Alan Sorrell: Archaeological illustrator of Nubia and illustrator of archaeologists.

The ongoing Wunderkammer exhibition at Southend Central Museum also includes some fascinating pictures of the UNESCO Campaign to save the Monuments of Nubia by local painter Alan Sorrell. I mentioned these briefly in my review of the exhibition, but they are sufficiently interesting to merit another post.

Painting of the frontage of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel with a view to the south in the background.
Looking upriver across the frontage of the Great Temple of Abu Simbel, as painted by Alan Sorrell in 1962 (Author photograph from the Wunderkammer exhibition).

Alan Sorrell (1907-1974)

I had briefly heard of Alan Sorrell thanks to my work in British Archaeology. Sorrell was a prolific artist specialising in archaeological illustration. If you’ve seen a reconstruction of an archaeological site, medieval abbey, or castle in an older book or exhibition in the UK it was probably done by Alan Sorrell. Sorrell was born in 1904 in South London and brought up in Westcliff in Southend. Several volumes have been written about the life and work of Alan Sorrell. Here I have used information from Llewellyn and Sorrell (eds.) 2013, and Sorrell and Sorrell (2018). From the age of 10, Sorrell attended Chalkwell Hall School, just a short distance from where I am writing this post. His artistic skill developed from a relatively early age, attending Southend Municipal Art School from age 14 and subsequently working for a commercial art studio. Following a scholarship in 1925, he put himself through the Royal College of Art by undertaking commercial commissions on the side. After a stint at the British School at Rome and various professional commissions and accolades, Sorrell created his first set of historical reconstructions for a set of panels in Southend library 1933-38. Having encountered archaeology and archaeologists in Rome, Sorrell’s first archaeological commission was an image of the excavations at Leicester published in The Illustrated London News in 1937. After World War II his career in archaeological reconstruction and illustration expanded with the corresponding increase in archaeological excavations and Sorrell published many history books as an artist and coauthor, providing reconstruction drawings in collaboration with archaeologists and historians including Anthony Birley, Aileen Fox, and Margaret Drower.

Sara Perry and Matthew Johnson deconstructed Sorrell’s collaborative process for generating reconstruction drawings in their contribution, Alan Sorrell as Reconstruction Artist: ‘Making dry bones live’ to Llewellyn and Sorrell’s (2013) edited volume. Perry and Johnson (2013, 145-9) reveal that Sorrell undertook considerable research for his reconstructions, before sending drafts to the relevant archaeological collaborator for further comments, questions, and ammendations. The information flowed both ways. In the process of creating his reconstructions, Sorrell would identify problems or questions archaeologists had not considered and sometimes provided useful insights and suggestions from his experience (Sorrell and Sorrell 2018). Later in his career, Sorrell published a variety of books of his reconstructions of British Castles, Roman London, Roman Towns in Britain, Early Wales, and Living History.

Drawings of Nubia and the UNESCO campaign

Until the Wunderkammer exhibition, I didn’t know that Alan Sorrell painted the Nubian monuments and the archaeologists recording and moving them. According to Sorrell and Sorrell (2018, 177) Alan Sorrell’s interest in Nubia developed after working with Emery on a reconstruction of the Middle Kingdom fortress of Buhen for The Illustrated London News in 1962. The ILN was subsequently prevailed upon to sponsor Sorrell’s trip to Nubia and he was provided with suitable letters of recommendation to the international missions working in the area. During his two months in Egypt, Sorrell made 62 paintings. These were later purchased as a set by F. D. Todman, of Rayleigh and bequeathed to the Beecroft Art Gallery in Southend upon his death.

View of the temples of Abu Simbel from the south showing their original position.
The temples of Abu Simbel as painted by Alan Sorrell in 1962 (Author photograph from the Wunderkammer exhibition).

