George Hart – In Fond Memory

Yesterday, I heard the very sad news that the Egyptologist George Hart had died. It’s always hard to lose a colleague but George was one of the nicest I have ever come across. I had no idea he was unwell, and I gather that he only received his diagnosis – of cancer, sadly – at the beginning of this month (Feb 2021). It’s a comfort to know that he wasn’t ill for long, but I am sure that he will be much missed by many people.

George Hart during a reception in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, The British Museum in 2011.

George had degrees in Egyptology but his contribution to the field was less to do with academic work and more with sharing his expertise with the wider public. I can hardly think of anyone who has contributed more to the subject in this way in the entire time I have been involved.

He was something of a hero of mine in fact. While I was still a student at the University of Birmingham (1996-2000) there was relatively little Egyptology online, and the few pages that existed were very usefully gathered together by the ‘Egyptology Resources on the Internet’ site. This included a short list of personal websites and George was among the very small number of Egyptologists with their own pages. Here I learned that he had a BA and MPhil – the degree I was studying for at the time – and worked at the British Museum, not in the Egyptian department however, but in Education. He was the Museum’s resident specialist in teaching Egyptology to the public, and having already had an inkling that this might where I might find my own niche, I decided his was a career path to aspire to!

Shortly after finishing that degree I got my first job, at the Egypt Exploration Society (EES), where I met George for the first time, and where I would encounter him on many occasions over the course of the next two decades. As EES librarian I came to know George’s books well and as I got to know ‘the scene’ I learnt that of all the enthusiasts I came across who had studied Egyptology – members of the EES or other groups around the country – many had been given their introduction to the subject by George, particularly those who had studied the ancient language – his hieroglyphs classes were eternally popular.

The EES staff, Trustees and Field Directors outside the Society’s offices on Doughty Mews in 2012. George is seventh from right in a light-coloured suit and blue-striped shirt.

I often attended meetings with George. He was a Trustee of the EES for many years and had been a member of the editorial board of the Society’s colour magazine Egyptian Archaeology from its inception (the first issue was published in 1990). He was editor of the book reviews section and in fact wrote most of the reviews himself for the first ten years or so of the magazine’s existence.

It was a pleasure to see George arriving at the Society’s offices on Doughty Mews. He always had a smile and was interested to know how we all were. He was generally a very friendly character, quiet, modest and apparently without any ego, but highly intelligent and sensible. He was certainly not someone who always felt he had to say something, but, equally, he wasn’t shy in speaking up when he thought he could say something useful, even if it meant going against the mood in the room. He was always positive and encouraging – now I think of it he barely had a bad word to say about anyone or anything – and a natural diplomat. I can well remember the sensitive way he handled a review of a well-known colleague’s autobiography, something none of the rest of us would write for fear of saying what we really thought!

He was principled too. I will never forget George taking a stand when he felt procedures in one particular meeting had fallen short of best practice, even though it meant going against the grain and potentially losing a few friends (although I doubt that happened in the event, George was too likeable).

In 2009 I asked him to teach hieroglyphs on weekday evenings at the Society which he did with typical enthusiasm even though by this time he surely had no need of such work. In more recent years I often bumped into him either in the airport or on the plane to Cairo, usually when we were both travelling out with groups of enthusiastic tourists. The last time I saw him was in mid-flight, when he came over to say ‘hello’ to Janet Shepherd of Ancient World Tours and me. He was charming as usual and asked about my next book which was to be Egyptologists’ Notebooks. He said he thought it was a great idea and that he was sure it would be excellent, but didn’t think the title was quite right(!).

I had asked him to read a draft of my previous book, Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt, which he did, refusing the expert reviewer’s fee, but providing umpteen useful comments and corrections, all delivered with sensitivity and all the usual (for him) encouragement. He wrote: “Of course I would be very happy to read the chapters of your forthcoming book – although I am sure that with your scholarship and talent any constructive input from me is likely to be minimal.” Of course, in the event, he provided many, extremely helpful notes. I wrote this for the acknowledgements:

“Very special thanks to George Hart who read a draft of the book when I was hurtling towards what turned out to be the final deadline, when much of it was still in a rather scruffy and unfinished state. He never complained, found gentle ways to point out all my silly mistakes, and always had something positive to say about each of the chapters as he went along. There are few people with George’s depth of knowledge, or his gift for communicating it to public audiences. This book is infinitely the better for both. Thanks George.”

