top of page


Three years ago, at six-thirty in the morning, there was a knock on the door. I like the solitude of the early day and was not going to rush to answer the interloper so by the time I got to the door there was nobody there. Instead, there was a large plastic storage container with an old-fashioned brown label, tied to the handle with string, bearing the words in a neat copperplate hand: "For the attention of Mr Largo". Inside was a collection of motley looking books of various shapes and sizes and in various states of repair. Initially I mistook them for old-fashioned ledgers. You know the kind, thick, heavy bindings, in dull purple or brown, which looked as if as if they might be worth sheltering under during a hurricane.  I get many books delivered and since they were addressed to me, I took them in to the kitchen without paying them much attention, and finished my breakfast. It was some time later that I returned to them. Idly, I selected one and it fell open at random revealing a chaotic mass of scrawled drawings.


The more I puzzled over the scribbling however, the more my eyes became used to the style, and I gradually began to assimilate it into meaningful pictures. I made out pyramids, temples and tombs and detailed floor plans of their interiors, exquisite jewellery, enormous statues of pharaohs, animals, birds and, on nearly every page, drawings of a curious-looking bespectacled woman in a large floppy hat. I didn’t know it then, but I had met Eyra Toggenburg for the first time.


It wasn’t long before the books became something of an obsession. I was particularly interested in tracking down information about the mysterious woman who graced the pages of the thirty-two volumes. Was she real or an invention? Were her travels fact or fiction? An internet search revealed nothing, as did a trip to the library. However, even at this early stage, I could discern that the sketchbooks were in fact documenting numerous foreign journeys as well as several around Britain.


I spent hours trying to build a narrative from the often disjointed, seemingly random images. I was not helped by the fact that there was very little actually written in the journals and when there was, it appeared to be Middle Egyptian hieroglyphs or a more cursive hieratic script that was indecipherable. Occasionally, I found yellowing  tickets, visa applications and other ephemera pressed between the pages and it was from these that I managed to deduce the name of the woman in the books :-  Eyra Toggenburg. She had been born around 1860 and for great deal of time, that was the limit of my knowledge about her.  

I had been struggling with the text for several weeks, using books on hieroglyphs from the library and painstakingly translating any words I found. It was getting me nowhere. Any writing appeared to be only transcriptions from Egyptian monuments, curiously though, many were from temples and tombs that appeared to be unrecorded in present day Egyptian archaeological writings.  I took the decision to simply ignore the text in the manuscripts and concentrate on the pictures. This presented its own problems. Often they would not be presented sequentially but rather as if they had set down as an after-thought, randomly, or following a spiral pattern radiating either toward or away from the centre of the page. A mathematician friend was a great help when she suggested that large swathes of the documents could be better understood in mathematical terms. That was my first hint that the drawings were somehow attempting to conceal information in some form of elaborate code.  


It was months later that I realised my mild obsession had become a mania. I became increasingly irrational and irritated by anyone who did not share the same enthusiasm for the volumes I did, or who criticised them, dismissing them as the fanciful scrawling of some frustrated Victorian housewife.  Luckily, my wife recognised the changes in me and I have her to thank for pulling me away from the edge of the pit of darkness I had created for myself.


It was also my wife who suggested that any accurate interpretation of the books should concentrate on the mood evoked by the visual nature of the volumes and that I should divert all my efforts to wringing this from the sketch books and allowing the story to tell itself rather than trying to order it into a narrative. I had been looking for significance where none existed and in doing so had missed the elegant simplicity that I could now plainly see.


One sketchbook immediately presented itself for such a treatment and it was, coincidentally, the first one I had picked up those long months ago. It is an account of Eyra Toggenburg’s first visit to Egypt, which I believe to have been around 1890 (although some research suggests it may have been earlier).


Eyra Toggebgurg in Egypt is the result. I have tried to capture the spirit as well as the style of Eyra Toggenburg’s drawings and I hope that I have been successful. If not, any lack of clarity is solely down to me and I take full responsibility in the hope that Eyra will forgive me. I feel her story telling is timeless, without boundaries, and dare I say, beautiful. I hope you enjoy her travels as much as I have done.



Ri Largo  2014


Discovering Eyra Toggenburg

bottom of page