Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

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Ivory cabinet


    • currently out on loan

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  • Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum by J. C. Harle and Andrew Topsfield

    Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum

    In the 17th century the vigorous and highly organised Dutch East India Company built up an unrivalled Asian trading network which included a near-monopoly of the lucrative spices of Indonesia. As part of this commercial empire the Dutch established a number of trading posts in India and in the coastal regions of Ceylon, from which was the last Portuguese stronghold had been removed by 1658. In Ceylon they were able to advantage of the ancient indigenous traditions of wood and ivory-carving. Considerable quantities were produced after Dutch models, similar to the work associated with the Company’s headquarters of Batavia (modern Jakarta), as seen for example in two carved ebony chairs said to have been owned by Charles II’s queen Catherine of Braganza, which came to the Museum from Elias Ashmole in 1683.

    The ivory carvers of Ceylon were already accustomed to producing fine pieces in the European (Portuguese) taste as export or presentation items, as is shown by a small surviving group of elaborate caskets incorporating Christian and European imagery which date from the mid-16th century. The Museum’s cabinet is a similarly hybrid production, although of a later type. It is overlaid with carved ivory panels, mingling scenes of Europeans with traditional decoration. The top panel shows the reception of a European party among the huts and palms of a port in Ceylon, with several ships riding at anchor among billowing waves. The back panel depicts the culmination of an elephant hunt, with six elephants penned in a stockade and four European soldiers among the participants. The two sides of the cabinet are decorated with intricate foliated scrollwork, with a pair of flying parrots, around a central lotus rosette. The door panels have pairs of fiercely strutting śerapendiyas (or śarapendās), a lion-headed variant of the auspicious haṁsa bird which is a common motif in the later ivory and metalwork of Ceylon. The five internal drawers are decorated in a similar style.

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