A Remarkable Monkey Cameo, & Other Superb Rings.

Romano-British Gemstone Ring

Romano-British gemstone ring. Gold set with emeralds, sapphires, and garnets. 4th-5th century CE. Sotheby’s sale 14231, Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art, lot 2.

It seems everyone is talking about Sotheby’s upcoming Treasures sale, which includes some fantastic things, not least this unicorn automaton/clock made in 1590. But the Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale scheduled for the following day isn’t lacking in beautiful objects. I was particularly taken by the rings, which are superb examples of their types.

The striking gemstone ring above was crafted in late Roman Britain (4th-5th century CE) in a style popular between the 3rd and 7th centuries. It is comparable to two rings now held at the British Museum, one of which is part of the Thetford Hoard. The Sotheby’s ring was discovered during construction of the Royal Exchange in 1850, and made its way into the hands of the Exchange’s architect, Sir William Tite (not bad as job perks go!) Included with the ring is a paper label explaining its provenance, which was written in 1918 by the architect’s great-nephew.

Serbian Signet Ring

Signet ring, eastern Europe, possibly Serbia, 15th century. Partially gilt and nielloed silver. Once owned by Liberace. Sotheby’s sale 14231, Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art, lot 47.

The signet ring above, probably made in Serbia during the 15th century, was once owned by Liberace. Yes, that Liberace.

Intaglio Bird Ring

Yellow agate intaglio depicting a bird. Italian, probably 16th century, set in a later gold ring. Sotheby’s sale 14231, Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art, lot 101.

This 16th-century Italian intaglio depicts a bird – perhaps a goose? It’s set in a later gold ring.

Byzantine Cameo Ring

Byzantine garnet cameo ring depicting a philosopher or saint. The cameo dated circa 1100, set in a later gold ring. Sotheby’s sale 14231, Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art, lot 3.

This Byzantine garnet cameo depicts a male philosopher or saint. For more information on cameos and intaglios have a look at this video produced by the Getty Museum, which follows the entire process of creating a carved gemstone.

Gold Signet Ring With Posey

English gold signet ring with posey, circa 1600. The signet entwines the letters H & A with flowers, and the posey engraved on the interior of the shank reads “when this you see remember me +”. Sotheby’s sale 14231, Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art, lot 102.

This superb gold ring dates to around 1600 and includes both a signet – the entwined initials – and a posey engraved inside the shank, “When this you see remember me +” (not visible in the photos). “The combination of signet and posey ring is unusual in English Renaissance rings. The present ring compares particularly closely with a 16th-century gold signet ring in the British Museum (Franks Bequest), which contains the letters M and B and has an almost identical arrangement of knots and forget-me-nots (inv. no. AF. 803)” (Sotheby’s catalogue note).

Monkey Cameo Ring

Chrysoberyl cameo ring depicting a monkey, set in a gold shank. English, circa 1740. Sotheby’s sale 14231, Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art, lot 129.

All the pieces above are beautiful, but my favourite is this 18th-century ring set with a chrysoberyl depicting a monkey. Monkeys were a popular motif in European art during the late medieval and early modern eras. In addition to being entertaining and probably fun to draw, they were considered “full of ‘plaguy tricks’ and the very worst of human vices” (Hazel Forsyth, The Cheapside Hoard, p. 181),  and were frequently used to satirise human foibles – a monkey with a mirror was a common trope for the depiction of vanity, for example. Something like that may have been the intent here, as Sotheby’s describes the current ring as depicting either a human boy or a monkey depending on the direction from which the gem is viewed. (Perhaps this is more apparent in person, as the photos don’t seem to do it justice.) “The use of chrysoberyl for the portrayal of monkeys, albeit very rare, was widely known, and was specifically discussed by Pierre Jean Mariette in his 1750 volume, Traité des pierres gravées” (Sotheby’s catalogue note). Another chrysoberyl carved as a monkey or ape is part of the Cheapside Hoard.

Monkey Ring

Chrysoberyl cameo ring depicting a monkey, set in a gold shank. English, circa 1740. Sotheby’s sale 14231, Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art, lot 129.

John Dwight’s Stoneware: Fine Ceramics Before Staffordshire Part 2

Today’s post looks at the first successful manufacturing of salt-glazed stoneware in Britain, following on from last week’s post on the origins of stoneware and its mass production and importation into England.

The first Englishman to successfully produce and market salt-glazed stoneware was John Dwight (early 1630s-1703), who obtained a patent for the process in 1672. Dwight was a remarkable character. As a student at Oxford he did laboratory work with the great  experimental scientists Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle, and during his ten-year legal career he made a hobby of experimenting with ceramics, attempting to deduce the tightly-guarded recipes for all the fine wares then being imported, not only Rhenish stoneware but also porcelain and red stoneware from China. Convinced he had the secrets, Dwight sold his post, obtained his patent, and with the support of Boyle and Hooke established a pottery in Fulham.

Stoneware Bust of John Dwight

Stoneware bust of John Dwight, circa 1673-75. “Possibly the earliest portrait bust to be modelled in salt-glazed stoneware anywhere in Europe, this bust was clearly modelled by an accomplished (but still unknown) sculptor familiar with working in terracotta or wax. As the founder of the Fulham Pottery, John Dwight had high hopes for his patented material and, like Josiah Wedgwood in the 18th century, intended that his humble pottery should become associated with the fine arts, and perhaps therefore with wealthy patronage”. V&A Museum 1053-1871.

Though Dwight experimented with many types of ceramics, it was the “the basic brown stonewares that enabled [his] pottery to flourish” (ODNB). When the Glass-Seller’s Company (which controlled the London pottery trade), complained in 1674 to the House of Lords that fine stoneware could only be obtained from Cologne, Dwight boasted in response that he could make “as good and as much Cologne ware as would supply England”. And indeed, archaeological excavations of his pottery during the 1970s determined that large-scale production of stoneware probably commenced the following year (Haselgrove & Murray, John Dwight’s Fulham Pottery 1672-1978: A Collection of Documentary Sources, p. 8).

Dwight’s business acumen was soon proved when he made a lucrative three-year deal to supply the Fulham pottery’s entire output to the Glass-Sellers’ Company. And though potteries in Southwark and Lambeth also discovered how to create fine stoneware, Dwight took advantage of his legal training to zealously enforce his patents well into the 1690s.

Bottle by John Dwight's Pottery for the Cock Alehouse

Bottle produced for the Cock Alehouse by John Dwight’s Fulham Pottery, 1675-80. V&A Museum C.59-1967.

The bottle above, based on those imported from the Rhineland, was created by Dwight between 1675 and 1680. Though Dwight’s bottles were mass-produced, they could be customised to order with “applied medallions containing initials, names, dates or inn signs, in the same way as contemporary sealed wine bottles. The beer bottles supplied for use at the famous Cock Alehouse at Temple Bar (on the south side of the Strand in London and much frequented by the diarist Samuel Pepys) are the most numerous to survive… Almost all these are inscribed ‘HC’ for Henry Crosse, owner of the tavern and an important local brewer. But although the ‘W. Morris’ on the medallion of this bottle was never listed as owner, he is recorded as living nearby and is presumed to have acted as manager of the inn sometime in the 1670s.” (V&A catalogue note).

It wasn’t only businesses that commissioned custom medallions. Dwight’s work had, through Hooke and Boyle, come to the attention of the Royal Society, and ceramics with medallions were created for at least four members including Hooke, Sir Philip Matthews, Robert Plot, and Nehemiah Grew. Dwight also made custom laboratory equipment for some of them, though I wasn’t able to find a photograph. (Haselgrove & Murray, p. 54.)

