Remarkable pseudo-Egyptian facade
In 1834 John Lavin, a bookseller, of Penzance bought two cottages in Chapel Street for £396 and proceeded to raise the height of the building and to add to its street front the present remarkable pseudo-Egyptian facade. The Royal Arms on the building suggest that it was complete before the accession of Queen Victoria in June 1837. John Lavin sold maps, guides and stationery in the Egyptian House, but his main business was in minerals which he bought, sold and exhibited here.
The exotic building must have been intended to emphasise the bizarre and beautiful side of geological specimens and to draw into the shop visitors to the town. At the time there was a great deal of enthusiasm for the study of minerals and fossils, particularly in Cornwall. Not only were the railways and the fashion for the seaside bringing the beginnings of tourism (Cornwall’s principal business today) to the Duchy, but because of the mining industry the county was also a centre of scientific knowledge and enthusiasm. Cornish miners and engineers were carrying their expertise all over the world. Many of the rare specimens sold by Lavin in Chapel Street were found by Cornish miners while at work in the county, but others were brought back to him by those who came home from overseas. He is supposed to have been guilty of the occasional deception!
John Lavin married Frances Roberts in 1822 and they had two children, Edward and John. John, the younger, emigrated to Australia where he was a biscuit-maker. He died in 1881. Edward ran a stationery, bookbinding and printing business in the Egyptian House beside the mineral shop renting the premises from his father. Perhaps he was not keen on geology, because in 1863 a few years after his father’s death, he sold the entire collection of minerals for £2500 to the great Victorian philanthropist, Angela Georgiana, Baroness Burdett-Coutts. With the proceeds he built a large hotel on the esplanade at Penzance, which he called Lavin’s Hotel (now the Mount Bay’s House Hotel).
Motifs derived from the Egyptian style of architecture (obelisks, pyramids, sphinxes etc.) can be found throughout the history of European architecture. The association of so much Egyptian architecture with death meant that it was often used for monuments. With the development of more accurate scholarship, a greater range of forms and ornaments became available to architects especially after the French occupation of Egypt in 1798-9. One of the most prominent English exponents of the style was Thomas Hope (1769-1831) who designed furniture and interiors which were described in scholarly books. But the Egyptian style also appealed to those looking for novelty and publicity and the Egyptian House would seem to be one such example.
Despite much debate on the subject it has never been proved which architect, if any, was responsible for its design. Peter Frederick Robinson and John Foulston are the names most often mentioned. Robinson, who advised the Prince of Wales on the Chinese furnishings at the Brighton Pavilion, was a pupil of Holland and was a successful country house architect. He designed an Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London for a collection of curiosities. Again its purpose was largely advertising for its owner William Bullock. But there is no more than its affinity with the Egyptian House to link the two. John Foulston was closer to hand, practising in Plymouth in a great range of different styles. His Classical and Mathematical School, built in the Egyptian style and criticised at the time for being an imitation of Robinson, still stands somewhat altered as the Odd Fellows Hall. Again there is no other evidence to link Foulston to the Egyptian House.
For a short history of The Egyptian House please click here.
To read the full history album for The Egyptian House please click here.
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A changeover day is a particular day of the week when holidays start and end at our properties. These tend to be on a Friday or a Monday but can sometimes vary. All stays run from one changeover day until another changeover day.
Monday 13th February 2014