Saturday 6 December 2008

Egyptian House, Penzance

Penzance is one of a select group of towns that attract the designation of the “last of England”. Despite its remoteness, it’s well worth a visit to sample the individual flavour and character of a town that has resisted/escaped absorption into the general mediocrity of the modern English townscape. Not everything is wonderful. The entrails of contemporary commerce are much in evidence, including one quite horrific strip on the main shopping street (Market Jew Street) where 4 out of 5 consecutive premises are occupied by mobile phone retailers!

The Egyptian House in Chapel Street is one of the town’s architectural treasures. Built in 1835 when the cult for all things Egyptian was probably on the wane elsewhere, it drew heavily on the design of the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly (designed by P F Robinson in 1812) for inspiration. Local mineralogist, John Lavin, commissioned the building to serve as a museum and repository for his collection of geological specimens. It’s a fine example of attention-seeking architecture with its colourful and exotic facade. Much of the detailing is the product of the architect’s imagination and there was no intention to produce a historically accurate recreation of genuine Egyptian building style but in its cheerfully impure form it does a wonderful job of brightening up the townscape.

For the last 40 years the building has belonged to the Landmark Trust and the external condition appears very well maintained. When the fashion for things Egyptian passed the building must have looked increasingly dated and the critical eyes of the Victorian Gothic Revivalists would have found it an anathema. All the more remarkable that it has survived to the present to delight us with its lavish ornamentation and superb lotus bud columns flanking the entrance.

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