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Benin Plaques

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    Af1898,0115.42

  • Title (series)

    • Benin Plaques
  • Description

    Relief plaque made of brass cast using the 'cire perdue' (lost wax) technique. Rectangular in form with side flanges (largely missing). Holes for attachment at top and bottom right. Background surface is decorated with stylised quatrefoil (river leaf) patterns and stippling.

  • Ethnic name

  • Date

    • 16thC-17thC
  • Production place

  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 48 centimetres
    • Width: 38 centimetres
    • Depth: 8 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    Read & Dalton 1899:
    Chief with two attendants, his arms supported as in Af1898,0115.34. He wears bands of beadwork over his naked breast, to which are attached sleeves of beadwork. He also wears the broad collar and anklets, and a cap like that in the last figure, but with a central spike. On his skirt, which is ornamented with crocodiles' heads in relief, are punched easily recognizable heads of Europeans with beards. The attendants wear waist cloths with extended ends, broad beadwork collars, narrow anklets and pointed head-dresses, with frontal bands of beadwork. The breasts of all three persons are marked by the usual cicatrices. On the background are two pairs of crocodiles' heads in relief.The relief brass plaques that used to decorate the Oba's (king's) palace are among the most well-known of all the royal arts of Benin. Although frequently described as 'Benin Bronzes' most plaques are made of leaded brass in varius composiitons. It is widely accepted that they date to the 16th - 17th centuries.

    In the years prior to the British Expedition royal influence in Benin was increasingly under threat from rival powers, both internal and external, with a focus on economic power and control of the important trading monopolies. However, the court and palace remained the political and spiritual centre of the Benin Kingdom. Earlier accounts written by Europeans visiting the city describe its size and scale. The palace complex was set up around atrium courtyards; some had galleries with wooden pillars supporting the roof. Brass plaques, possibly made in series, were fixed to these pillars. While belonging to well-established West African tradition of royal palace decoration, the Benin brass plaques represent a distinct and unique corpus of work, unparalleled elsewhere on the continent. They are cast using the cire perdue (lost wax) technique and show significant variation in the depth of the relief. Some of the plaques portray historical events or commemorate successful wars, while others are a vivid depiction of Benin court life and ritual. Several groups of plaques show clear stylistic similarities. William B. Fagg suggested that these plaques represent the work of master brass casters.

    Fagg, William, 1973, 'Nigerian Images', London: Lund Humphries

    More 

  • Bibliography

    • Read & Dalton 1899 pl XVIII.5 bibliographic details
  • Location

    G25/od

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:

    1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa

  • Conservation

    See treatments 

    Treatment date

    9 March 2001

    Treatment proposal

    Remove dust.

    Condition

    Dusty.

    Treatment details

    Brushed and vacuumed in the gallery. In old work envelope Af1898-1-15,7 there is a plan of the Benins on display in the Sainsbury's Africa Gallery, 2001.

    About these records 

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1898

  • Acquisition notes

    Following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were seized by the British force from the royal quarters and various storerooms. The British Museum successfully petitioned the Government to safeguard some of these objects and over 300 brass plaques were sent to the UK by the Consul-General [Sir] Ralph Moor and placed at the Foreign Office. Numerous other objects brought out of the city were sold or exchanged on the coast; many pieces were brought to the UK where they were sold through private auction or were retained by soldiers of the expedition. During the summer of 1897 the Crown Agents for the Colonies on behalf of the Foreign Office agreed with the British Museum a temporary loan of 304 plaques acquired during the Benin Expedition. In September these were placed on public display and attracted considerable attention. The Museum initially received 203 of these plaques as a gift from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In the summer of 1898 a further eleven plaques were sent to the British Museum from the Foreign Office and three of these were selected by the Museum and were subsequently presented as a gift. Of the remaining plaques the Foreign Office retained eight and the rest were offered for sale to major museums, collectors and private dealers in Europe and the UK. Today over nine hundred plaques are known to exist in museums and private collections around the world.

  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number

    Af1898,0115.42

Text from Read & Dalton 1899
Plaque made of bronze: Chief with two attendants, his arms supported as in Af1898,0115.34. He wears bands of beadwork over his naked breast, to which are attached sleeves of beadwork. He also wears the broad collar and anklets, and a cap like that in the last figure, but with a central spike. On his skirt, which is ornamented with crocodiles' heads in relief, are punched easily recognizable heads of Europeans with beards. The attendants wear waist cloths with extended ends, broad beadwork collars, narrow anklets and pointed head-dresses, with frontal bands of beadwork. The breasts of all three persons are marked by the usual cicatrices. On the background are two pairs of crocodiles' heads in relief.

Text from Read & Dalton 1899 Plaque made of bronze: Chief with two attendants, his arms supported as in Af1898,0115.34. He wears bands of beadwork over his naked breast, to which are attached sleeves of beadwork. He also wears the broad collar and anklets, and a cap like that in the last figure, but with a central spike. On his skirt, which is ornamented with crocodiles' heads in relief, are punched easily recognizable heads of Europeans with beards. The attendants wear waist cloths with extended ends, broad beadwork collars, narrow anklets and pointed head-dresses, with frontal bands of beadwork. The breasts of all three persons are marked by the usual cicatrices. On the background are two pairs of crocodiles' heads in relief.

Image description

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Object reference number: EAF26498

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