He came to the launch of the book when it appeared in October 2018 and, delighted to see him but also full of nerves, I gave him a big hug. I’m glad I had the chance to do that but I’m really sorry I won’t get to see more of him. He was great.

RIP George.

UPDATE 20 May 2021: George’s contribution to education and Egyptology has, fittingly, been recognised in The Guardian, here.

20 thoughts on “George Hart – In Fond Memory

  1. Erika Trueman

    I am so very sorry that George Hart died. I have never met him, but I loved to read how influential he was in shaping the Egyptologist you have become. Thank you for sharing your memories of him with us.

  2. Jim Cleary

    That’s a very nice tribute to a lovely man. George was always friendly & helpful; I occasionally helped at his Gallery Talks in the BM, and then when I turned up as a guest on a trip down the Nile where he was the guest lecturer, he treated me as a long-lost friend. A true gentleman who will be much missed.

  3. Derek Yeo

    I only knew George for a few years from when he gave 1o/c gallery talks at the BM and his personality drew many of us to make sure we did not miss any. I think Chris portrayed perfectly him. Gentle, warm hearted, friendly, never rushing off and willing to stay nattering for a while. A sad loss.

  4. Angie Dennett

    I was so sorry to hear this. George came to give our first lecture in 2000 when we launched the Wessex Ancient Egypt Society in Bournemouth, he refused to take a fee as he was pleased to see another society. George came to visit us again and took us for a tour in the basement of the British Museum. He was a very kind, gentle man and a perfect gentleman. R.I.P. George.

  5. Hazel Gray

    A lovely description Chris – and so in tune with my memories of George. He was so welcoming when I joined the EES, and always had a smile and time to chat to you. And whenever we were stuck for who to ask about a difficult question or press query, we could always ask George for a pointer to the right expert. He will be sadly missed.

  6. Ted and Marie

    We had such wonderful times with George for many years on cruises in the Med and on the Nile. His knowledge was always shared and made every trip that bit extra. He was a true friend and loved to meet up in Oxford for lunch. We will both miss him so very much.

  7. Jeremy Ryan-Bell

    The most memorable cruise of my life up the Nile was with George as the specialist. Between each point of interest I would invariably put my hand up in the coach . “George, I have a question”
    His response was predictable as he covered his ears and pulled a face.
    But we had such fun and he loved my challenges. Sitting next to him on the flight to London was an honour and I couldn’t let him sleep!
    What a great character and what a loss to all who knew him.

  8. Rita Gallinari-Jones

    We are so sad to discover that George is no longer with us. We met him when he was our guide lecturer on a trip to Jordan in 2013. He was so knowledgeable and so kind. Just last November my husband discovered some rather old programmes presented by Sir Mortimer Wheeler and we shared them with George and our new best friend Anita who we met also on the trip to Jordan. George said,

    I am enjoying the Mortimer Wheeler programmes which Dick discovered. They bring back memories of the Mediterranean and its archaeological sites which like many people I am missing tremendously. Wheeler was instrumental in making Swan Hellenic cruises such a success. I remember the occasion when I was invited to lunch with Ken Swan – the purpose being to see if I would be suitable to be a guest lecturer- the prospect of which was more than enticing. I had only just joined the British Museum and was just beginning my career. I was determined to make a good impression beyond that of showing that I did not wash my grapes in my finger-bowl. But of course I was apprehensive about how the conversation would turn. However the news of Wheeler’s death broke the day before – consequently since Swan and he were great friends I kept asking about his time on the cruises and his excavations. The lunchtime flew by and at the end Swan – very perceptively – mentioned that we had not talked that much about me but he would assign me a cruise to see how it went. So in a strange way I am grateful to Wheeler’s timing!

    We had planned to meet up again for another of our lunches near the BM but sadly this will not to be. We shall miss him – he brought knowledge and richness to our lives. And with a twinkle in his eye.

    Rita Gallinari and Richard Jones



  10. Dear Chris,

    I only discovered George had left us, today, when the Guardian published his obituary. I felt a mixture of feelings, including a sharp pang of sadness, coupled with a feeling of pleasure in having known him at all. Particularly in my first few years at the British Museum’s then Department of Egyptian Antiquities, he often called on Vivian Davies and had to walk through my office to do so. I got acquainted with him quite quickly and have many positive and happy memories of him. He could be mischievously humorous and in his element at receptions, following the annual Raymond and Beverly Sackler Lectures…

    He was a great help to me and occasionally a confidente – and I think we were rather useful to each other. Favours were given and received!

