Egypt: The Artwork of Winifred Brunton

The Art Work by Winifred Brunton

By Jimmy Dunn

Winifred Brunton was the South African wife of British Egyptologist Guy Brunton, who excavated at Lahun with Sir Flinders Petrie, as well as at other sites later in his career. Later, Guy Brunton served as Assistant Keeper of the Cairo Museum in 1931. Of course, Winifred illustrated many of the objects in her husband's excavation reports, including items from the Tomb of Tutankhaman discovered by Howard Carter. Most Egyptian enthusiasts will be familiar with her artwork that, relative to Egypt, mostly consists of portraits. Her work was carried out in the early part of the 20th century and published as illustrations in two volumes consisting of Kings and Queens of Ancient Egypt (1926) and Great Ones of Ancient Egypt (1929). Today these books are highly collectable, but only for the illustrations.

Her work was certainly based on the evidence that was available at the time, and in some cases, the artwork is in fact simply an enhanced illustration of an existing statue. But she did study the pharaohs and other subjects of her work, including their mummies but also their personalities and other attributes. But perhaps it was the depth to which she studied them, and particularly their personalities, that might cause concern about their actual physical features, for it was here that she became somewhat creative. Modern anthropologists and others who might attempt recreations such as hers would likely adhere more closely to physical evidence without attributing physical traits to personalities. Furthermore, in some situations such as that of King Narmer, she had scant evidence to base a painting upon.

Of course, in addition to this, we simply know more about many of the pharaohs than we did then, and have more evidence of them at our disposal. Since the early 1900's many new statues and depictions have been unearthed, so it is very likely that even her paintings, executed with our increased on hand information, would turn out somewhat different.

Regardless, this does not prevent her work from not only being beautiful, but even haunting in many ways, and in many cases such as the portrait of Nefertiti, very much on the mark.

Queen Hatshepsut Info

Hatshepsut Info

Narmer Info

Pepi I Info

Queen Tetisheri


Amenemhet III Info

Tuthmosis III Info


Akhenten Info

Seti I Info

Ramesses II Info


Queen of Teta

Cleopatra VII Info

Amenidis I

Queen Ty

Ramesses III Info

Taharqo Info

In her own words, she tells about her efforts:

"A portrait -painter falls naturally into the habit of searching the faces of his sitters for indications of character. The painting of a portrait is in fact a hunt for the personality hidden or expressed by the features. The artist ponders on the faces of those best known to him, comparing them with those of mere acquaintancies , and trying to account for likenesses of form by similarities in character.

No one can fail to conclude that, broadly speaking, there is something in the outward aspect which reflects the inward personality - that the face, the whole figure, balance and movement of a human being, are a true indication of the soul and mind - if we could read the signs well enough. But it is a big if. Can we ever learn enough of the signs to read them certainly? There are so many factors to take into consideration. It is not enough to say 'He has a broad brow and shrewd eyes - he must be intelligent' or 'he has a square jaw and a firm mouth - he must have a strong will' This is the merest alphabet - the letters, which properly put together, should make words, even sentences. It is not a question of one or two features only, but of the proportions and balance of a face, to say nothing of the hands ( often more expressive than the face ) , the voice, the hair, the bearing, the feet, and so on. And in considering these, one must be careful not to lay undue stress on mere 'family' features, but to take into consideration accidental effects on the carriage, hair and feet particularly.

The alphabet, then, seems endless, the factors infinite in number, and the attempt vain for one student in one lifetime to grasp sufficient to form reliable conclusions. Hopeless perhaps, but how interesting to go on trying! And so I did. And presently it did really seem as if I could depend upon a particular set of combination of features to mean a certain streak of character - even more, upon a certain smile meaning a special generosity - a particular nose invariably implying a greedy nature, a special kind of eyelid indicating caution or nervousness - always provided no other feature or features definitely gave contrary evidence.

