Liverpool’s Egyptian-revival architecture: a photographer’s tour

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The month of May is Photo Month. As part of the month in 2018, I shared on Facebook and Twitter photos of Egyptian-revival architecture around Liverpool. The posts were popular, so I’ve put them all together here. For those interested in photographing them, I’ve included extra information on how I photographed them.

Although we don’t have anything as grand as the Carreras Cigarette Factory in London or the Egyptian House in Penzance, we do have a few gems up here in Liverpool. I’m going to start my tour up at the top of the hill at the University of Liverpool and work my way on down (in a slightly wiggly way) to the Waterfront.

If you want to follow the trail, I’d advise you to take a longer lens or a zoom lens as many of these spots are at least at first-floor level. However, do pack your wide-angle in case you want to grab some broader shots of the buildings in general.

If you’re not in Liverpool, or not interested in the photography aspect, just enjoy the photos and skip the sections about how to photograph the buildings.

Four sphinxes at the University of Liverpool

These two pairs of rather wonderful sphinxes sit upon the rooftops of the Ashton Building at the University of Liverpool next door to the Victoria Gallery and Museum at the top of Brownlow Hill. To find them, stand in front of the Harold Cohen library and look up. I really didn’t know much about them, so many thanks to the VGM for sharing this info on Twitter with me:

The Two Sphinxes by William Bernie Rhind were produced between 1912 and 1914. The details of the two sphinxes were approved by the Professor of Classical Archaeology, Professor R.C Bosanquet (1906-1920) before they were positioned.

Two Egyptian revival sphinxes atop a building at the University of Liverpool
One of the pairs of sphinxes at the University of Liverpool
Two Egyptian revival sphinxes atop a building at the University of Liverpool
The other pair of sphinxes at the University of Liverpool

Photographing the sphinxes

To photograph these sphinxes from the ground in any kind of detail, you definitely need a long lens. I took these photos with a 120 mm lens. The VGM also shared this superb photo of one of the sphinxes, presumably taken from an upper floor of the Harold Cohen. The photographer’s managed to get both the Radio City tower and one of the Liver birds into the shot. I don’t know who the photographer is to credit them (if you know, please shout so I can give proper credit):

A tweet showing my photos of the sphinx with a reply from the Victoria Gallery and Museum

I’d love to get up closer to photograph these sphinxes sometime …

The Tomb of the Gambler, Rodney Street

Walking down the hill a little, we come to the local legend that is the Tomb of the Gambler on Rodney Street. Legend has it that the inhabitant, William Mackenzie, was interred sitting at a table holding a winning poker hand as a way of cheating Satan after having lost his soul to him in a game of cards.

Unfortunately, this isn’t quite so. William is buried in a vault underneath the pyramid; the pyramid itself was added by his brother seventeen years after William’s death.

I can only assume that William’s brother chose a pyramid as part of the 19th century fashion of using Egyptian architectural styles in graveyards. Interestingly, the pyramid itself more closely resembles the Nubian pyramids in the Sudan with its steeper sides and pylon-gateway at the front. You can read a little more about the tomb of the gambler in this post.

A pyramid tomb in the middle of a graveyard
The Tomb of the Gambler
A close-up shot of a 19th century pyramid-shaped tomb
More Nubian than Egyptian ...?

Photographing the Tomb of the Gambler

The tomb is relatively easy to photograph. What was St Andrew’s church is now part of the John Moore’s University campus. Thankfully, the graveyard was preserved when the church was redeveloped. You can’t walk around the graveyard itself, but you only have a wrought-iron fence between the pavement and the graves, so you can still get reasonably close. Stand at the fence and use a longer lens to get a closeup of the pyramid, or get a wide-angle shot to include some of the building. Although most of the building’s new, the front façade has been preserved and is rather lovely in itself.

Because the tomb’s in a graveyard with grass and trees, you could try visiting at different times of the year to see how the seasons affect the look of your photographs.

Neo-classical sphinxes, Renshaw Street

This beauty is at a mega-busy spot in Liverpool that I frequent, but it was years before I spotted it. It’s at the junction on the corner of Bold Street and Renshaw Street, on top of the building that houses Sainsbury’s Local.

There are sphinxes (or the front parts, at least) all the way around the top of this turret. Although they’re in the style of the Greek sphinx – with wings and the head of a woman – the sphinx is a creature with its roots planted firmly in ancient Egypt. I’m not sure when these date to, but most of Bold Street and Renshaw Street were built in the 19th century.