    The fact that I see him in my mind’s eye laughing and smiling and even giggling, is quite telling. I agree with so many apposite remarks which you have made above, so will not repeat. He was ‘one of a kind’. Bye, George…

    To borrow John Johnston’s habitual comment on such sad occasions: ‘Vale!’

    1. Dear Alison, It’s very nice to hear from you and thank you for sharing your memories of George. I hadn’t realised there was an obit in The Guardian but have sought it out and will post a link here – thanks! He was such a nice guy wasn’t he? We’ll all miss him. V best wishes, Chris

  11. Anne Hoose

    Memories of a dear friend, the Egyptologist George Hart

    Dear Chris,

    Heartfelt thanks to you for your vivid and appreciative memories of George Hart. It was from them that I learnt – only recently – that George had so sadly and unexpectedly passed away. Although this contribution is late, I wanted to remember George from perhaps an earlier period of his life. If you are happy to share these memories, just say they’re from Anne, Dolgellau. Thank you.

    The seventies were withdrawing untidily and the eighties readying their brash beams above London, when an Egyptian friend of mine, who was extremely proud of coming from what he saw as a people directly descended from the Ancient Egyptians – despite layers of various later arrivals – , suggested that we (he and I, both aspirant writers) write something about that curiously inscrutable ‘first monotheist’ Pharaoh, Akhenaten, and that, moreover, while he was at work, I might like to attend the free gallery talks, which (he had been delighted to discover) were so generously held at the British Museum. So that’s how I met George.

    George was then living in a basement flat – near the Museum as I remember – whose somewhat dank area steps led into a brightly and carefully furnished interior, spotlessly clean and neat. I recall at least two colourful posters on the wall: a big glossy reproduction of Cleopatra – the almost impossibly elegant bust from Berlin, I think – and a differently impressive picture of Blondie in pleasing contrast, although they both gloried in the same razored cheekbones. George seemed endearingly disappointed by the suggestion that her silvery-white shock-locks might owe anything to the bleach bottle. I learnt from one of our first conversations, incidentally, that he had recently been seeing a girl from an Indian community, but her parents hadn’t approved and he was saddened by that.

    George was an excellent cook and always laid on an attractively served and delicious meal enhanced with interesting conversation. He loved cats, and come to think of it, there was also a poster of an Egyptian cat, with pretty sharp cheekbones too. I feel sure it was the bronze Gayer-Anderson sculpture of the cat deity Bastet, with her gold earrings and nose-ring, scarabs of rebirth on forehead and chest and protective wedjat-eye amulet on an intricate pectoral, she who evolved from a divine lioness into an elegant cat-headed woman. George had an almost equally graceful small (and shy) house cat of his own, a rescue cat of course, or possibly two, and he also told me about the strays who had taken up residence in the Museum at that time.

    We visited galleries together, enjoying many of the same things, as well as his introducing me to his and many of his colleagues’ favourite restaurant – a pizzeria in Museum Street? – and inviting me to sample the excellent coffee in the BM’s staff canteen. Another privileged ‘glimpse behind the scenes’ was his office in the Education Department – ‘busy’ with paper and books, all in rational disarray, and buzzing with animated chatter and plenty of coming and going.

    He used to drive me home in the small hours – to Potters Bar at that time – in his rather snazzy, low-slung little car purring along the deserted streets from the sparsely-lit cityscape (as it then was) to grey-washed suburbs, always the perfect gentleman. He spoke of his parents with gratitude and affection and once, having perhaps inadvertently mentioned that his father would travel first class to his London office – from Essex, I believe, where George himself later found his settled home in Hockley – , he immediately felt the need to add, somewhat defensively, I thought, that his dad was now quite elderly and after a lifetime’s hard and loyal work had earned the quiet of a first-class carriage. He had no need to explain and I mention this brief conversational exchange only because his tone clearly conveyed the great respect and even protective love he felt for his father, an admirable trait that can, regrettably, no more be taken for granted these days than the social acceptability of minor freedoms earned by decades of faithful work.

