[From] Collection of casts in "Fictile Ivory":- Draughtsman; 58/177a (SB). Draughtsman; English (?), 12th century. A man riding on a dragon, a dragon behind him. Original of ivory, in the British Museum, London. 58-177a (Annual Report).
Ornamental designs depicting people playing chess or draughts can also be found on mirror cases and these are of some help in dating when chess and draughts were introduced into Europe. The game of chess was certainly played at a very early period in the east, and from there it probably made its way, through the Arabic nations, into Greece. There are allusions to chess and chessmen in many writers before the twelfth century, and chess was known and played in France in Carlovingian times. An early treatise on chess is said to have been written about 1290 by a French Dominican friar, Jacobus de Casulis, and a copy of this work is in the British Museum. Some of the earliest surviving chessmen are those from St. Denis which are reputed to have been given to the abbey by Charlemagne. Unfortunately many of the pieces and the table had been lost for many years, and the remainder were removed during the French revolution from St. Denis to the public library at Paris. The most complete set of ancient British ivory chessmen was found in the isle of Lewis, in Scotland, and most of these are now in the British museum. The collection, which was discovered in 1831 by a labourer digging a sandbank, consists of sixty-seven pieces made from walrus ivory.
While the tusk of the elephant is correctly considered to present the purest characteristics of ivory the tusks of other animals, such as the walrus, the hippopotamus, and the narwhal are included in the list of animals who provided the raw material for ivory carving. The history of ivory carving can be dated back long before the earliest Egyptian dynasties to a time when prehistoric humans roamed the earth with the mammoth. Surviving ivory carvings have been dated back to Egyptian and Assyrian ivory and the Greeks from 600 BC fashioned statues of their gods in ivory. In the first centuries after the death of Christ the numbers of workers in ivory appeared to expand but even so surviving examples from Roman imperial times before Constantine are extremely scarce.
From around 750 AD theological quarrels arose about the lawfulness of using images of people or animals in churches as well as for private devotion. The word iconoclasm or 'icon-breaking' is thought to have originated at this time and as a result works of art were brought by fugitives from Constantinople to France, Germany, and other countries. This furnished models from which copies could be multiplied and serve as an aid to the workmen and artists who were driven into exile, came west to found new schools of art.
As Christianity spread gradually over Western Europe from the age of Charlemagne, ivory was used more and more for the decoration of ecclesiastical furniture, especially of books and reliquaries. Included amongst these new uses were; Pyxes for Eucharist wafers; retables (shelves or ledges) or ornamented screens for altars; Buckets for holy water; handles for flabella fans; Episcopal combs; crosiers and pastoral staffs. Often referred to as the Carolingian school, there are several examples of from this period in this collection.
The casts in this collection were taken from originals made of ivory, bone and marble made in Europe over many centuries. The originals were sought out by J O Westwood over 1875 and 1876 with a view to making casts to provide museums and universities with examples of rare European artworks. The first of Westwood's casts went on sale around 1855 and they remain a significant educational resource as they provide access to the otherwise inaccessible artistic and antiquarian information.
Geoff Barker, Assistant Curator, September 2010
Maskell, W., Ivories Ancient and Medieval, printed by Chapman and Hall, Piccadilly, London, 1875
Westwood, J. O., A Descriptive Catalogue of the Fictile Ivories in the South Kensington Museum, printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode, printers to the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty, Piccadilly, London, 1876.
Many of the casts were taken from the original artworks by J. O. Westwood and A. Nesbitt. At first they used gutta-percha alone, but it was found that after being softened in hot water it hardened again too rapidly to allow a large ivory to be properly pressed. Hence they mixed wax with the gutta-percha, which caused it to retain its softness for a longer period. The prepared gutta-percha was then to be placed in hot water (which was not allowed to boil), and when it became as soft as putty it was moulded by hand into a flattened plate rather larger than the artwork to be moulded. The face of the artwork was wetted with clear cold water, or washed over with soft soap and while wet the gutta-percha was placed upon it and pressed by the thumb carefully so as to force the gutta-percha into all the deeper cut parts of the artwork.
It was then allowed to harden and cool, after which it was lifted with great care from the artwork. Once removed the mould was ready to receive the fluid plaster of Paris of the finest quality. Westwood notes that when a number of copies were required an electrotype made of the mould was preferred to ensure every cast was as fresh as the first. In this manner a considerable number, both of moulds and electrotype moulds, were accumulated by Alexander Nesbitt, A. W. Franks, and J. O. Westwood. These were later transferred to the Arundel Society, who sold copies of the casts from 1855.
The beauty of the casts made from these moulds was universally acknowledged at the time as they were made with the finest plaster of Paris by Messrs. Franchi, whose business was transferred to Messrs. Elkington, who continued to sell nearly all of the specimens taken by Nesbitt and Westwood. When properly made, and carefully coloured by hand from the originals, (the surface allowing the application of common water colours), it was next to impossible to distinguish one of these casts from the original.
Walrus ivory ceased to be used in Europe long before the nineteenth century and most examples date back to medieval and Carlovingian periods. In addition the scarcity of Elephants in the medieval period limited its use, although it is important to note that frozen fossil tusks from mammoths had been used, particularly in Russia. Among ivories there is a wide difference in the condition and colour. This is not caused by the origin of the material, or even necessarily the age, as some newer pieces are among the most discoloured and brittle in appearance. It seems the innumerable possible accidents to which carved ivories are exposed from age to age accounts for this great difference.
Westwood, J. O., A Descriptive Catalogue of the Fictile Ivories in the South Kensington Museum, printed by George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode, printers to the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty, Piccadilly, London, 1876
Between 1884 and 1887 the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences acquired over 650 plaster cast reproductions of European Medieval carved artworks into its collection. These were purchased from: F. Kusthardt in 1884; J. Kreittmayr in 1885; and Messrs Elkington & Co between 1885 and 1887.