Other medallions included “Royal designs, the City of London arms, decorative capital letters for providing personal initials and an interesting series of portrait heads which included the King and Queen, a ‘Turk’s Head’, ‘Indian Queen’ designs apparently to commemorate the ever-popular verse tragedy of Sir Robert Howard and John Dryden and a number of individuals in the style of Roman Emperors who would probably have been leading contemporary figures but have not been identified” (Haselgrove & Murray, p. 55).

Marbled Stoneware Bottle by John Dwight

Marbled stoneware bottle by John Dwight, circa 1690. V&A Museum C.101-1938.

In addition to copying the standard bottles and pitchers imported from Europe, Dwight also innovated, much as his spiritual successor Josiah Wedgewood would do in the late 18th century. The wine bottle above is an example of Dwight’s experiments with “marbled porcellane” — using bands of stained clays within the body of a piece to mimic the appearance of marble. Though this technique was already known, Dwight brought it to “a new level of technical perfection” (V&A catalogue note).

This bottle also incorporates another innovation: “sprigged” decoration made with moulds, in this case birds, animals, and (on the opposite side) portraits of William & Mary. Stoneware clay was pressed into the moulds and either carefully removed and applied to the body of the piece on the point of a fine blade, or pressed onto the body direct from the mould. Below, examples of the brass moulds Dwight used to create sprigged designs, including some of those used on the bottle above.

Moulds for Sprigged Decoration

Brass moulds to create sprigged decoration, used at John Dwight’s Fulham pottery, late 17th century. Trustees of the British Museum, 1893,1009.27.

Also innovative were Dwight’s “fine white” stonewares, which “attempted to copy the pure whiteness of Chinese porcelain” by incorporating calcined flint into the clay. He was so successful that Chinese manufacturers began appropriating his designs, and “the surviving examples made at Dehua (Fujian province, China) were clearly copied from Dwight’s Fulham products, not the other way around” (V&A catalogue note).

Stoneware Mug with Silver Collar by John Dwight

Stoneware mug with silver collar by John Dwight, 1682. V&A Museum 414:853-1885.

The white stoneware piece depicted above is one of the small globular mugs with cylindrical necks that were popular during the 1680s and 90s. “Usually made of expensive materials – including silver versions of the 1680s engraved with Chinoiserie motifs – they were intended for drinking strong ale or beer in the home. The stoneware mugs of this shape were termed ‘gorges’, meaning narrow-necked vessels” (V&A catalogue note).

Despite Dwight’s aggressive legal actions against competitors, salt-glazed stoneware spread to other potteries, and became established in major centres such as Lambeth, Nottingham, Bristol, and Staffordshire during the 1790s (Hildyard p. 31). Imported German stoneware had reached its peak in about 1615 and then declined as trade was impacted by the Thirty Years’ War, so that by the beginning of the 18th century British-made stoneware was dominating the market. Next time: how salt-glazed stoneware adapted as it faced competition from new imports and from within the British ceramics industry.

English Salt-Glazed Stoneware: Fine Ceramics Before Staffordshire Part 1

Miniature Fish

Miniature or toy fish, salt-glazed stoneware. Victoria & Albert Museum ceramics gallery, room 138, case 6.

This charming little 18th-century platter of fish, only a couple of inches across and probably a toy or doll-house accessory, caught my eye during a recent trip to the V&A. Many visitors to the museum will recognise the name Josiah Wedgewood as belonging to a pioneer of fine ceramics, and know that Staffordshire was the centre of ceramic manufacturing in Britain, but fewer will be familiar with a much earlier form of pottery that paved the way for both. Salt-glazed stoneware, of which the fish are a late example, was the earliest type of fine ceramic produced in Britain, and its story is fascinating. Today’s post examines stoneware from the cities of the Rhineland and the international trade which brought it to Britain. Next time, John Dwight, the man who learned its secrets and first manufactured it in England.

Lead-Glazed Earthenware Jug

Lead-glazed earthenware jug, probably made in Surrey, 1300-1325. Lead-glazed earthenware was made and used widely in England both before and after the importation of salt-glazed stoneware beginning in the 16th century. V&A Museum 596-1906.

Prior to the 16th century most of the pottery made and used in Britain was lead-glazed earthenware such as the jug pictured above, which is characteristic of ceramics made in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey during the 14th century. This piece, with its expensive copper-coloured glaze, was a luxury item meant for display at table. But it was still inferior in many ways — earthenwares were simple to produce using local materials and low-temperature kilns, but they were not watertight unless fully glazed, which was costly (and poisonous), and they were coarser and more fragile than the sophisticated stonewares that had been manufactured in China since the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE).

Salt-glazed stoneware was first produced in Europe around 1400, when the technique was discovered in Germany. An 18th-century account describes the process, largely unchanged in four hundred years:

After the access opening has been bricked up, the firing starts and continues for 38 to 40 hours. The kiln should then have reached its highest temperature and the crockery should be thoroughly heated right through, which is ascertained by taking out small sample cups with an iron bar and breaking them. The glazing then commences and is carried out by throwing common salt into the kiln with a small iron scoop, through little holes in the roof. About half a bushel or 28lb salt is thrown in through all the holes together and the process is repeated each half hour for six hours. The total time for the firing is thus 44 to 46 hours. (R. R. Angerstein’s Illustrated Travel Diary, quoted in Hildyard, English Pottery 1620-1840, p. 28.)

It wasn’t until the end of the Middle Ages that Britons were introduced to salt-glazed stoneware, when potteries located in the Rhineland cities of Raeren, Cologne, and Frechen began manufacturing on a massive scale for export. This type of ceramic, “unlike the lead-glazed earthenwares produced in England… had the unique advantage of being impervious to liquids [even without glaze]; and furthermore, it was immensely strong and resistant to the rough handling of tavern or kitchen, while having the capability of being lathe-turned to the thinness of porcelain” (Hildyard, p. 28). Between the early 1500s and mid-1600s the Rhineland exported an estimated 10 million stoneware beer bottles and mugs to England, fulfilling the great demand for drinking vessels created by an expanding population, new sources of wealth, and changes in social structure, particularly in burgeoning cities like London.

Rhenish Stoneware Bottle

Rhenish stoneware bottle with moulded applied decoration, Frechen, 1600-1650. V&A Museum 2841-1852.

The piece shown above, made in Frechen during the first half of the 17th century, is a good example of the standard stoneware bottles imported to England from the Rhineland. It’s a Bartmann-style bottle, identifiable by the bearded face decorating the neck (these are sometimes incorrectly called Bellarmine bottles). Today many similar objects, especially the smaller bottles, survive because of the great strength of stoneware. “By the early 19th century, bottles that had survived above ground became desirable antiquarian artefacts for the homes of collectors. The market was soon fuelled by regular excavation of complete bottles, which proved almost indestructible. This example was said to have been excavated in London, and at £3 10s (£3.50) was an expensive purchase by the Museum in 1852” (V&A catalogue note). (As an interesting aside, Bartmann bottles were sometimes used as “witch jars”, thought to protect against evil spirits.)

Stoneware pitcher from Cologne, c. 1525-1550

Stoneware pitcher with applied relief-moulded decoration and embellished with brushed-on cobalt blue under a speckled salt glaze. Cologne, circa 1525-1550. Victoria & Albert Museum 4610-1858.

This large pitcher is of a similar style to the bottle, and was made in Cologne during the early 16th century. It would have been used to hold beer or wine at table before it was poured into individual glasses, and its size and elaborate decoration made it a luxury item. The blue highlights were created with an expensive cobalt glaze, and the pattern of oak leaves and acorns “probably derives from a German woodblock engraving” (V&A catalogue note).

