Chance Meeting Turned Painter into Diplomat; LOCAL HISTORY How Is It That a Small Corner of a Foreign Field in Faraway Egypt Remains Forever Staffordshire?

The Birmingham Post (England), September 16, 2006 | Go to article overview

Chance Meeting Turned Painter into Diplomat; LOCAL HISTORY How Is It That a Small Corner of a Foreign Field in Faraway Egypt Remains Forever Staffordshire?


Byline: By CHRIS UPTON

In the faraway city of Alexandria there is a little Protestant graveyard, once part of an Englishman's country garden.

In that cemetery stands a cenotaph, surmounted by an urn and an inscription, dated October 1827. It begins: "Here sleep the mortal remains of Henry Salt Esq., a native of the city of Lichfield."

It is, even today, an awfully long way from Lichfield to Egypt. In the early 19th Century it was further still. How is that this corner of a foreign field is forever Staffordshire?

Henry Salt was born in Lichfield on June 14 1780, the youngest of eight children of Alice and Thomas Salt, the latter an army surgeon who had settled in this military town.

Henry was educated at the Free Grammar School, at Market Bosworth and then in Birmingham under the private tuition of his brother, Dr John Butt Salt. By this time, and not entirely with his father's approval, Henry had decided that his future lay as a portrait painter.

He therefore did what most Lichfield men do (Johnson and Garrick among them) and headed for London. And here might have been the beginning and the end of a minor story, that of a jobbing painter in 19th-century London, knocking off portraits and not much more.

That Henry Salt's life turned and ended in very different circumstances was entirely due to a chance meeting at Fuseli's gallery in Pall Mall in June 1799.

His uncle also happened to be there, and in the company of no less a personage than George Annesley, Viscount Valentia (and later the Earl of Mountnorris). Introductions were made and Henry kept in touch.

Three years after that first meeting Valentia agreed to take Henry Salt on his diplomatic mission to India. Quite what the young man's role was to be is unclear, but it was not uncommon for painters (as well as botanists and geologists) to accompany voyages of this kind.

That Henry was well deployed in recording what he saw is clear enough, for many of his watercolours survive in the government collection, and no doubt hang on the wall of the Foreign Office and elsewhere.

Salt would be away from England for four years, partly because a sea voyage to India alone took six months, even in good weather. The trip included visits to India and Ceylon and (for Salt) into Abyssinia, at that time little known by the English.

The knowledge and experience gained in Africa gave Salt entry into diplomatic circles far greater than he could have gained as a mere artist. And his tales of darkest Africa made him a very desirable guest at London dinner parties.

In March 1809 Salt was on his travels once more. The British government was seeking to win over the Emperor of Abyssinia to its side in the endless diplomatic games with the French in East Africa and the Gulf.

Diplomacy in such days (perhaps still) was partly a matter of judicious present-giving. Salt took with him a letter from King George, a marble table, religious paintings and some fireworks.

Whether they reached the Emperor is unknown, since Salt did not get to meet him.

But it was not to Abyssinia that Henry Salt's life would principally be devoted' it was to the north of there. In June 1815 Salt was appointed British Consul-General in Egypt, a post he would hold for the rest of his life.

Then, as now, Egypt was the key to the Gulf and to the Middle East, and a diplomatic deft touch was essential, especially since instructions from Whitehall could take three months to arrive. …

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