And then I went to Egypt, and my study was led into a path which seems hitherto unexplored. In 1911, on visiting the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo, I had my first sight of the royal mummies. all who have seen them know how especially striking are the two kings Sety I and Ramses II. As I hung over the cases enclosing them, the thought crossed my mind, 'How delightful it would be to make these stately ancients sit, in their actual flesh, for their modern portraits!' Though at first a casual impulse, the idea stayed and grew. I began to form mental pictures of ancient royalty in its brilliant regalia and robes of white linen - to study the methods of mummification so as to understand the changes it involves in the outward aspect of the body.

If one could realise the behaviour of the features under the operation, would it not be possible to reverse the process in imagination, and reconstruct the living subject? Then how enthralling to indicate on the restored features, the character and temperament of the man, so far as known to us through history! How did these quiet dead faces bear out what we know? And in what did they amplify or contradict tradition? To make a serious study of these royal dead, I must be guided by the mummies principally but not exclusively.

I turned to the statutes and reliefs. These would show me how the sitters impressed the artists of those days, and the work of an artist's chisel or brush is at least as good evidence as the sworn word of a witness in a court of law, at any rate when the artist is as literal-minded as were the Egyptians. Do we not know the honest mistakes a man in the witness-box can make? And shall we not concede the difference between a trained and an untrained observer?

The ancient artist was a trained observer; I would examine his trained evidence on what he saw, and compare it with what I could see today of the Pharaohs. This done, discrepancies appeared which could not be disregarded. And besides, the various artists who portrayed a Pharaoh did not all agree in detail among themselves. This added to the difficulty! It was evident that some detailed and perhaps laborious comparing would have to be done. I had recourse again to the mummy, and took the face carefully back through the process of mummification.

Certain confirmations appeared of the artists' evidence; these I accepted and retained, especially as they seemed to me to agree with the king's known character. Discrepancies on the other hand could be partly accounted for by the changes in the subject between youth and old age, and partly by the deference due to kings. Finally I did construct a firm scaffolding on which to build my portrait, and so the picture of Sety I was begun.

The costume was a simpler problem. One had only to consult the monuments and the jewel-room of the Museum, and to be careful to avoid howlers such as a dinner party parure with a field-service helmet, and so on. Ramses II was next attempted, and I was greatly cheered by the recognition of my resuscitated kings by several eminent archaeologists. Not all the Egyptologists who recognised my portraits realised the method in my madness, the slow sifting of evidence and the laborious brick-making. To many they seemed flights of a fancy only slightly, if at all, controlled by research.

But one of the most famous of them all, namely Professor Breasted, gave me enormous encouragement. Whatever was to be thought of these particular portraits, he admitted that this was a line of research not hitherto tried, but perfectly legitimate and which might conceivably yield valuable results. His kind words so stimulated me that I made similar attempts with other defunct royalties, and gradually completed the series of kings and queens which appear in these pages.

The portrait of Ramses II followed that of Sety I. It was an earlier task, as there were so many statues of the later king to consult. The only surprise, as I worked on it, was the unexpected look of humour that developed; a quality one would have hardly have suspected of Ramses II. The mummies of comparatively few of the kings are well enough preserved to afford clear information. Among them however is that of Ramses III, whose dead face is a curious and interesting, though rather a repulsive study. There is a look of hate, rage and disappointment. Can it be that the events of the close of his life so stamped their traces upon his features as to obscure the look of sagacity that so able a ruler must surely have possessed? He certainly lacks the air of nobility noticeable in many of the great rulers of Egypt. Not all the portraits in this book are of equal historical value.

In the case of Khafra I had only the famous diorite statue in Cairo and the exquisite fragment now in Copenhagen, as reliable guides. For this reason I did not feel justified in giving this king my usual realistic treatment. He is such a vague personage that all I could indicate was a vision , man or statue, one hardly knows which, looming out of the distant past. Amenemhat III's portrait was a fairly straightforward piece of work. It was only necessary to take all the authentic statutes of this king, and by eliminating the differences and retaining the similarities, it was possible to get a fairly definite result.