“With such unique qualities, and with big profits being made by foreign merchants, it was natural that English entrepreneurs should attempt not only to take over the trade but also to introduce the manufacture of stoneware into their native land… It is certain that nobody in England at this period had any knowledge of the whereabouts of suitable clays, details of high-temperature kiln design, or the salt-glazing process itself, which, evenly covering every part of a pot without leaving any trace of the method of its application, must have seemed almost magical.” (Hildyard p. 29).

Beginning in the 1580s English entrepreneurs tried to obtain monopolies and patents that would give them control over the importation and production of stoneware, but none were successful. In the middle of the 17th century, “unidentified German potters brought not only their own moulds and equipment but even the clay from their homeland”, establishing England’s first stoneware kiln at Woolwich Ferry (Hildyard p. 29). Only a small number of poorly made bottles survive from this kiln. The one pictured below dates to the 1660s and matches fragments discovered during the excavation of the Woolwich Ferry kiln — it may be one of the earliest pieces of stoneware manufactured in Britain.

Salt-Glazed Stoneware Bottle made at Woolwich

Possibly one of the earliest pieces of salt-glazed stoneware made in Britain, this bottle matches fragments uncovered at the site of the experimental stoneware kiln established at Woolwich by German immigrants in the 1660s. V&A Museum C.1-1994.

With high demand for such durable and attractive vessels, the time was ripe for an entrepreneur to bring salt-glazed stoneware manufacturing to England. Next time, John Dwight and the first commercial stoneware pottery in the British Isles.

Songye Kifwebe Mask

African Art from the Allen Stone Collection

“I can’t say I decided to get into it. I sort of got sucked into it like a heroin addict…” – Allen Stone, The Collector

For fifty years, the late art dealer Allen Stone was one of the most influential gallerists of contemporary art in the United States and a leading specialist in the Abstract Expressionists. These artists sought to express the core universal experiences which they believed to be manifest in the artwork of “primary cultures” from Africa and Asia (though today many would view these sentiments as naive and a form of cultural appropriation). Stone also developed an interest in such pieces, but went far beyond his peers. Between 1955 and 2006 he amassed one of the most important private collections of African, Oceanic, and Indonesian art ever assembled, including many rare and historically significant pieces. Today, June 15, Sotheby’s New York will hold the first half of the two-part sale of Stone’s collection. Below, twelve evocative pieces of African art from the collection.

Bamana Zoomorphic Power Figure

Bamana zoomorphic power figure (Boli), Mali. Sotheby’s, The Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 44.

The Bamana Empire ruled parts of what is now Mali during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Among the most sacred objects in Bamana belief is the boli (pl. boliw), a spiritually endowed object which, according to Conrad (in Colleyn 2001: 28) “receive[s] sacrifices in order to call upon and influence the vital spiritual force known as nyama.  Boliw can be fashioned of virtually any kind of material including wood, bark, stones, tree roots, leather, metal, cloth, bone, hair, animal tails and claws, and human ingredients including blood, excrement, placentas, and pieces of corpse. [… The] bolihas been described on a cosmological level as both a symbol of the universe and a receptacle of the forces that animate the universe.  It is, moreover, an intermediary that permits communication with the ancestor or supernatural power whose force permeates it. […] As repositories of enormous spiritual power or nyamaboliw are viewed with awe and fear.  They were traditionally the most essential instruments of communication between earthly mortals and the supernatural powers that controlnyama, and as such, according to Sarah Brett-Smith, they are an important part of the Bamana judicial structure, inanimate objects to which the Bamana community entrusts its decision making. (Sotheby’s catalogue note.)

The Brooklyn Museum holds another example of a boli.

Nguni Ivory Comb

Nguni ivory comb, common Hippopotamus tooth. Sotheby’s, The Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 151.

The Nguni culture comprises a large portion of the population of southern Africa, and includes, among others, the Swazi, Zulu, and Xhosa peoples (as a Xhosa, Nelson Mandela is a member of the Nguni). For more combs, see my post The Origins of the Afro Comb.

Akan Head from a Clan Vessel

Akan Head from a clan vessel, Ghana, acquired in the 1960s. Sotheby’s, The Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 48.

The Akan are the largest ethnic group in the Ivory Coast and Ghana and are noted for their craft traditions, particularly the making of elaborate goldweights. (see also this JSTOR article on Akan goldweights).

Ndebele Fertility Figure

Ndebele fertility figure, South Africa. Sotheby’s, the Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 153.

The Ndebele are another subset of the Nguni people of southern Africa. They are divided into two groups by region, and the Southern Ndebele are famous for their beadwork and colourfully painted homes.

Senufo Oracle Figure

Senufo oracle figure, Ivory Coast. Sotheby’s, The Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 64.

The shrouded kafigeledjo figures created and used by Senufo diviners are among the most visually poetic of all African figural sculpture.  Discussing the example in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, LaGamma (2000:26) notes, “this oracle figure deliberately provokes anxiety through its shrouded anonymity and the sense of suffocation and entrapment it suggests.  Such works and the ritual practice in which they are used are both known as kafigeledjo, a term that is variously translated as “he who speaks the truth”, “tell the truth”, or “saying true things”.  The figures give a visual representation to invisible bush spirits and function as divination devices.  In contrast to the sublime humanism of works of Senufo Sando divination […] they clearly embody a wild and unsettling anti-aesthetic.”

She continues (ibid.): “Kafigeledjo divination is used to uncover misdeeds, false testimony, and culpability.  […] this pursuit of truth ultimately seeks to preserve and uphold Senufo social guidelines concerning descent.  It does so by unveiling illicit behavior and by punishing with supernatural sanctions those who violate rules pertaining to forbidden sexual relations and exogamous marriage.  The kafigeledjo figure is concealed within a small hut, and although it has the potential to affect all members of a Senufo community, access to this oracle figure is restricted to the most enlightened senior male and, occasionally, female members.  ” (Sotheby’s catalogue note.)

Dogon Ladder

Dogon ladder, Mali. With an indigenous repair incorporating a large rock. Sotheby’s, the Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 37.

The Dogon live among the Badiagara Cliffs in Mali and make extensive use of such carved wooden ladders. The top step of this very old ladder eroded and was replaced with a compatible stone, in keeping with the ladder’s aesthetic qualities. There is at least one example of a Dogon ladder at the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond, which has a wonderful African collection, but unfortunately the ladder isn’t online.

Batie Mask

Batie mask, the Grasslands region of Cameroon. Sotheby’s, The Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 83.

According to the catalogue note, Batie masks are “exceedingly rare”.

Ejagham Headcrest

Ejagham headcrest, Cross River region, Nigeria. Sotheby’s, The Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 80.

A feature of the art of the Cross River region is the use of the technique – unique in Africa – of covering a sculpted wooden armature with animal skin, mainly for head crests and helmet masks. The tanned pelt, when stretched over the wood, imitates the grain, brilliance and volume of human flesh and renders these works surprisingly lifelike… Ethnographic accounts report that this hairstyle was worn by young women during initiation and the period of reclusion prior to marriage. (Musée Barbier-Mueller).

Only a handful of similar headcrests exist, and this one is perhaps the last remaining in private hands.

Amarro Leather Shield

Amarro leather shield, common hippopotamus hide. Sotheby’s, The Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 148.

Kongo-Villi Zoomorphic Power Figure

Kongo-Villi zoomorphic power figure, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sotheby’s, The Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 105.

Kongo power figures are “among the most impressive sculptural creations from sub-Saharan Africa—sought to inspire awe, to intimidate, and to evoke a power without bounds. Conceived to house specific mystical forces, Kongo power figures were the collaborative creations of sculptors and ritual specialists” (Metropolitan Museum of Art). For more information see other well-catalogued examples from from the Met; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Brooklyn Museum.

Songye Kifwebe Mask

Songye Kifwebe mask, Democratic Republic of the Congo, collected prior to 1914. Sotheby’s, The Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 138.

