Why Does Richmond Avenue In Islington Have This Row Of Sphinxes?

By M@ Last edited 23 months ago

Last Updated 19 July 2022

Why Does Richmond Avenue In Islington Have This Row Of Sphinxes?
A row of black sphinxes on the doorsteps of houses

Richmond Avenue is a well-to-do street connecting Islington's Liverpool Road to Cally Road. It's so well-to-do that many of the houses on its south side have guardian sphinxes. This is certainly preferable to a pair of gnomes. But why are they here?

The biggest clue can be found on the miniature obelisks, which rise behind each sphinx. Carved into some is the word Nile.

Two black sphinxes with miniature obelisks behind, perch on whitewashed pediments

The reference, of course, is to the Battle of the Nile, in which Admiral Nelson won a famous victory over Napoleon's navy. But here's the odd thing. The battle was won in 1798, whereas this terrace dates from 1841... which isn't even an anniversary. What gives?

The discrepancy is testament to London's long love affair with Egypt. After the Nile, displaying Egyptian motifs was a way of celebrating British domination and imperial ambition. It continued all through the 19th century, with giant sphinxes built outside the re-erected crystal palace in 1854, and culminated in the erection of Cleopatra's Needle in 1877. A new wave would be launched in the 20th century with the British discovery of Tutankhamun. It arguably continues to this day, with the pyramid-topped tower of 1 Canada Square.

Richmond Avenue is merely the showiest example on a residential street, but you don't need the eye of Horus to find Egyptian architectural references all over London.

Incidentally, the parallel Copenhagen Street did not get its name from the Battle of Copenhagen, in which Nelson also played a starring role. It is instead named for Copenhagen House, the residence of the Danish Ambassador that stood hereabouts in the 17th century.