The extraordinary elevation of our Egyptian House in Penzance

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 he took with him, in addition to his 400 ships and 54,000 soldiers, a presumably rather unlikely looking collection of academics. Armed with theodolites and sketch books rather than muskets, these antiquaries and historians, geologists and botanists were charged with committing to paper the culture and antiquities of the place while Napoleon’s soldiers overran its dams and cities.

The military enterprise did not end well, but the scholarly was a huge success and would result in 23 splendid volumes of the Description de l'Égypte. These books, with their spectacular measured plans and elevations, revealed Ancient Egypt to the world as never before, sparking the Regency craze for things Egyptian.

The Egyptian House in Penzance is a wonderfully unlikely survivor of this late Georgian Egyptomania. It leaps out, a wholly unexpected feature in the narrow windy streets of Penzance. The building, which was one of the Landmark Trust’s earliest restorations, was the creation of an enterprising book and mineral seller, John Lavin, who bought the site in 1834, and proceeded to remodel the existing cottages into this exotic confection.

The upper storeys glory in Coade stone ornaments of lotus buds and obelisks punctuated by the royal arms and a magnificent guardian eagle.  I keep my eye out for its comrades (128 Fortune Green Road in North London is one I pass almost daily), but for the Egyptian House’s early date and sheer jaunty exuberance, none comes close.

There are three apartments in the Egyptian House. The first floor is available from £187. The second floor is available from £177. The third floor is available from £196.

This article first appeared in the RIBA Friends of Architecture magazine. To find out more about the Royal Institute of British Architects visit  

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