In 1923 Robert Gayer-Anderson, oriental secretary to the British high commissioner in Egypt, attended the official opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb. The body of the boy-king, who had been mummified with his penis erect, lay in gorgeous state, surrounded by gods and funerary artefacts, among them toy boats from which Gayer-Anderson correctly guessed his age at death – seventeen. The Irish-born empire-builder, who felt he had occult powers and thought himself fated to view an intact pharaonic burial chamber, was awed by the ‘annihilation of time’. And when, soon afterwards, two of his servants were brutally murdered and he himself was nearly assassinated, he wondered if there was any substance to the much-touted curse of King Tut. That aside, the whole experience was a fitting climax to his career as a collector of antiquities and paedophile.
Born in 1881, Gayer-Anderson had an identical twin, Tom, who called him Pum, an unexplained but convenient nickname adopted by Louise Foxcroft in this absorbing biography. Their father, Henry, an erratic, peripatetic and sadistic Irishman who made