    As the eighties got into their sharp-shouldered stride, I gradually saw much less of George – something I regretted, increasingly, in later years – but we never completely lost touch. I took my daughter, Anahita, as a babe in arms to his talks and when George first met her, he took us to Gallery 22 to see the lovely bronze Satala Aphrodite head from what was historically the Armenia Minor region, which is believed to portray the Persian goddess Anahita, and her quiet corner became a frequent port of call for us thereafter when we visited the Museum. He continued to follow Anahita’s career with genuine interest, especially as her first degree subject was the same as his, Classics, and her next area of study, Linguistics, was, he said, one he had always wished he had had more opportunity to pursue himself.

    His retirement from the British Museum was a deservedly glittering occasion, replete with intriguing film clips on an Egyptian theme – sometimes amusingly fantastically presented – his expressed intention being to find more time for writing with the tongue-in-cheek mention (if I’m not mistaken) of Lust in the Dust as a possible title. But, even better, we got his substantial, two-volume work on The Pharaohs from The Folio Society, which – having bought and read all his major works – I would particularly recommend for its scrupulous scholarship and delicious detail.

    Meanwhile George remained a regular presence at the Museum and indisputably its most popular giver of gallery talks. His following – one is tempted to say ‘fan base’ – continued to grow exponentially down the years until it was hard to get near even the centre of the throng, while a hard core of loyalists arrived early enough every time to tenaciously commandeer the ringside seats (and folding-chairs might be involved), so as not to miss a word of what were indeed both exhilarating and enlightening exposés. A snippet that has stayed in my mind was his passionate assertion that the stark lines of the Egyptian body in art were far more beautiful than the rich, fleshly efflorescence of the sculpted classical/Greek form; the hollow facial modelling of that One of Service to the Aten occurs to me now as an extraordinary epitomisation of the former.

    Latterly we would exchange the occasional email and mention of classical art gives me the excuse to recall our last communication. I had heard about a best posterior (to put it delicately) competition running between museums and emailed George on 7 July, 2020, that I thought there was an excellent BM candidate in the form of a Greek ephebos – not a Roman copy I think – , perhaps in Room 15, the gallery with the helmeted head of Pericles. I didn’t recall if the statue had a head or not – it wasn’t its most prominent feature! It was surprisingly modestly placed, somewhat obscured by a display case and by its position in a corner by one of the through doors. George’s characteristic reply was that he thought he knew which statue I was referring to, but as the Museum was shut by Covid restrictions with no prospect of a speedy reopening, ‘there is no way I can get in to the gallery to check for you which I would normally enjoy doing… I’m keeping optimistic about tours to Egypt and the Mediterranean for 2021/22’, he added. And he is indeed poignantly still enthusiastically advertised as the lecturer for just such a tour.

    On one occasion he helped me out with an article I had to write on the brewing of beer in Ancient Egypt and we exchanged Christmas cards – ‘with fondest love’ or ‘fondest wishes’ was his usual greeting – for more than forty years. When I didn’t get one this year, I thought maybe he felt our longstanding acquaintance – made especially tenuous by my move here to my beloved Wales – had come to a natural end, but I sent one last email recently just to check he was OK. When it couldn’t be delivered, I felt a sudden premonitory chill and my fingers literally trembled as I Googled and came shockingly across the obituaries. Too late, moved by the sort of presentiment I have earlier experienced, I had been thinking I ought to tell him how pleased I had been to have known him for so long and how his freely shared expertise had enriched my life.

    During lockdown, George had described his ‘survival routine… roughly academic in the mornings, catching up on a myriad of unread articles and books – then a walk round a small local nature reserve 5 mins away. Music also a real solace’. It gave me pleasure then, as it still does now, to imagine George industriously working his way through a pile of interesting volumes (some would be for review) and journals before heading off to what I suspect was the large woodland area of Hockley Woods, a Local Nature Reserve of wildwood, starred at that season with the pure white blooms of wood anemones, and back home for more literary perusal, possibly (and why not) with Blondie trilling in the background. Nor would I find it unlikely that he had a cat for company, too; I wish I had asked him.

    And now. May the great Egyptian deities have been well pleased with George’s knowledge and his evident preparedness for a journey across the Lily Lake – doubtless raising a smile with his unaffected courtesy on the face of the surly ferryman – to the Field of Reeds, where no one worthier deserves the good life of the Nile.

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