Medieval and Later Ivories in the Courtauld Gallery: Complete Catalogue

By Michael, M. A. | The Sculpture Journal, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Medieval and Later Ivories in the Courtauld Gallery: Complete Catalogue


Michael, M. A., The Sculpture Journal


John Lowden, Medieval and Later Ivories in the Courtauld Gallery: Complete Catalogue, with an essay by Alexandra Gerstein London, Cour tauld Institute Gallery in association with Paul Holber ton Publishing, 2013 , 144 pp., 90 colour illustrations, £40.00. ISBN 978-1-907372-60-5

This catalogue epitomizes the role that the Courtauld Institute of Art and its gallery has played in the creation of art history as a discipline in the UK. It focuses on a small group of ivories, but expands our understanding through a wide-ranging contextualization of the objects themselves, combined with identification of key issues unique to the study of the visual arts. The ivories range in date from the early twelfth to the nineteenth century and formed part of a collection, put together by Thomas (Gambier) Parry (1816-88) a beneficiary, through his family, of the expansion of the East India Company. The collection was bequeathed to the Courtauld Institute Gallery in 1966 by Mark Gambier-Parry, the hyphenated grandson of Thomas, in an attempt to avoid incurring death duties. Originally displayed with his collection of paintings and furniture at Highnam Court in Gloucestershire, the ivories, although shown in part over the years, were not fully integrated into successful displays until the gallery moved from its old site in Woburn Square to Somerset House in 1989.

In his introduction John Lowden brings a teacher's insight into the nature of ivory as a vehicle for decorative and figurative carving by giving a brief overview of its importance in history and how the use of modern techniques of investigation can help us to understand it as a medium. A notable argument in his essay is the observation that in the Middle Ages 'there was little need to hunt these creatures [elephants], for their large numbers, especially in Africa, meant that many ... died of natural causes every year. Their carcasses would have quickly decayed, leaving the bones and especially the tusks' (p. 11). This is an important antidote to Prince William's recent statement that he would 'like to see all the ivory owned by Buckingham Palace destroyed'.1 Such a wanton act of vandalism would deprive the world of one of the great vehicles for artistic expression in the pre-modern era.

Lowden goes on to raise another important issue concerning the movement of ideas from one medium to another. We have come to accept the idea of the groom(s) tending the horses of the Magi as part of a narrative of the Journey of the Magi made famous in the long processions of courtly figures in such works as Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi of 1423 (Florence, Uffizi), but the beginnings of this iconography appear to be in the courtly culture of France in the second quarter of the thirteenth century. It is found in sculpture and ivory carving (Cat. 14), but is not found in the biblical text of St Matthew (2:11). Lowden rightly cites the lost choir screen of Chartres Cathedral of the 1240s as a probable source for this iconography through the conflation of the Flight of the Magi (Matthew 2:12) and the Adoration. Such conflations occur as early as the 1140s in the opposite sequence (i.e. the Journey to Bethlehem is depicted) and can be found in such works as the frieze (originally on the south façade) of the church of St Maria at Carrión de los Condes (Palencia). This is important because the natural comparisons that art historians tend to make for ivories are with illuminated manuscripts, but in terms of transmission and re-mediation, the sequence that should be looked for is the one that is often hard to prove: that from monumental sculpture and painting to the so-called minor (smaller) arts, rather than the other way around.

Alexandra Gerstein contributes an excellent essay on Gambier Parry and 'Collecting in the Gothic Revival', adding context to the way the ivories formed part of a wider interest in paintings, metalwork and furniture which contributed to what we now often understand as Victorian taste. …

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