But the expression remains a puzzling one. Why that tragic look? It was surely due to more than the ordinary cares of state, heavy though these may have been. here is a face with history written on it, but alas! we cannot read the script other than vaguely. as for his complexion, darker than most of the others, that is more or less surmise. It is considered by some Egyptologists that the very individual family type of the x11th Dynasty was due to southern blood.

The picture of Queen Tetasheri ('little Teta') was suggested by the delightful statuette in the British Museum. The technique of this shows that the sculptor was hampered by his lack of facility, but in spite of a certain gaucherie he has conveyed such a delicious impression of shy youth, the little queen seeming weighed down by her royal array with its heavy headress ( a very interesting early form of the vulture cap ), that the impulse to translate this effort into modern langauge was irresistable. Hatshepsut was another baffling person. Her portraits have been so heartily obliterated by Thothmes III that it is hard to find one intact. But enough material remains to show that she strongly resembled her father, Thothmes I. Into her portrait as queen there crept, almost without my will, a look of watchfulness, or even suspicion, under its calm. In the somewhat anomalous position she occupied, against precedent in a country where precedent was justification in it itself, and amid so many enemies and spies, she must have felt perpetually insecure, even though her immediate entourage wasardently devoted to her. So I let the watchful look remain - though I have no historical warrant for it.

The mummy attributed to Thothmes III is so badly knocked about and imperfect that it was next to useless as a basis for his portrait. But there is the very fine schist statute in the Cairo Museum, and hosts of others, all agreeing closely. In the schist statute there is in the full face a touch of vulgarity, alomost of pompousness, which vanishes as one passes to his noble profile. His mother was only a lady of Thothmes II's harim, not a royalty. Who can say whether the mixture of common blood with the 'divine' was not visible on Thothmes III's face (indeed our sculptor affirms almost in spite of himself, that it was so ) and whether it was not just the cruder vigour of the strain that made him so successful an agressor abroad?

The sculptor has had a struggle over the lower part of the face, between his love of truth and his reverence for the king. Down to the mouth the face is that of a fattish man - but it would never do for the Lord of the Two Lands to be represented to his adoring subjects with a double chin and thick neck, so the round cheeks fall away suddenly to the slim neck of a boy, quite out of keeping with the rest.

Of the portrait of Akhenaten I will say little except that it represents the king as he must have been toward the end of his reign. The poetic grace of his youth had gone, and illness and fanaticism had left their mark. He must have realised, if he realised anything, that his beautiful religion was not gaining ground, and that the world remained unregenerate. Ty's whole face shows her to have been a woman of violent emotions, swayed by impulse, subject to moods, and her expressive mouth moreover is that of a jealous imperious individual, lacking self-control.

What a contrast is the high-bred self-repressed face of Nefertithi, eloquent of intelligence and forbearance. If these two women's faces speak the truth, they hint at family difficulties of which history tells us nothing. At any rate, Nefertithi looks 'more of a lady' than any other queen whose portrait has come down to us.

Mutnezemt is a quite obscure personage, frankly treated merely as a peg for decoration. The only historical value of the picture is as a representation of the crown, wig and jewellery of the very end of the XVIIIth Dynasty, when fashions were changing, and the details have been carefully studied and can be depended upon. The face has been taken from a beautiful colossal limestone head, attributed, and I think correctly, to the reign of Horemheb. This head is so obviously a portrait, that it has been thought to represent the Queen of Horemheb or some royal lady of the period , and a clever cruel creature she was, if the sculptor is to be trusted. It is at least likely that the portrait is that of Mutnezemt, as of anyone else. But we know nothing certainly.

The value of this line of research cannot be known till it has at least been tried. The faces of our long ago predecessors must first be studied in the light of known facts, and then it will be found that more light is revealed by the study. If we had given the countenance of our fellow-man of today closer attention, we should be able better to interpret the revelation of those faces so wonderfully preserved to us from ancient times. I tender my warm thanks to all those who have helped me with this book - more particularly to those Egyptologists who voluntarily gave me assistance of the greatest value."