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Cleopatra's needle being brought to England, 1877

Fine art

Object connections:

Collection Fine art, Oil paintings
Gallery locationNot on display
VesselsCleopatra fl.1877

Object details:

Object ID BHC0641
Description Built in about 1500 BC during the reign of Pharaoh Thothmes III, the 3,500 year-old Cleopatra's Needle was presented to Britain at the beginning of the 19th century. Its hazardous transport to London was only made possible in October 1877 by a private sponsor, Dr Erasmus Wilson, and by John Dixon. He designed a cylindrical vessel, the 'Cleopatra', which was constructed around the Needle. Cleopatra's Needle was brought to London from Alexandria, the royal city of Cleopatra. Britain wanted something large and significant to commemorate the British victory over Napoleon, sixty-three years earlier. So the British public subscribed £15,000 to bring the Needle over from Alexandria. It arrived in England after an eventful journey by sea in January 1878. A specially designed cigar-shaped container ship, also called the ‘Cleopatra’, was devised to convey it. Built by the Dixon brothers it was an iron cylinder, 93 feet long, 15 feet wide, and divided into ten watertight compartments. However on 14 October 1877 in treacherous waters off the west coast of France in the Bay of Biscay the ‘Cleopatra’ was in danger of sinking. The steam-ship towing her, the ‘Olga’, sent six volunteers in a boat to take off the ‘Cleopatra's crew, but the boat was swamped and the volunteers drowned. Eventually the ‘Olga’ drew alongside and rescued ‘Cleopatra's’ five crewmen and their skipper, and cut the towrope, leaving the vessel adrift in the Bay of Biscay. Five days later a ship spotted the ‘Cleopatra’ floating undamaged off the northern coast of Spain, and she was towed to the port of Ferrol. There a steam-ship, the ‘Anglia’, arrived to tow the Cleopatra to London by January 1878. In September 1878 the needle was positioned on the Thames Embankment, where it still stands. The painting is a contemporary account of the journey, though it is not an eye witness account. It records the period in the journey when the ‘Cleopatra’ was under tow by the paddle steamer shown in the distance on the left. The figures in the ‘Cleopatra’ struggling with the sail demonstrate the precariousness of the journey and instability of the vessel.
Date made circa 1877

Artist/Maker Knight, George
Credit National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. We regret that Museum enquiries have not been able to identify the copyright holder and would welcome any information that would help us update our records. Please contact the Picture Library.
Materials oil on canvas
Measurements Frame: 870 mm x 1356 mm x 65 mm;Painting: 755 mm x 1270 mm
  • Cleopatra's needle being brought to England, 1877 (BHC0641)
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