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Salt, Henry

Explorer
1780-1827

Henry Salt is best known in Egyptology for collecting antiquities, many of which came from Thebes and were acquired by the British Museum. He was born in Lichfield, England in 1780, the son of a local doctor, and trained as a painter of portraits, studying at the Royal Academy under Farington and Hoppner. A tour of the East between 1802 and 1806, accompanying the collector George Annesley, Viscount of Valentia, was his first introduction to Egypt. After a government mission to Abyssinia from 1809 to 1811, he was appointed British Consul-General to Egypt, arriving there in 1816 and serving in this post until his death from dysentery in 1827, three years after his wife’s demise from cholera.

Salt was buried in the garden of his residence in Alexandria, which subsequently became a European cemetery. During his tenure as British Consul-General, he sponsored many excavations in Egypt and Nubia, acquiring many valuable antiquities for the British Museum, as well as amassing his own collection. Through the services of Giovanni d’Athanasi and Giovanni Belzoni, he procured several important monuments from Thebes. At the urging of the Swiss Orientalist Burckhardt, Salt hired Belzoni to remove a colossal granite bust of Rameses II known as the Young Memnon from the Ramesseum in 1816, which Salt presented to the British Museum the following year. Over the next two decades, the British Museum purchased many artifacts from Salt’s collections, including some of the larger works of Egyptian sculpture in their galleries.

Other museums benefited from his activities, including that of Sir John Soane who purchased the alabaster sarcophagus of Sety I, discovered by Belzoni. The Louvre acquired Salt’s second collection in 1826, including the sarcophagus box of Rameses III. Salt operated at a time when interest in Egypt and its antiquities was reaching a high level in Europe and when the desire to acquire objects for national collections as well as private ones was aided by a lax attitude towards antiquities on the part of Muhammad Ali’s government. Rivalry between the representatives of European colonial powers resulted in the unofficial division of the country into private zones for exploitation, especially so with the competition between Salt’s agents and those of the French consul-general Drovetti. On the heels of this wholesale frenzy of acquisition followed the efforts of scholarly expeditions such as a those of Champollion, Lepsius, Wilkinson, Hay and others in the 1820s through the 1840s to record the monuments remaining in Egypt.

Salt also made use of his drafting skills to record monuments, however his attempts at scholarly pursuits were not taken seriously by his contemporaries. Few of his drawings have survived or been published.