Ancient Greek-style sphinxes around the top of a small turret
Neo-classical sphinxes atop Sainsbury's Local at the top of Bold Street

Photographing the sphinxes

As I said, these ladies tend to evade the eye. They’re straight ahead of you as you walk down Hardman Street towards Bold Street. Again, you’ll need a longer lens (or zoom in) to get any detail. You could try walking back up the hill a bit to get a bit more on a level with them, or, as I did, stand at the top of the steps of the bombed-out church on the opposite side of the junction. Alternatively, you could get close and point your camera up at them to get a bit more of a jaunty angle.

As these sphinxes are up high, the time of day and how sunny or overcast it is will affect the feel of your photo. Try for a sunny day for a high-contrast black-and-white shot.

Papyriform columns on Forbidden Planet, Bold Street

Just a few yards down into Bold Street from the neo-classical sphinxes is Forbidden Planet; a store well known by fans of sci-fi, fantasy and cult entertainment.

The building has three floors, and each one is a little different. The ground floor (obviously!) is the store front. The first floor’s neo-classical in style, and the second floor is … well … a little bit of a mashup. Mostly neo-classical, it sports these rather lovely columns, which are more Egyptian in style. They may not look immediately Egyptian, but they’ve been inspired by the open papyriform columns from ancient temples.

Two Egyptian Revival columns on Forbidden Planet
The columns on the second floor of Forbidden Planet in Bold Street

Photographing the Forbidden Planet columns

This side of Bold Street is usually in the shade, so you won’t get much of an opportunity to use the sun to bring out the texture in the stone, unfortunately. Your photos are always going to be a little bit more muted.

The road is quite narrow, so it can be tricky to get a good angle on the columns. If you want a straight-on shot, you’re going to be pointing your camera upwards. You could try walking up the street a little to get a more side-on shot. This would allow you to elevate your position (a little) in relation to the columns. Another alternative, which I haven’t tried (but should) would be to go upstairs in Leaf opposite to see if you can get a shot through the window. You would still be a little to the side, but you’d be closer to them. (I wouldn’t ever recommend walking into a café just to use their window as a photography spot. It’s a bit rude, really. Leaf’s a great place; stop in for a cuppa and take your camera along with you.)

Papyriform columns in Castle Street

Veering off into the business district of Liverpool, we come to Castle Street. Number 55, right at the end of the street, is part of the building complex that is the rather beautiful One Derby Square. The building dates to the 1950s and has neo-classical motifs in its design. Why these columns – inspired by the open papyrus columns from Egypt – were included, I don’t really know. However, they’re there, and they’re beautifully carved.

A building in Castle Street, Liverpool, with Egyptian Revival columns on the front
Egyptianesque columns at the side of Derby Square

Photographing the Castle Street columns

Castle Street is a reasonably wide street, so if you want a straight-on shot, just cross over to the other side of the road (as I did here, using a 50 mm lens).

The street runs north-west to south-east, and because it opens up into Derby Square, you do get some sunshine there, so the time of day and the weather will affect your photo. I took this picture in the middle of the day in the middle of May (2016). If I left it until later in the day, I might possibly have got a bit more light shining onto the tops of the columns as the sun lowered in the sky.

Exchange Flags

Just at the other end of Castle Street, behind the old Town Hall, is Exchange Flags. Originally an exchange for merchants and brokers, the square’s now dominated by the Exchange Flags building, built in the late 1930s and then extended in the 1940s and 1950s.

The majority of the building is neo-classical in style, but when you look a little closer at the grand doorways of Walker House and Horton House in the corners of the complex, you’ll look up and see these columns. At first glance, they look quite Ionic in style. However, apart from the scrolls the design’s been inspired by papyriform columns, and so these columns seem to be a bit of a mashup of Egyptian and Greek styles.

A large office building with a pedestrianised central area.
Exchange Flags, just off Dale Street in Liverpool
The capital of a column, carved with a mixture of ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek architectural elements
Columns at the doorway of Walker House in Exchange Flags

Photographing the Exchange Flags columns

These columns are quite easy to get to. Exchange Flags is an open pedestrian area, and the columns are at the front doors of the buildings, so you can either walk right up to them and point your camera upwards, or you can move back and get straight-on. Because one set is always in the shade and the other in the sunlight, as long as you’ve got some sunshine, you have the choice of whether to go for a high- or a low-contrast shot. Happy days!

