About this Landmark
One of three apartments set behind the most extraordinary façade. The Egyptian House is in the centre of Penzance, offering a perfect base from which to explore West Cornwall. This unusual house is a rare and noble survivor of a style that was in fashion after Napoleon's campaign in Egypt in 1798.
4 nights from
- equivalent to £11.88 per person, per night
Originally built as a museum and geological shop
The third floor apartment is one of three Landmarks within the Egyptian House. This particular apartment has views across Penzance towards St Michael’s Mount. It dates from about 1835 and the front elevation is very similar to that of the former Egyptian Hall in Picadilly, designed by P. F. Robinson. Robinson or Foulston of Plymouth are the most likely candidates for its design, though there is no evidence to support the claim of either. No matter who designed it, today you can enjoy The Egyptian House as a base to explore everything that bustling Penzance and West Cornwall have to offer; such as Chyauster Ancient Village, St Michael's Mount and the Botallack mine.
An eye-catching shop front
It was built for John Lanvin as a museum and geological repository. Why was there a geological shop here? Although picked over by Victorians, the beaches at Penzance still hold every kind of pebble, from quartz to chalcedony. When we acquired the building in 1968, its colossal façade, with lotus bud capitals and enrichments of a proprietary artificial stone, concealed two small granite houses above shops, solid and with a pleasant rear elevation but very decrepit interiors. During our work to the front, we reconstructed these as three compact apartments, the highest of which has a view, through a small window and over the chimney pots of the town, of Mounts Bay and St Michael’s Mount.
The third floor apartment has views over to St Michael's Mount and is one of the three Landmarks here. See all our Landmarks at Egyptian House
‘Views of the sea from all but one window. We were literally on top of the world! Best word - wonderous.’
From the logbook
Remarkable pseudo-Egyptian facade
In 1834 John Lavin, 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), but because of the mining industry the county was 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.
Little had been done to the building
The Lavin family continued to own the Egyptian House until 1910, while letting it to a variety of different tenants and shopkeepers. Then, after the death of George Lavin and his mother Georgina, it was sold to William and Fanny Legg (Drapers) of 8 Chapel Street. It was sold by their heirs to the Cornish Stone Company in 1951, who sold it in turn in 1968 to the Landmark Trust, as a charity that specialises in the restoration of buildings of architectural and historic importance.
At this time it was divided vertically into two flats with two staircases. The shop in No 6 was empty, and the flat above occupied by Mrs Crichton, who had lived there since 1962. Mr Duckham had a millinery shop in No 7, and lived over it as he had since 1960.
Little had been done to the building since the alterations made by John Lavin, and the roof, with its small flaunched peg slates, was in poor condition. The walls - granite for the back and sides, brick chimneys, and brick and stucco for the Egyptian front - were also in a poor state, with the front beginning to come away from the side walls. Much of this was in need of repointing. The front had been repainted at some time in the 1950s, but the plaster itself was cracked, and some of the detail coming loose. Inside there was dry rot in the basement and ground floor, and woodworm throughout.
Work began on the repair of the building in 1970, and its conversion into three flats, each running the whole width of the building, with two shops below. The roof was renewed completely, with a new frame designed to prevent the walls from spreading any further. The back wall had been rendered, and this was stripped off, the stonework made good and repointed. The bow window of the staircase, part of Lavin's remodelling, was repaired, and given an inner skin to make it more draft proof. A new window was made in the north wall of the third floor, to light the bedroom, and the windows in the rear wall on all floors were enlarged, again to give more light.
Inside, the dry rot was eradicated, the floors treated and also strengthened, and new floor made up where the extra, and now unnecessary staircase had been. The remaining staircase was given a curved inner wall, to balance the curve of the window. New kitchens and bathrooms were fitted.
Before doing anything to the front of the building, it was carefully analysed in its existing state. This revealed that much of the ornament is made from Coade stone, a famous artificial stone manufactured at Lambeth in London. However none of the Coade catalogues for the 1830s survive, so that it was impossible to trace them any further. Paint scrapes were also done, and it was on the basis of these, and on research into the colours used in the Egyptian revival, that a scheme for painting was drawn up. Having done all this, the plaster was repaired, and the front repainted. The windows of the upper floors retained their original sashes and glazing bars, and just needed minor repairs. However the ground floor windows had been altered quite early on - at least by the date of an engraving of c.1859, which shows them with plate glass. Luckily, the mortices were still there in the sashes, and working from these, and from engravings of Robinson's Egyptian Hall, and Foulston's Library, the existing pattern of glazing was worked out. To complete the work, the Royal Arms were repainted, shining out to startle the seagulls in Lavin's showcase front.
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