According to Neyt (2004: 361 et seq.) the iconography of Songye kifwebe masks is highly symbolic and contains numerous references to Songye mythology and cosmology. The deep striations painted with various colors recall the metaphysical labyrinth the initiates have to stride during their initiation. The kifwebe mask from the Allan Stone Collection is distinguished by its great age and archaic style. (Sotheby’s catalogue note.)

Bamileke Beaded Elephant Mask

Bamileke beaded elephant mask, Cameroon. Sotheby’s, The Collection of Allen Stone, sale N09040, lot 87.

The Bamileke of Cameroon are noted craftspeople, and the elephant is a common motif for masks. The Virginia Museum of Art holds a complete beaded ensemble.

A Spider Aide Memoir

Spider Aide Memoir

Spider aide memoir. Silver, sapphire and ruby cabochons. Russia, late 19th-early 20th century. Woolley & Wallis jewellery sale, 24 October, 2013, lot 1740.

This striking silver aide memoir recently at auction with Woolley & Wallis features a small spider made of sapphire and ruby cabochons (gemstones that have been rounded and polished rather than faceted). Aide memoirs were pocket-sized notebooks protected by leather or metal cases, which usually had space for a small pencil and other items like stamps. This one, from Russia, includes a notepad and propelling (mechanical) pencil.

Arts of the Islamic World

This post highlights some wonderful items from Sotheby’s recent Arts of the Islamic World sale, held concurrently with Art of Imperial India. I normally do a little of my own research and writing on auction lots, but due to WordPress problems I’m going to go ahead and post these images with only the auctioneer’s notes.

Ivory and Bone Gaming Pieces

Ivory and bone chess and gaming pieces. Persia or Egypt, 9th-11th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale L13223, lot 101.

Samanid Pottery Bowl

Samanid pottery bowl. Persia or central Asia, 10th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale L13223, lot 7.

Umayyad Bronze Deer

Umayyad bronze deer. Spain or Eastern Mediterranean, 10th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale L13223, lot 105.

 This small bronze sculpture in the form of a young deer is attributable to the early Medieval period, tenth century, probably Spain or possibly even Southern Italy or Egypt. Stylistic comparisons can be made to other zoomorphic bronzes, especially in the articulation of its elegant, simple design without surface decoration. A related bronze aquamanile in the form of a deer in the Archaeological Museum in Naples is attributed to the tenth-eleventh century (inv. no. A.M. 138798) and noted for its realism, which arises from the purity of its forms (U. Scerrato, Arte Islamica a Napoli, Opere delle raccolte pubbliche Napoletane, Naples, 1967, p.1, fig.1). (Sotheby’s sale catalogue.)

Sapphire with Kufic Inscription

Sapphire with Kufic inscription. Near east, 9th-11th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale L13223, lot 102.

This rare sapphire was probably used as a personal seal, inscribed with the name Harith Ibn Shakir, and would have originally been mounted on a ring. Inscribed gemstones were also used as talismans or for personal adornment, the choice of material depending on the wealth of the commissioner.

During the first four centuries of Islam, mainly cabochon stones such as the present example were carved. This sapphire is inscribed with the owner’s name, Harith, with a reference to his father (Ibn Shakir– son of Shakir), as is common in Islamic practice.

It probably refers to Musa Ibn Shakir, who had three sons Muhammad, Ahmad and al-Hassan. Musa was a renowned astrologer and engineer in the court of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun (r.813–833), and is most remembered for his involvement in the calculation of the circumference of the earth. After his death, he left his three sons under the supervision of al-Mamun and eventually his successors, where they flourished as scholars in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, mechanics and geometry, translating ancient texts and overseeing important discoveries. The present engraved sapphire probably belonged to one of these sons, proudly associating themselves with the Ibn-Shakir name. (Sotheby’s sale catalogue.)

Kashan Lustre Bottle Vase

Kashan lustre bottle vase. Persia, 12th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale L3223, lot 18.

The body of this vase is “decorated with a golden overglaze lustre, featuring seated figures within palmette frames” (Sotheby’s sale catalogue.)

Kashan Blue and White Footed Bowl

Kashan blue and white footed bowl. Persia, 13th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale L13223, lot 22.

Turquoise-Glazed Pottery House Model

Turquoise-glazed pottery house model. Persia, 12th/13th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale L13223, lot 19.

This interesting piece belongs to a surviving group of glazed ceramic house models, believed to date from the late/post-Seljuq period in Persia (circa 1150-1250) and studied extensively by Dr Margaret Graves and Dr Melanie Gibson. Organised around a central courtyard, the quadruped figurines on the present example were probably modelled as bulls and lions.

For additional scholarship on these models, please refer to: Margaret S. Graves, “Ceramic House Models from Medieval Persia: Domestic Architecture and Concealed Activities”, in IRAN: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies, vol. 46 (2008), pp.227-251. (Sotheby’s sale catalogue.)

Gold and Silver-Inlaid Pen Box

Gold and silver-inlaid pen box signed by Attay Allah Ibn Faydallah. Probably Yelemn, late Mamluk period, 14th/15th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale L13223, lot 127.

This extremely rare pen box derives its shape from earlier pen boxes from the Mamluk period. It is monumental in style, with three gilt bosses on the lid, evoking domed architectural forms. The calligraphic frieze, which holds a prominent position on the lid, is written in a cursive script, with a special dedication to the Ruler of Egypt (… minin wa sayyid al-muslimin al masri), Commander of the Faithful and Lord of the Muslims, suggesting royal patronage. (Sotheby’s sale catalogue.)

Timurid Carved Calligraphic Border Tile

Timurid carved calligraphic border tile. Central Asia, late 14th/15th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic Sale L13225, lot 29.

This tyle panel, with its intricate and deeply recessed calligraphic design is very similar to the tiles on the band around the entrance to the mausoleum of an anonymous woman in Shah-e-Zinda, Samarkand, dated to 1360 (illustrated in: J. Soustiel, Y. Porter, Tombs of paradise: the Shâh-e Zende in Samarkand and architectural ceramics of Central Asia, Editions Monelle Hayot, 2003, p. 83). (Sotheby’s sale catalogue.)

Nasrid Silk Panel

Nasrid silk panel. Spain, 15th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale L13223, lot 109.

Ottoman Talismanic Shirt (Jama)

Ottoman Talismanic shirt (jama) with extracts from the Qur’an and prayers. Turkey, 16th/17th century. Sotheby’s Arts of the Islamic World sale L13223, lot 58.

This is an unusual and finely executed Qur’an jama. The basic layout related to other jamas of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with a large number of panels and roundels containing Qur’anic quotations, pious phrases, prayers and talismanic numbers, but here their arrangement is unusually varied and inventive, with a number of distinctly Ottoman features such as the architectural references on the reverse of the jama with a large door flanked by Kufic cartouches on two sides and tilework above. What is also particularly noteworthy is the accomplished quality of the calligraphy, which is executed in a number of different scripts, and retains a confident aesthetic in even its most minute form. The amalgamation of all the decorative and calligraphic styles is a technique visible on other comparable talismanic shirts including the jama of Cem Sultan (TKS13/1404, see Roxburgh 2005, pp.300-1, no.257) and that of Mehmed II (TKS13/1408, published in Palace of Gold and Light, Treasures from the Topkapi, exhib. cat, Istanbul, 2000, pp.66-69, no.A7).

The present shirt and its decoration relate to a group of Ottoman shirts now housed in the Topkapi Saray Museum which all date from the fifteenth to sixteenth centuries. (Sotheby’s sale catalogue.)

Art of Imperial India

This week Sotheby’s is hosting two major sales, Art of Imperial India and Art of the Islamic World. Below, a selection of objects in the former, with a post on the Islamic art sale coming up tomorrow.

