Henry Salt

Birth: 1780


Henry Salt (1780-1827) was an English traveller and collector of antiquities. He was born at Lichfield on 14 June 1780 and was the youngest child of Thomas Salt, a Lichfield doctor, by his wife Alice, daughter of Cary Butt, another medical man of Lichfield. He was sent to the free school of his native place, and to the school at Market Bosworth, where he was idle, though fond of reading. He was destined for a portrait-painter, and on leaving school was taught drawing by Glover, the watercolor-painter of Lichfield. In 1797 he went to London and became a pupil of Joseph Farington, R.A., and (in 1800) of John Hoppner, R.A. About 1801 he painted a few portraits which he sold for small sums; but, though an accurate draughtsman, he never mastered the technicalities of painting.

On 3 June 1802 Salt left London for an eastern tour with George, viscount Valentia (afterwards Lord Mountnorris), whom he accompanied as secretary and draughtsman. He visited India, Ceylon, and (in 1805) Abyssinia, returning to England on 26 Oct. 1806. He made many drawings, some of which served to illustrate Lord Valentia's Voyages and Travels to India, published in 1809. Twenty-four Views in St. Helena and Egypt were published by Salt from his own drawings in the same year. The originals of all these drawings were retained by Lord Valentia.

In January 1809 Salt was sent by the British government to Abyssinia to carry presents to the king, to report on the state of the country, and to cultivate friendly relations with the tribes on the Red Sea coast. He was unable to proceed to the king at Gondar, but delivered the presents of ammunition and richly ornamented arms to the ras of Tigre, whom he delighted with a display of fireworks.

Salt again reached England on 11 Jan. 1811. He subsequently received an affectionate letter from the ras: 'How art thou, Hinorai Sawelt? Peace to thee, and may the peace of the Lord be with thee! Above all things, how how art thou, my friend, Hinorai Sawelt?' In 1814 Salt published A Voyage to Abyssinia describing his travels in that country during 1809 and 1810. The work was well received, and Salt's publishers paid him 800l., with a share in the profits.

In 1815 (May or June) Salt was appointed British consul-general in Egypt. After making a tour in Italy he reached Alexandria in March 1816. During his term of office he did much to encourage excavation, and himself formed three large collections of Egyptian antiquities. In 1816, in conjunction with Burckhardt, he employed Giovanni Baptista Belzoni to remove the colossal bust of Rameses II ('Young Memnon') from Thebes. This was presented by Salt and Burckhardt to the British Museum in 1817. Salt himself made some discoveries at Thebes in October 1817.

He took sketches of various remains there, and made a survey and drawings of the Pyramids. In the same year he paid Belzoni's expenses incurred in excavating the great temple at Abu Simbel. While in company with his secretary Bankes, Salt discovered and copied the early Greek writing ('the Abu Simbel inscription') on the legs of one of the colossi before the temple. Salt also supplied Caviglia with money for his researches in connection with the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and in 1819 Giovanni d' Athanasi made explorations under Salt's direction (D'Athanasi, Brief Account of the Researches ...in Upper Egypt, 1836, 8vo).

In June 1818 Salt wrote to his friend, William Richard Hamilton, enclosing a priced list of his first collection, formed 1816-18. Salt's prices, as he afterwards admitted, were extravagant, and Sir Joseph Banks and others described him as 'a second Lord Elgin,' and discouraged the purchase of the collection by the British Museum. Negotiations for the sale to the museum were long protracted, and it was not till 13 Feb. 1823 that Salt's agent accepted the sum of 2,000l. offered by the museum for the collection.

According to Salt, the antiquities had cost him 3,000l., and he considered that in various ways he had been badly treated by the trustees of the museum, and in particular by Banks, who had encouraged him to collect for the museum (details in Halls's Life of Salt, ii. 295 et seq.) In May 1824 Sir John Soane purchased from Salt the alabaster sarcophagus found in 1817 by Belzoni in the sepulcher of Seti I ('Belzoni's tomb') for 2,000l. This sarcophagus, to which Belzoni had some claims, and which had been declined by the British Museum when offered by Salt, was removed to Soane's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and is now a principal feature of the Soane Museum.

In April 1826 Salt sold his second collection of Egyptian antiquities, consisting of papyri, bronzes, &c. (formed in 1819-24), to the French government for 10,000l. Salt died from a disease of the spleen on 30 (or 29) Oct. 1827 at the village of Dessuke, near Alexandria. He was buried at Alexandria.

Salt was a vigorous man, six feet high, and of a somewhat restless and ambitious temperament. A portrait of him is engraved in Halls's Life of Salt, vol. i. front. He was a fellow of the Royal Society and of the Linnean Society, and a correspondent of the French Institute. Salt married, in 1819, at Alexandria, the daughter (d. 1824) of Mr. Pensa, a merchant of Leghorn, and had by her a daughter.

A third collection of Egyptian antiquities formed by Salt was sold after his death at Sotheby's in 1835, and the nine days' sale realised 7,168l. 18s. 6d. Objects to about the amount of 4,500l. were purchased at this sale by the British Museum (Gent. Mag. 1835, ii. 187). Various antiquities procured by Salt in Egypt had been sent home by him for the collection of Lord Mountnorris. The plants collected by Salt in his travels were given by him to Sir Joseph Banks, and are now in the British Museum. His algae were sent to Dawson Turner.

Salt published: 1. Twenty-four Views in St. Helena, 1809, fol. 2. A Voyage to Abyssinia and Travels into the Interior of that Country &c., London, 1814, 4to (German translation, Weimar, 1815, 8vo). 3. Essay on Dr. Young's and M. Champollion's Phonetic System of Hieroglyphics, with some additional Discoveries &c., London, 1825, 8vo (French translation, Paris, 1827). He also published (1824) 'Egypt,' a poem of no merit, and prefixed a life of the author to Bruce's Travels to discover the Source of the Nile (1805).

[Halls's Life of Salt; Redgrave's Dict. of Artists; Gent. Mag. 1828, i. 374; Britten and Boulger's Biogr. Index of British Botanists; Simms's Bibl. Staffordiensis; Brit. Mus. Cut.]


Warwick William Wroth, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 50. pgs. 212-213.

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