Gothic Ivory Carvings at the British Museum

By Speakman, Naomi | The Sculpture Journal, June 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Gothic Ivory Carvings at the British Museum


Speakman, Naomi, The Sculpture Journal


The project to catalogue the British Museum's ivory carvings for the Courtauld Institute of Art's Gothic Ivories Project was a timely opportunity to begin a reappraisal of this excellent collection. This process took place over a two-year period from 2009, during which 187 Gothic ivories from the late medieval collection were catalogued, providing a springboard for renewed research into the collection. New photography of the pieces was commissioned, resulting in high-resolution images of the carvings being made available on the museum's online catalogue in addition to the Gothic Ivories Project. The ivories were measured and weighed, their bibliographies updated and their iconography classified to fit the terminology of the project database. Certain areas of the collection have also received increased study, particularly secular carvings, nineteenth-century objects (both emulations and forgeries) and the collecting history of medieval ivories at the museum. The success of this partnership has led to an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award between the British Museum and the Courtauld Institute of Art specifically to work on the corpus.

This investigation into the museum's ivories focuses primarily on three key areas: provenance and collecting history; forgeries; and the review of the dates and locations of manufacture. Since the work of O.M. Dalton in 1909, there has not been a complete study of the British Museum's ivory carvings, and many pieces continue to be catalogued internally with Dalton's conclusion that they were French and fourteenth century.1 On the subject of Paris, Dalton wrote 'the majority of the ivories produced in the 14th century may have been assigned to the source'.2 Over a century later it is clear that a review of this scholarship is long overdue.

Publishing the carvings through the Gothic Ivories Project has brought new insights into the collection, particularly by drawing parallels with pieces in other institutions. Current research on knife handles has revealed two pieces which correspond with the youth holding a falcon type identified by Mogens Bencard in his study of 24 such carvings in bone and ivory.3 We can add to Bencard's corpus two examples from the British Museum (inv. nos. 1867,0320.17 and 1856,0701.1507) along with two others brought to light through the Gothic Ivories Project: one from the Historisches Museum, Basel (inv. no. 1928,837) and another from the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, Berlin (inv. no. 06/58). Drawing together these ivory and bone pieces in English, Swiss and German collections with those Bencard had catalogued, which were predominantly from Danish archaeo- logical origins, provides valuable insight into the use and manufacture of these carvings. This enlarged corpus of the youth-with-falcon type also suggests the relatively widespread distribution of this knife handle motif, predominantly within northern Europe, as no examples are currently known to originate from Italy or Spain.

The period from 1831 to 1871 was the most active for the purchase of ivory carvings at the British Museum, and studying the motivations behind these purchases has already yielded some interesting findings. During those four decades, around half of the present collection was acquired. Of particular importance was the collection of William Maskell (1814-90), a liturgical scholar from whom the museum purchased 170 ivories, nearly half of which are Gothic in style.4 The provenance of these pieces remains a mystery, and very little is known about their origins other than their date of formal acquisition into the institution on 23 June 1856. The museum's archive, which includes Maskell's own notes on his collection, has provided the starting point for an investigation into the provenance of these pieces, and has yielded important new information. One recent discovery is Maskell's purchase of a number of ivories from the Amiens collector M. …

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