Mughal Gem-Set Jade Mirror Frame

Mughal gem-set jade mirror frame, north India, 18th century. Sotheby’s Art of Imperial India sale L13502, lot 225.

The Mughal Empire controlled most of the Indian subcontinent, as well as parts of what are now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, between 1526 and 1757, and at its height ruled a population five times larger than that of the Ottoman Empire. Thanks to its military and economic might, it witnessed one of the greatest flowerings of art and architecture in the region’s history. The emperors Akbar (founder of the empire, reigned 1556-1605), Jahangir (1605-1627), and Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame,1628-1658) were art lovers and important patrons who embarked on enormous building projects and drew to their courts master craftsmen and artists from across Asia and the Near East. Though the empire began to diminish during the late 17th century, and later emperors were not as lavish in their support of the arts as their forebears, many craftsmen from the imperial courts were able to find work in regional courts and the output of fine objects, books, paintings, and architecture in Mughal styles continued until the late 18th century.

Mughal Gem-Set, Jade-Hilted Dagger

Mughal jem-set, jade-hilted dagger (khanjar) and scabbard, north India, 18th century. Sotheby’s Art of Imperial India sale L13502, lot 245.

Tipu Sultan Bubri-Form Axe Head with Tigers

Tipu Sultan Bubri-Form Axe Head with Tigers, Mysore, late 18th century. Sotheby’s Art of Imperial India sale L13502, lot 248.

Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), “The Tiger of Mysore” to the British, was the ruler of Mysore in southern Indian and a famed military tactician whose armies blocked the advance of the British East India Company for forty years. Objects associated with his court, particularly military items, are held in high esteem. This sale includes nine Tipu Sultan artefacts, including the tiger axe head above.

Every item at Tipu Sultan’s court featured a tiger-related design. This leitmotif was emblematic of his love of tigers and their powerful symbolism. The present axe-head features stylised tiger heads and a bubri design embodying the stripes of a tiger. Robin Wigington, in his survey of the firearms produced in Mysore during the reign of Tipu Sultan, writes: “Although the tiger stripe as an art form was widely used throughout the world of Islam, and notably in India, from very early times, Tipu’s particular pattern of stripe was very much his own.” These are composed of an “s-shaped figure, wide at the middle with a hollow centre, and with re-curving ends of equal size […] sometimes decorated with pellets” (Robin Wigington, The Firearms of Tipu Sultan 1783-1799, John Taylor Book Ventures, Hatfield, 1992). (Sotheby’s sale catalogue.)

Vizagapatam Rosewood and Ivory-Inlad Workbox

Vizagapatam rosewood and ivory-inlaid workbox, south India, 1740-50. Sotheby’s Art of Imperial India sale L13502, lot 234.

At the beginning of the 18th century Vizagapatam (Vishakhapatnam) on India’s southeast coast became the centre of the subcontinent’s wood and ivory industry, producing engraved and inlaid boxes, furniture, and other objects mainly for export to Europe.

The bold and distinctive character of the flowers and leaves on this workbox suggest a close relationship with north Cormandel Coast textiles manufactured in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Three of the fitted compartments to the interior of the box are decorated with a turtle adding an extra fun detail to the whole. (Sotheby’s sale catalogue.)

Multan Blue & Turquoise Pottery Dish

Multan blue & turquoise pottery dish, Pakistan, 18th/19th century. Sotheby’s Art of Imperial India sale L13502, lot 266.

Multan is an historic centre of ceramics production. Its products are characterised by their vivid blues.

Mughal Gem-Set and Enamelled Archer's Ring

Mughal gem-set and enamelled archer’s ring, north India, 17th century. Sotheby’s Art of Imperial India sale L13502, lot 244.

Last but not least, this magnificent Mughal archer’s ring.

Archers’ rings with an asymmetrical construction, such as the present example, were designed to enable the archer to release the arrow with precision and in so doing, to protect the inner side of the thumb against the bow string. Appreciated for their practical use as well as their craftsmanship, they were presented as tokens of appreciation by the emperors and would have only been worn by his innermost circle. (Sotheby’s sale catalogue.)

Ceramics of China, Japan, and Korea at the V&A

A few years ago the Victoria & Albert Museum undertook a major renovation of its ceramics galleries, and this summer I visited the new installations for the first time. Housed on the building’s top floor, they’re a quiet and calming escape from the crowds in the lower galleries, and the skylights beautifully illuminate the displays. Of particular interest are the new “study galleries”, which house the bulk of the collection in large glass cases without labeling save for the region of origin. While some might find this frustrating (to learn what the objects are you need to consult the guides provided at the end of each room), they provide visual access to many more pieces than would be possible if each had to be incorporated into a narrative.

Ceramics Study Galleries

Ceramics study galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Photo by the author.

I really enjoyed this set-up, and spent several hours browsing the collection and taking advantage of the excellent light for photography. Today I’m posting a few of my best images from the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai collections, with more posts to follow covering other regions and eras. All the photos are Creative Commons non-commercial share-alike licensed:


Tang Dynasty Box

Tang Dynasty Box, sancai ware 700-750 CE. The Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

China’s Tang dynasty emerged following a three-century period of fragmentation after the collapse of the Han Dynasty. It was “Marked by strong and benevolent rule, successful diplomatic relationships, economic expansion, and a cultural efflorescence of cosmopolitan style” which made it “one of the greatest empires of the medieval world” (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

“Tang potters developed a distinctive type of ceramic known as sancai or three-coloured ware. These wares were decorated with cream, green, brown or yellow, and sometimes blue lead glazes. The sancai tradition continued into the Liao (907-1125), Northern Song (960-1127), and Jin (1115-1224) dynasties”. (V&A display text.)

White ware Bowl Jin Dynasty

White ware Bowl, Jin Dynasty, Ding, 1115-1234 CE. The Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

“Chinese potters first succeeded in making high-fired white stoneware in about AD 500. Kaolin-rich, white-firing clays were abundantly available and kiln technology allowed temperatures in excess of 1100° to be reached. Many pottery centres in northern China produced white ware, with the Ding kilns in Hebei being the most famous. Ding potters often embellished their products with incised floral designs. Later, to speed up production, moulds were used to create decorative patterns on bowls and dishes”. (V&A display text.)

Southern Song Dynasty cosmetic box

Southern Song Dynasty cosmetic box, Jingdezhen, 1127-1279 CE. The Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

“The Song dynasty (960–1279) was culturally the most brilliant era in later imperial Chinese history. A time of great social and economic change, the period in large measure shaped the intellectual and political climate of China down to the twentieth century” (Metropolitan Museum of Art). The first half of this period is known as the Northern Song Dynasty, and the second half as the Southern Song, as the court was forced to flee south from invaders who established the Jinn Dynasty. This period was marked by a move away from hereditary aristocracy and toward control by a scholarly bureaucracy, and “was characterized by the pursuit of a highly aestheticized way of life” with inspiration for the arts taken from the natural world (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Chinese Ewer & Lid

Chinese ewer & lid. Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

“This eight-lobed ewer of pumpkin form was made in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, southern China. It has a bluish white glaze, and is known in Chinese as ‘qingbai’ porcelain.” (Victoria & Albert Museum.)

Chinese Ceramics

Chinese ceramics. Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

Ribbed Jar from Thailand

Small jar with ribbed exterior, Si Satchanalai, Thailand, around 1380-1500 CE. Victoria & Albert Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

“Ceramics from Thailand and Vietnam were traded extensively across the South China Sea during the 15th and 16th centuries, competing with Chinese products that had previously dominated the market. Many South-East Asian ceramics were imitations of imported Chinese wares,” though ceramics were also made in “distinctive local styles”. (V&A display text.)

