraordinary country and one dominated by the River Nile. It is present in most of Lord Carnarvon’s remarkable collection of photographs of Egypt from this time and has dominated Egypt’s history since time immemorial.l.
In 1910 Lord Carnarvon built Howard Carter a house near the Valley of the Kings with bricks sent from England. Extraordinarily we still have a few here. Carter designed the house and it was nicknamed “Castle Carter” a tongue-in-cheek reference to Highclere Castle where Howard Carter would spend summer weekends in order to plan the following season’s projects..
Lord Carnarvon often stayed at “Castle Carter” rather than the hotel as it was nearer the excavation sites and Lord Carnarvon had built a darkroom behind the house to process his photographs. Between them, they acted as foremen, supervising teams of local workers, perhaps 50 to 100 in each team, over two or three months.
Carter and Carnarvon’s relationship with Egypt was, throughout their time there, marked by respect and passion, by diligence and fascination. It shines forth in their letters and in their enormous enthusiasm. I began to research the story for our own exhibition here, to share the characters and detail of an extraordinary story. The exhibition is now in its eighth year. Howard Carter was devastated when Lord Carnarvon died in April 1923 and wrote: “My beloved friend…his judgement of ancient art has rarely been equalled. His efforts … to extend our knowledge of Egyptology will forever be honoured in history and by me his memory will always be cherished”.