A small group of Alan Sorrell’s paintings of Nubia and the UNESCO campaign are featured in the Wunderkammer exhibition. These focus on images of Abu Simbel, the most famous poster-child for the UNESCO campaign, and are dominated by an absolutely spectacular landscape (above) showing the two Abu Simbel temples alongside the Nile in their original setting surrounding by tourists, Nubians and archaeologists. Another view shows the landscape downriver with the frontage of the great temple in the right foreground (top). As a landscape archaeologist I was hugely excited to see these images. Although 19th century views of Abu Simbel are relatively common in books and exhibitions, 20th century photographs and paintings are much less frequently reproduced. Where they are shown they often focus upon the temples to the exclusion of the landscape. Seeing the temples within the landscape, so close to the Nile and in the context of the sweep of the river really draws out their ancient setting. As a recent photograph shows (below), the setting is rather different now that the temples have been raised to the top of what was a steep cliff. The landscape setting and topographical context of a site provide interesting and important information about how that site was created, perceived, and used. Sources, like the Sorrell paintings, which provide information on the original location and setting of structures that have moved, are of huge interest to me and other landscape archaeologists.

View of the temples of Abu Simbel today showing their new position above Lake Nasser
Abu Simbel now, from a similar position to Sorrell’s 1962 painting of the two temples. (Zakaria Rabia, reproduced under CC BY-SA 4.0, license from Wikimedia Commons
Sketch of a colossus inside the Great Temple of Abu Simbel
Engage statue of Ramesses II inside the Great Temple at Abu Simbel as depicted by Alan Sorrell 1962. (Author photograph at the Wunderkammer exhibition).

There are also several views of the inside of the temples of Abu Simbel, including one showing a modern Nubian looking at a statue of Ramesses II and several studies of statues in the interior (left). There is also the image of archaeologists preparing to drill inside the Great Temple, which was featured in my previous Wunderkammer review. In that review, I noted that these images remind us of the complex history of a discipline like Egyptology, where colonial features may survive alongside modern methods and changing attitudes. Having learned more about the paintings Sorrell made, I wondered what prompted the inclusion of these particular images? According to Sorrell and Sorrell (2018, 179) he drew many images of the Nubian villages (image below) and became increasingly angry that amid the focus on the archaeology, the local Nubians were largely forgotten. The inclusion of one of these images could have focussed upon attitudes to archaeology and local communities and the privileging of archaeological needs above those of a resident community as a colonialist hangover.

‘A drowning land’

Many of Sorrell’s paintings and sketches from his visit to Egypt in 1962 are reproduced in a joint publication with Maragaret Drower, Nubia; A drowning land, published in 1970. This volume tells the history of Nubia as revealed by the excavations undertaken during the UNESCO campaign. The Foreword describes the circumstances of Alan Sorrell’s trip to Egypt. The Introduction and Postscript offer a description and some consideration of the wider causes and implications of the construction of the High Dam and the flooding of c. 300 miles of the Nile valley.

Sketch of a Nubian village showing a canal bridged by palm trunks with stalls on either side and a minaret in the distance.
Sketch of the town of Ballana, made in 1962 by Alan Sorrell. (After Drower 1970, 3)

Nubia; a drowning land still offers a useful introduction to the archaeology of Nubia and the circumstances of the UNESCO campaign for the beginner or casual tourist despite being dated. Archaeological theory and methods have naturally advanced a great deal beyond those mentioned, and the culture-historical approach of Drower’s text is no longer used in current histories. There are other dated features. A modern author would also likely use ‘humanity’ or ‘humankind’ in place of her ‘man’. Such features are to be expected in a book over 50 years old. Nevertheless, Drower’s book provides a useful introduction to the UNESCO campaign, with hints of the types of criticism that would later attend such forced movement of people as the resettlement of the Nubians from their submerged villages (see Tully and Hanna 2013 or Bednarski and Tully 2020 for example).