Japanese Stoneware Dish

Japanese stoneware dish, Seto or Mino (Ofuke type), 1650-1750 CE. Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

“The Japanese began making high-fired, unglazed ceramics known as Sue ware in about AD 400” and from the 12th century on a number of regions produced stoneware that was “not intentionally glazed, but was often partially covered in natural ash glaze. The Seto and Mino kilns in central Japan, by contrast, made intentionally glazed stoneware, initially in imitation of Chinese ceramics but later in native Japanese styles”. (V&A display text.)

Korean celadon boxes

Celadon boxes, Korea. Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

“Ceramics with a clear greenish-grey glaze known as celadon were made in Korea throughout the Koryo period (918-1392). Around 1150, a new technique for decorating this celadon-glazed pottery was developed. Koryo Potters set coloured materials into the clay surface before the wares were glazed. After firing, the pattern inlaid in this way remained clearly visible beneath the transparent glaze.” (Victoria & Albert Museum.)

“Ceramic containers like [these] survive in considerable numbers from Koryo period Korea, when a refined and elegant culture was enjoyed by courtiers and by high-ranking Buddhist clergy. Traditionally identified as cosmetics boxes for women’s face make-up, these boxes could equally have been used to hold incense for Buddhist practice.” (Victoria & Albert Museum.)

Korean Celadon

Celadon bowls and dishes, Korea. Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

Korean Incense Holder

Celadon incense holder, Korea. Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

Chinese Incense Burner

Ceramic incense burner, southern China, 450-550 CE. Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramics Gallery. Photo by the author.

“Chinese stoneware with an olive green glaze is traditionally called a ‘celadon’. Kilns in south China excelled in this type of ceramic. This incense burner is in the shape of a hill. Fragrance would have come out through the pierced holes.” (Victoria & Albert Museum.)

The Mari Lwyd, a Welsh Mumming Tradition

Mari Lwyd. Wood and textiles. Wales. © Horniman Museum and Gardens object number  15.2.50/1, photo by Heini Schneebeli.

Mari Lwyd. Wood and textiles. Wales. © Horniman Museum and Gardens object number 15.2.50/1, photo by Heini Schneebeli.

This beautiful and eerie hobby horse is a Mari Lwyd (Gray Mare), the central figure in the Welsh mumming festivals held during Christmas and New Year prior to the 20th century. During the dark evenings small groups went from house to house singing traditional songs and engaging in raucous musical contests with the inhabitants, seeking permission to enter. Though initially denied, the Mari Lwyd was always welcomed in the end, as the ceremony was believed to bring good luck to the home for the following year. Once inside, the mummers were treated to food and drink and caused a good-natured commotion with the Mari Lwyd, clacking its jaw and chasing the women and children about.

This example is in the collection of the Horniman Museum in London, and was highlighted as a curator’s favourite object in 2011. While it’s carved of wood, it seems that Mari Lwyd often incorporated real horse skulls. This video from the BBC archive shows a group of mummers with a Mari Lwyd in 1966, when the tradition had already died out in much of Wales (and I suspect this performance is somewhat more staid that usual). From the National Museum of Wales, the text and audio of a Mari Lwyd song. Social changes associated with the industrial revolution and temperance movements lead to the tradition’s decline at the turn of the century, but it’s now being revived in some parts of Wales and the ritual can be seen every December at the St. Fagan’s National History Museum.

Owls – Part 2

This is the second in a two-part series on owls. For the first post, which includes introductory material, see Owls – Part 1. Many thanks to BibliOdyssey for help with this and the previous owl post.

Lead loom weight with owl

Lead loom weight with owl and the Greek letter alpha. Corfu, Greece, 4th-3rd century BCE. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The warp-weighted loom was a weaving technology common throughout the ancient world, and loom weights, made of dense metal, stone, or ceramic, often survive in large numbers at archaeological sites. The owl motif here is appropriate as the emblem of Athena in her role as goddess of weaving and domestic arts.

Athenian coins with owls

Athenian coins with owls. Athens, Greece, 500-480 BCE. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Turquoise owl figure

Turquoise owl figure. Shang Dynasty, China, 13th-11th century BCE. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The arts of China’s Shang Dynasty are characterised by often elaborate bronze vessels in the shape of owls which were connected to the celebration of the dead (there’s an example in my previous post on owls). This turquoise figure may have had similar associations.

Anglo-Saxon Owl Brooch

Anglo-Saxon owl brooch, copper alloy, 450-550 CE. Portable Antiquities Scheme.

This zoomorphic Anglo-Saxon button brooch may depict the head of an owl.

Stoneware punchbowl in the shape of an owl

Salt-glazed stoneware punch bowl in the shape of an owl. The Martin Brothers, Southall, England, 1903. Height 40 inches. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

One of my favourite of all the owls, this astonishing figure dominates the ceramics gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum. More than three feet high, it’s a punch bowl that probably resembles a similar bowl made for the Bohemian Club of San Francisco in 1903. The first design cracked during firing, as did this example, but one was finally dispatched to the US where it was almost immediately destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Its makers, the Martin Brothers, are best known for their “Wally Birds“.

Balinese owl kite

Owl kite, bamboo and nylon. Bali, 1990s. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Bali holds an annual kite festival in which giant kites are flown by teams of ten or more people. This example measures nine feet across.

Decoy owl

Decoy owl, carved and painted wood, leather, and glass. North America, early 20th century. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Owls, either living or in decoy form, have been used since at least the Middle Ages to lure other birds such as crows, magpies and jays toward hunters. This Google Books link includes two engravings depicting the practice and a photo of a 19th-century decoy.

Canadian Owl Brooch

Canadian owl brooch, silver alloy, 1760-1821. University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology.

“Silver ornaments represent an important part of early exchange between Europeans, including fur traders, and First Nations peoples, especially in eastern and central Canada and the U.S.A” (Museum of Anthropology).

Brooches of this type were likely based on Scottish designs and were introduced to North America by fur traders during the 18th century. They became popular as symbols of rank among some indigenous groups in the northeast, whose own artisans began producing them, and they were often worn in multiples on the chest and in the hair.

Inuit Owl Figure

Inuit owl figure carved from tusk, 1980s? Wingspan 5 inches. University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology.

The owl is a significant figure in Inuit culture. One of the most famous pieces of Inuit art is The Enchanted Owl (1960) by Kenojuak Ashevak, and in the 1970s film-maker Co Hoedeman directed two charming stop-motion films based on Inuit legends: The Owl and the Raven and The Owl and the Lemming.

Silver and gilt owl drinking cup

Silver and gilt owl drinking cup. Germany, 17th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Normally I prefer not to use black and white images, but this drinking cup was too good to leave out.

Silver matchsafe with owl and heron

Silver matchsafe in the aesthetic style with owl and heron decoration. Sampson Mordan & Co., Birmingham, England, 1887-88. Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

For even more images see the first post in this two-part series on owls.

A Celtic Gold Bracelet and Other Antiquities

Celtic Solid Gold Bracelet

Celtic Solid Gold Bracelet. Iron Age, circa 1,000 BCE. 9.5 cm in diameter, weight 599.3 grams. Christie’s Antiquities Sale 8776, lot 139.

This magnificent Celtic gold bracelet, which weighs more than a pound, was the star lot in Christie’s recent antiquities sale and is one of nine objects that I’ve chosen to highlight in this post. Found in Portalegre in Portugal, it is probably the only example of its type still in private hands. A similar piece was found in nearby Estremoz and is now in the National Museum of Madrid. Twenty-eight were uncovered as part of the Villena Treasure, a nine-kilo hoard found in Spain in 1963 that is one of the most important gold finds in European history.