A pharaoh at the Cunard Building, Liverpool Waterfront

Arriving at the Liverpool Waterfront, we come to the Cunard Building; one of the so-called ‘Three Graces’ (along with the Port of Liverpool Building and, mostly famously, the Liver Building).

Liverpool is a port city and became vastly wealthy in the 18th and 19th century because of it (including, sadly, wealth made through the slave trade). The Cunard Building, built in the early 20th century, originally housed the headquarters of the Cunard Line shipping company. Part of the exterior decoration is a row of heads around the walls just above the first-floor windows. Each head represents a different culture from around the world to reflect the international work of the Cunard company.

This pharaoh’s head is on the north side of the building, so rather than looking out over the water or watching the busy world of the Strand, he’s staring at the side of the Liver Building. But, he looks content enough.

Looking up at a 19th century building covered in carvings
The pharaoh's head on the side of the Cunard Building
A pharaoh's head on the side of the Cunard Building, Liverpool
Although not truly Egyptian in style, the nemes headdress, beard and rearing cobra are unmistakable

Photographing the pharaoh

This guy is not the easiest subject to photograph, I’m afraid. You need to be able to zoom in/bring a long lens as he’s not that large, and sits at first floor level on a building where each storey is pretentiously tall. Also, his side of the building is north-facing and overshadowed by the Liver Building, so you don’t have the opportunity to use the sunlight to get shadows and contrast, and you can’t step very far back to get at him straight on. However, you work with what you’re given, and I found the best way to get a decent photo was to stay close and look up at him from a little to the side. That way, I captured the detail of his rearing cobra, beard and headdress; the details that make him undeniably pharaonic.

The Queensway Tunnel ventilation tower, Liverpool Waterfront

For the grand finale, we move one building along from the Cunard to the magnificent ventilation tower for the Queensway Tunnel.

Designed by Herbert James Rowse and built 1925-1934, the Queensway tunnel runs underneath the River Mersey, connecting Liverpool to the Wirral. It’s an absolute must for art deco lovers.

Several ventilation shafts were constructed as part of the tunnel, but this one on the waterfront is the most beautifully decorated.

A tall, rectangular tower in the art deco architectural style
The magnificent ventilation tower for the Queensway tunnel

Carved motifs

First up are these beautiful carvings in that wonderful interwar, art deco style. There are four in total: two on the south side, two on the north. Each one comprises a male figure in the centre, flanked by two females.

The two on the south (pictured here) include Egyptian motifs; the ones on the north, ancient Greek.

Before I start, I have to admit that I don’t know much about the symbolism on these pieces. I’ve added a few thoughts, but they’re guesses on my behalf. I think I’ll book in a trip to the library to find out more.

The figures on the left side have the male in an Egyptian-style wig holding a circular object with two further circles inside. I would guess that this could be in reference to the shape of the tunnel (although the tunnel looks semi-circular to those driving through, it’s actually a full circle). The two females hold what looks like construction tools.

A stone carving of three people; a man and two women. The man has an ancient Egyptian wig
One of the murals on the Queensway Tunnel; see his Egyptian-style wig

On the right carving, the male is holding what looks like a pylon gateway (probably the tunnel entrance; see below), and the females have beautiful Egyptian wigs, including parts of the vulture headdress worn by Egyptian queens. Again, they hold what look like construction tools. The triangular shapes behind the male’s head are reminiscent of the Egyptian water hieroglyph.

A stone carving of three people; a man and two women. The women have Egyptian hairstyles
One of the carvings on the Queenway Tunnel ventilation tower. The women have unmistakably Egyptian hairstyles

I would think that the use of both Egyptian and Greek motifs on the tower could be a nod to the superb architectural feats of these civilisations. When it was built, the Queensway Tunnel was the largest underwater tunnel ever constructed.

Wrought-iron fence

This lovely green and gold wrought-iron fence runs along the south side of the tower. Interspersed along the fence are solid panels, each with two serpents winding around a flaming torch, topped by a beautiful Egyptian winged sundisc.

Along the top section of the fence are trapezoidal details with tiny scrolls, which are reminiscent of the top of the Egyptian Hathor sistrum and Hathor columns.