Sketch of a large mushroom shaped rock surrounded by low cairns. Two individuals are carving into the rock while a donkey caravan moves past in the foreground.
Reconstruction of ancient activities at the ‘rock of offerings’, probably Gebel Tingar, near Aswan, by Alan Sorrell. (After Drower 1970, 15)

The great joy of Drower’s book is the publication of so much of Sorrell’s imagery. Unless you are able to visit the Beecroft Art Gallery in Southend, a copy of Nubia; A drowned land, is your best chance of seeing a large number of Sorrells images of Nubia during the UNESCO campaign. Many of these are extremely illuminating. I had previously read about the ‘Rock of Offerings at Aswan’ as Drower (1907, 15) calls the ‘shrine’ at Gebel Tingar (Weigall 1907, 182; Harrell and Storemyr 2009), but seeing Sorrell’s reconstructive sketch reminded me how much more work needs to be done on these types of small, ‘informal’ structures that formed the focus of many day-to-day rituals and activities. Many will be familiar with Sorrell’s reconstruction of the Fortress of Buhen (Drower 1970, 29) but his sketch of the surviving remains is perhaps even more illuminating (Drower 1970, 28).

An artist worth remembering

Sorrell’s contribution is little known amongst archaeologists of Egypt, but his sketches and paintings remain an important resource for the impact of the High Dam, the UNESCO campaign, and the physical landscape context of so many archaeological structures that have since been moved or lost beneath Lake Nasser. Like any art or photography, his images are not neutral or objective. They present the specific perspective of a given individual, whether they show the archaeologists at work, the archaeology as uncovered, or an archaeology-inspired reconstruction. As such, they also represent the perspectives of the specific period in which he worked. Nevertheless, they are an important historical source for a major event in the archaeology of Egypt and Nubia, and deserve to be better known by those researching Egyptian and Nubian archaeology and the history of Egyptology.


For more details of Sorrell’s life and work see; Sacha Llewellyn and Richard Sorrell, 2013. Alan Sorrell: The Life and Works of an English Neo-Romantic Artist. Sanson and Co: Bristol

For Sorrell’s legacy as an archaeological illustrator see;

Mark Sorrell, 1981. Alan Sorrell: Reconstructing the Past. Batsford.

Julia Sorrell and Mark Sorrell, 2018. Alan Sorrell: The Man Who Created Roman Britain, Oxbow.

Margaret Drower, with illustrations by Alan Sorrell, 1970, Nubia: A drowning land. Longmans.

Weigall, A. 1907. A Report on the Antiquities of Lower Nubia (The first cataract to the Sudan frontier) and their Condition in 1906-7. Oxford University Press.

Harrell, J. A. and Storemyr, P. 2009. Ancient Egyptian quarries – an illustrated overview. In: N. Abu-Jaber, E. G. Bloxam, P. Degryse, and T. Heldal, (eds.) QuarryScapes: Ancient Stone Quarry Landscapes in the Eastern Mediterranean Oslo: NGU, Norges geologiske undersøkelse. 7–50.

For a more recent example of the tension between the needs of archaeology and local communities, focussed upon Luxor, see;

G. Tully, M. Hanna, 2013, “One landscape, many tenants: uncovering multiple claims, visions and meanings on the Theban necropolis”, Archaeologies 9/3: 362–97;

A. Bednarski, and G. Tully, 2020 “Aspects of the relationships between the community of Sheikh Abd al-Qurna and ancient Egyptian monuments”, in V. Davies, D. Laboury, (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Egyptian Epigraphy and Palaeography, New York, 508–22


2 thoughts on “Alan Sorrell: Archaeological illustrator of Nubia and illustrator of archaeologists.

  1. Pingback: Wunderkammers, colonial hangovers and multivocality. | Archaeology and Egyptology in the 21st century

  2. Pingback: Wunderkammer: Southend’s Cabinet of Curiosities – Scribe in the House of Life: Hannah Pethen Ph.D.

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