This type of bracelet reflects the technological changes that occurred at the beginning of the Iron Age: new, high-temperature furnaces designed for iron production made it easier to melt large amounts of gold, and tools made of iron were sharper, more precise, and more durable than those of copper alloy, allowing for finer control of the goldmsith’s art.

The net result of this leap in technical skills is perfectly shown by this bracelet. It is made from a single piece of gold weighing almost two-thirds of a kilo, and the intricate and regular design was cleanly cut and shaped with a repertoire of sharp metal tools. The starting point for the bracelet was a cast rod or plate of gold, possibly plain, possibly with the basic contours of the ridges cast in. This was then shaped, cut and pierced with sharp iron tools, the marks of which can clearly be seen under magnification. The work was carried out with great skill and precision (Christie’s lot note).

Below, eight additional lots that caught my eye:

Carthaginian Glass Ram's Head Pendants

Carthaginian Glass Ram’s Head Pendants. Circa 7th-5th century BCE. Christies Antiquities Sale 8776, lot 7.

Glassworking was a major industry among the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, who placed a special emphasis on elaborate glass beads that could be worn as amulets. In addition to animals and “eye” beads, a common subject was bearded men, such as this fine example from the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan.

Persian Pottery Vessel in the form of a Steatopygous Rider

Persian Pottery Vessel in the form of a Steatopygous Rider. Early first millennium BCE. Christie’s Antiquities Sale 8776, lot 26.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the term steatopygous refers to human sculptures “characterized by a fleshy abdomen and massive thighs and buttocks, all undoubtedly indicative of nourishment and fertility”.

Anatolian Marble Idol

Anatolian Marble Idol, Kusura Type. 9.25 inches high. Early Bronze Age II, circa 2700-2400 BCE. Christie’s Antiquities Sale 8776, lot 29.

Highly schematic idols such as this coexisted with more naturalistic depictions of the human body and testify to the continuing popularity of abstraction in the art of Early Bronze Age Anatolia. The stylized forms are thought to represent a crouching female that is generally identified as the ‘mother goddess’ and associated with fertility. Although the precise function of these idols is unclear, their presence in sanctuaries and tombs suggests that they were used as votive offerings or grave gifts… The present figure is an unusually large and particularly attractive variant, with stumps indicating arms and elegantly rounded forms (Christie’s lot note).

Egyptian Plaited Palm Leaf Sandals

Egyptian Plaited Palm Leaf Sandals. New Kingdom, Dynasty XVIII-XX, circa 1550-1069 BCE. Christie’s Antiquities Sale 8776, lot 46.

Though there is no information about the origin of these astonishingly well-preserved sandals, I suspect that they were never worn, but left as grave goods for a deceased person to use in the afterlife.

Roman Bone Articulated Doll

Roman Bone Articulated Doll. Late 2nd century CE. Christie’s Antiquities Sale 8776, lot 125.

There is a similar jointed Roman doll in the Museo Nazionale Romano.

Roman Gold Snake Ring and Bronze Ring with Profile

Roman Gold Snake Ring, 1st Century CE. Ptolemaic Bronze Ring with Head in Profile, circa 2nd-1st century BCE. Christie’s Antiquities Sale 8776, lot 132.

This snake ring was created from a single strand of gold wire looped around itself three times and finished with a figure-eight and a snake head at each end.

Roman Rock Crystal Bead Necklace

Roman Rock Crystal Bead Necklace. Circa 2nd-4th century CE. Christie’s Antiquities Sale 8776, lot 135.

This striking necklace is made of rock crystal (quartz) interspersed with green glass. Quartz was an important luxury commodity in the ancient world, particularly the Middle East, north Africa, and Europe, where it was carved into sculptures, jewellery, and household goods such as drinking vessels.

Roman Amber Glass Bowl

Roman Amber Glass Bowl, 13 cm in diameter. Circa 1st century CE. Christie’s Antiquities Sale 8776, lot 13.

Roman glassware is technically and aesthetically of the highest quality. Although glass had been made for centuries, the invention of glass-blowing only took place in the first century BC. The resulting increase in production led to material becoming cheaper and more widely available, so that glass vessels were used not only for fine tableware but also for the packaging and transport of food items. (Roman Glass, The British Museum.)



Medieval Toy Knights

Toy Knight

Bronze toy knight, Europe, 13th-14th century CE. The Walters Art Museum.

This evocative little figure is a bronze toy knight and one of the earliest known toy soldiers, made in Europe sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries. Requiring little skill, time, or investment to produce, these must have been fairly common toys for better-off children, but the ephemeral nature of childhood possessions mean that few have survived into the present. The wooden lance is a modern reproduction.

Pewter Toy Knight

Hollow-cast pewter toy knight, London, c. 1300. The Museum of the City of London.

While the first knight shown above was modeled by hand, archaeological finds suggest that, at least in some built-up areas such as London, a healthy market for molded and mass-produced toys developed at around the same time. The Museum of London holds one of the earliest known mass-produced medieval metal toys, the hollow-cast pewter knight with upraised sword shown above, found on the banks of the Thames and dated to around 1300 CE.

Rural and less well-off children may not have had access to metal knights such as these, but they probably played with home-made toys, objects made of wood and ceramics rather than metal, and less expensive two-dimensional versions of the toys available in larger towns and cities. Girls were not left out. Some toys were gender neutral, and those depicting household goods and tableware were probably made specifically for young ladies. The miniature cooking pot depicted below was a common type of toy throughout the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern Era.

Medieval Toy Cooking Pot

Late medieval or early modern copper alloy toy cooking pot. Portable Antiquities Scheme.

What’s striking about these objects, and other similar toys from England, is that they evoke a more nuanced view of medieval childhood, which has sometimes been presented as a dreary affair in which children were held at arms’ length by their parents and treated as miniature adults with few opportunities for imaginative play. Instead, it is clear that “Then as now, children liked playing with toys. Then as now, they had a culture of their own, encompassing slang, toys, and games. Then as now, adults cared for children and encouraged their play” (Nicholas Orme, Representing Childhood, University of Pittsburgh).

Dandies, Flappers, and Debutantes: Antique Fashion

Kerry Taylor Auctions specialise in antique and vintage fashion, and while they sell a lot of late 20th-century couture, I’m drawn to the older, unnamed pieces, especially those intended for day-to-day wear and whose survival for centuries seems miraculous. Below is a selection of pieces from their most recent sale.

Embroidered satin waistcoat and blue silk tailcoat

Embroidered satin waistcoat with tulips to the hem, net cartouches with whiteworked sprigs, and a pale blue silk tailcoat, circa 1790.

Block printed cotton day dress

A block printed cotton day dress, late 1820s, the green ground printed with cabbage roses, with matching belt, frills to upper sleeves. Kerry Taylor Auctions.

Embroidered muslin summer dress

An embroidered muslin summer dress, late 1820s-early 1830s, with white chain-stitched berthe and cuffs, floral sprigs to the tiered skirt, drawstring fastenings to neck and waist. Kerry Taylor Auctions.

Chine taffeta dress

A Chine taffeta dress, early 1870s, formed from the skirt of an 1860s gown, with original 1860s bodice. Kerry Taylor Auctions.

A terracotta and ivory striped flannel bathing suit, circa 1910

A terracotta and ivory striped flannel bathing suit, circa 1910. Kerry Taylor Auctions.

Black sequined and beaded flapper dress

A black sequinned and beaded flapper dress, circa 1927, with dropped waistline, flared skirt, the ground lavishly covered with beads and sequins. Kerry Taylor Auctions.

Beaded muslin flapper dress

A beaded muslin flapper/bridal dress circa 1928, adorned with silver bugle beads, scalloped beaded fringed hem. Kerry Taylor Auctions.

A group of summery 1940s-50s dresses

A group of summery 1940s-50s dresses. Kerry Taylor Auctions.