A green and gold fence with art deco Egyptian revival design
The wrought-iron fence along the side of the Queensway tunnel ventilation tower
A rectangular wrought-iron panel with Egyptian Revival art deco design
One of the beautiful panels on the fence showing a winged sundisc
The top decoration on a wrought-iron fence with Egyptian Revival art deco design
These details along the top seem to have been inspired by Hathoric columns in Egypt

Other wingéd things

Finally, on the east side of the tower (below left) are two doors with emblems inspired by the winged sundisc. And yes, that is grime all over the door. This is the side of the tower that looks onto the Strand; a horrendously busy road.

On the north side of the building is one of the toll booths that would’ve originally stood at the entrance to the tunnel (below right). It’s painted in the same gorgeous green and gold, and has a lovely winged disc at its centre.

A triangular winged decoration on a door
The winged emblem on the side door of the ventilation tower
A green and gold toll booth with a winged emblem on the side
The winged emblem on the side of the toll booth

If you cross over the main road, just opposite the Liver Building, is a side exit to the tunnel. Just by the exit is this lovely winged sundisc carved on the wall.

An art deco-style winged sundisk carved into the side of a stone wall
The winged sundisc at the side exit of the Queensway Tunnel

Queensway Tunnel entrance

And finally … really finally … with a quick hop, skip and a jump (or trudge, if you’ve actually been doing this tour!) back down to the other end of Dale Street, is the grand Liverpool-side entrance to the tunnel. The top of the entrance itself is pylon-like in its shape. It has a pair of carved horses in the centre – very Greek in style – topped by the same winged sundisc in the previous picture.

At either side of the entrance are square booths. They have very regal looking, stylised winged emblems on the side, with two columns that are djed-like in their design.

The entrance to the Queensway Tunnel, shaped like an Egyptian temple doorway with carvings in the centre
The Liverpool-side entrance to the Queensway Tunnel
An art deco-style building with Egyptian Revival columns and winged emblem
Detail of one of the booths at the entrance of the Queensway Tunnel

Photographing the Queensway tunnel

The ventilation tower is wonderful to photograph. There’s all sorts there, and not just the Egyptian elements I’ve shown you. The Egyptian motifs, being on the south side, are great to photograph on a sunny day. You can use the shadows to bring out the detail in the carvings and get some nice, high-contrast shots. The Greek ones on the north side are trickier, as it’s always in the shade, so you might have problems with low contrast and not being able to pick out as many details.

The tricky part about the motifs is that they’re around first-floor level, so if you like to shoot straight on, you’re going to struggle. To achieve this, you’d need a much longer lens and to move away from the building.

The tower is a good place to mix it up when it comes to zooming in and out. The building itself is great for some lovely, sweeping wide-angle shots, accompanied by closer-up details of the carvings.

As for the tunnel entrance, you have to be careful. There’s a busy roundabout, and you get traffic coming at you from all directions. I don’t like shooting the tunnel straight on also because there’s so much street furniture (road signs, lights etc), I find it spoils my photo too much. The best spots to go are either side of the tunnel. There’s a raised grassy area to the right, bringing you up on a level with the top of the booths. There are small car parks either side of the entrance, so you can get closer and get some sideways shots. The left-hand-side of the entrance is under trees, so spring or summer is a lovely time to get some greenery into your photos.

Now, turn around, get yourself into the World Museum and have a cup of tea. You deserve it!

Photographing Egyptian-revival architecture

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tour. If you’re in Liverpool – resident or visitor – please consider getting your own photos of these bits of Egyptian-revival architecture and sharing them with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

For those of you everywhere else that’s not Liverpool, look around you as you’re walking around towns and cities; you never know what you’ll spot. Again, I’d love to see photos of Egyptian-revival architecture where you are. If you see something and you’re not sure if it’s Egyptian, photograph it and ask me. I’ll have a look and see if I can help.

I might do another post some time on Egyptian-revival architecture in general, to help you spot features. In the meantime, use this post as a starting point. Here’s a link to a website with different types of ancient Egyptian column, which I’ve found really helpful when looking at modern columns. Victorian-era graves can be a good start, too, because of all the obelisks.

I’ll also continue to photograph and share with you social media any other Egyptian-revival architecture spots I come across on my travels.

Have fun!

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22 May 2019 2:10 pm

[…] There are a few more Egyptian revival spots around Liverpool, some of which I’ve put together as a photographer’s Egyptian revival architecture tour. […]

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