An un-used box of Schiaparelli face powder

An un-used box of Schiaparelli ‘So Sweet’ face powder, American, 1950s, the box designed and patented in 1938. Kerry Taylor Auctions.

Paquin primrose yellow satin ball gown

A Paquin primrose yellow satin ball gown, 1954-5, with printed Paquin Paris and London label to the waistband, the bodice and skirt with lightly quilted and beaded star-bursts with rhinestone spangles. Kerry Taylor Auctions.

The design for a similar dress is now held at the V&A.

Owls – Part I

For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth.
My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread.
By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin.
I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.
– Psalm 102, The King James Bible

Few animals hold as ambivalent a place in human culture as the owl. Almost universally a symbol of night and its mysteries, they’re often portrayed as portents of sorrow and death. During the Middle Ages in Europe owls were linked with sloth, sexual vice, and any “who have given themselves up to the darkness of sin and those who flee from the light of righteousness” (Bubo, Aberdeen Beastiary), but also with Christ, who “loves the darkness of night because he does not want sinners – who are represented by darkness – to die but to be converted and live” (Night-owl, Aberdeen Beastiary). Owls’ nocturnal lives also associate them with magical sight, dreams, and wisdom, and in many cultures they are powerful spirits, affording protection in this world and a tangible, living connection with the world to come.

Onyx gemstone with owl, bowl, and poppy

Onyx gemstone engraved with owl, bowl, and poppy. Imperial Rome, 1st-3rd century CE. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

In this Roman onyx gemstone the owl references sleep and death – it sits on a bowl, probably for a sleeping draught, containing a poppy, the opium-producing flower that was also symbolic of death.

Kwakiutl cedarwood owl mask

Kwakiutl cedarwood owl mask. Tom Patterson, British Columbia, 1983. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Many indigenous communities in North and Central America have revered owls. “One of the Pawnee four sacred birds, the owl’s powers were linked with darkness and night. The Kiowa believed that the shaman became an owl after death. The Ojibwa called the bridge over which the dead pass the “Owl Bridge” and buried owl feathers with the dead to facilitate their journey… in Mesoamerica owls were closely associated with liminal passages into the underworld abode of the dead. Owl images appear on cave walls, and owls appear on mirrors, which, like caves, act as thresholds between the natural and supernatural worlds” (Werness, The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art, p. 306).

Masks are particularly important to First Nation communities of British Columbia, where they are connected with beliefs about the transformational nature of humans and animals. The example above was carved by Tom Patterson, a member of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe of Vancouver Island.

Indian vessel in the shape of an owl

Metal vessel in the shape of an owl with other human and animal figures. Bengal, India, 20th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Owls are often associated with feminine powers, from the wisdom of Athena to the witchcraft of early modern Europe. In Hindu mythology an owl serves as the Vāhana, or mount, of Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and prosperity.

Paradise wooden caving by Edgar Tolson

“Paradise” by Edgar Tolson. White elm wood carving depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with an owl sitting in the Tree of Knowledge. Kentucky, 1968. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The American folk artist Edgar Tolson was a former preacher, and made many carvings depicting the Garden of Eden. In this example an owl, representing wisdom, rests in the Tree of Knowledge.

Owl Harness Pendant

Owl harness pendant. Copper alloy and enamel, Staffordshire, 1250-1400 CE. Portable Antiquities Scheme.

This owl graces a medieval harness pendant. Horse harnesses “appear to have been decorated with copper alloy pendants from the 12th century onwards, becoming more numerous in the 13th century. From perhaps the second half of the 13th century heraldric designs appear on pendants, with coats of arms depicted with coloured enamels, silvering, and gilding, and increasingly in the form of small shields. By the end of the 14th century, pendants were in decline with fashions changing to decorative leather or fabric trappings” (Portable Antiquities Scheme).

Zuni pottery owl

Zuni pottery owl. New Mexico, late 19th century. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Anthropology Department.

This charming owl was made as a tourist souvenir by the Zuni of New Mexico. The Zuni and other Pueblo peoples of the southwestern United States have a long tradition of working with pottery, producing beautifully decorated vessels to store food and water. During the late 19th century increasing numbers of travelers and tourists in the region created a market for figures such as this one, and similar objects remain a major source of income for the tribes. I suspect that this and similar pieces are based on the Burrowing Owl, common to the region.

Zuni pottery owl

Zuni pottery owl. New Mexico, late 19th century. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Anthropology Department.

Lacquered wooden inro with eagle owl

Lacquered wooden inro with eagle owl. Shiomi Masazane, Japan, 18th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Inro (‘seal-basket’) are small decorative containers that hang from the waist. They originated at the end of the sixteenth century and were worn by men to hold seals and herbal and other medicines. They were considered a particularly good way of keeping the contents sealed and fresh. By the eighteenth century they had become decorative accessories and were commissioned by the merchant class, provincial rulers and their samurai, and those that could afford them.

Inro are made from very thin leather, wood or paper covered in decorated lacquer. They consist of separate sections stacked on top of each other, and are kept together by a cord loop that passes through a channel on each side and underneath the bottom section. The sections are held together when the cord is tightened by pulling it through a bead (ojime), rather like the toggles used in outdoor clothing. The cord is then passed behind the waist sash (obi) so that the inro hangs freely from the waist. To prevent the inro from slipping through the obi, a small and often decorative toggle (netsuke) is attached to the end of the cord. (The Victoria & Albert Museum).

Carnelian Scarab with Owl on Sphere

Carnelian scarab engraved with an owl on a sphere. Italy, 3rd century BCE. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Bronze owl wine vessel

Bronze owl wine vessel. Shang Dynasty, China, 13th-11th century BCE. Yale University Art Gallery.

This zun or wine vessel is cast in the shape of an owl whose head forms a removable lid. A scaled snake with a tiger’s head forms the pinion of each wing. The snake’s body outlines the curve of the wings, which terminate in a clawed and plumed bird. On the breast is another composite creature made up of a cicada’s body with a bovine head capped with horns in the shape of two small dragons. The owl as both a night bird and a bird of prey was a symbol of death and ill omen in later Chinese folk tradition. Although unlucky to the living because it foretells death, the owl may have been considered suitable as a motif for vessels intended to feast the dead. Combining it with the cicada, a natural symbol of death and transformation, may have increased it potency. (Yale University Art Gallery).

Staffordshire owl jug

Salt-glazed stoneware owl jug. Staffordshire, England, 1730-1750. The Fitzwilliam Museum.

This 18th-century owl, from Staffordshire in England, is similar to the Chinese wine vessel above in that the body is a jug and the head a detachable lid that also serves as a cup.

Metal button depicting owl

Metal button depicting an owl. Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

For more images see the second post in this two-part series on owls.

*Special thanks to BibliOdyssey for assistance with this post.

The Origins of the Afro Comb

Pre-Dynastic Egyptian Comb

Pre-Dynastic Egyptian Comb in ivory. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The Origins of the Afro Comb, produced by the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, traces the aesthetic and cultural development of African combs from the earliest known examples of Pre-Dynastic Egypt to modern Black Power combs. I’ve posted a few images here, and you can see all 50 wonderful combs at the project’s website using either the timeline view or the origins view. One of the best aspects of this exhibition is that they’re encouraging community involvement, including video and oral interviews regarding people’s experiences with afro combs.

Ashanti Comb

Ashanti comb. Ghana, early 20th century. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge.
Mozambique Comb

Wooden Mozambique Comb. 20th-century. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge.

Black fist comb

Black fist comb in plastic, 1980s-present. Though this style is popular around the world, this particular comb came from Nigeria, Edo State, and was originally made in China. From the collection of Dr. Ohioma Pogoson.