- Museum number
Series: Afro-Portuguese Ivories
Series: Bini-Portuguese Ivories
Salt-cellar; carved in ivory. Composed of three sections: base (a), central section (b), lid (c).
- Production date
- 1525-1600 (circa)
Height: 29.30 centimetres (a-c)
Width: 11 centimetres (a-c)
- Curator's comments
O.M. Dalton & C. H. Read, Antiquities: The City of Benin and other parts of West Africa (1899):
pl. III/1a&b; p.36.
“Ivory standing cup, or salt, in three stages.... It consists of two spheres connected by a pillar, the upper one surmounted by a ship, executed in openwork, the lower surrounded by four figures in pairs, each pair being identical in execution and details. The upper sphere is carved with an imbricated pattern, the lower a plaited design, among which are seen four fish. The ship on the top is shown with a single mast, shrouds, and a crow’s nest, in which is a man holding a staff; from each end issues a cable with a pendant ball pierced with holes at the end. Each of the figures of the more important pair is dressed in a richly ornamented jacket and short cloak, a base or pleated skirt, stockings with rosettes, and low shoes; his hat is nearly cylindrical, with turned-up brim and a feather on the left side; round his neck is a string of beads with a cross at the end; in his right hand he carries a spear and his left grasps the hilt of a straight sword, with knuckle guard, large ornamented pommel and short quillons. The other figure is seen in profile walking towards the first; he is dressed in a similar style, and less richly, without the cape and cross; he is removing his round hat from his head which seems to be covered with a skull cap; his sword is similar to that of his companion, but attached to his sleeve is a key. Pierced projections are found on the edges of various parts, which served to connect them by means of a cord. H. 11 ¾ in. (29.3cm) – Meyrick Collection.
This specimen is figured, not very accurately, in Henry Shaw's "Specimens of Ancient Furniture" Plate LXVI; it is there described as being of Danish or Icelandic work and as made of walrus ivory, but it is without doubt of elephant ivory.
In the collection is the middle portion of a second carving of the same design, giving the upperhalves of the men's figures. The work, however, is of a different hand."
W.B. Fagg, Afro-Portuguese Ivories (Batchworth Press, London, 1959):
“The ship represented on the lid is curiously simplified, as though imitated from a 15th century woodcut. A man is seen in the ship’s crow’s nest; the thickened sheets or ropes are an African feature. On each side appears a presumably Portuguese knight or other dignitary with a deferential attendant.”
Ezio Bassani and William B. Fagg, Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory (1988):
Cat. no. 114
Museum of Mankind, London (Inv. no.184.108.40.206)
Presented by A.W.Franks, 1878
“The striking resemblance of the Bini-Portuguese ship to the medieval examples, and not to caravels used in the 16th century, suggests that the Bini carver was provided with an archaic rendering, perhaps in the form of a drawing or a woodcut. It is highly improbable that the Bini artist would otherwise have reached precisely the same stylised solution to this representation as had European artists of the 14th century. On the other hand the man in the crow’s nest, rendered in an anecdotal manner – unlike the imposing figures on the lower registers of the saltcellars – might have been a humorous addition by the Bini carver. Perhaps he saw a real vessel topped by a crow’s nest with a man in it, and the sight impressed him to the extent that he emphasised this detail. (The instrument held by the sailor is not a telescope, not yet invented, but probably a hailer). If this speculation has any validity, then the workshop to which the artist belonged must have been in close proximity to one of the harbours where Portuguese ships used to call.”
"Three salts [Af1878,1101.48.a-c; Af1879,0701.1 and one in The Metropolitan Museum, New York] in the Bini-Portuguese corpus can be attributed to one artist, and because the lid of the only complete saltcellar of this group depicts a ship…we call the author of this group the “Master of the Heraldic Ship”. In all works by this master the main group of figures, which enclose the two lower registers, consists of four, standing, fully bearded Portuguese in elaborate costumes bearing swords and spears. In an extremely well-balanced composition, the artist alternates fully frontal figures in static poses with active figures in three-quarter view. He has given his more regal figures a contrasting stillness. This skilful juxtaposition serves to focus the eye upon the dominant frontal figures.
…the upper container is decorated with a pattern that serves a dual purpose: on the lower half it represents the foliage of a tree, while on the upper half it provides water on which the ship sails. To mark the transition from plant to water, the junction is decorated with a double row of rings. This motif is actually more characteristic of Owo than Bini art.”
Ezio Bassani, African Art and Artefacts in European Collections 1400-1800 (2000):
Cat. no. 790
Ethnic group: Edo? Yoruba (Owo)?
Provenance: Benin Kingdom (Nigeria)
Materials/size: Ivory, height 29.2 cm
Present Location: London, British Museum, Ethnography Department, inv. no. 220.127.116.11.. Presented by A.W. Franks in 1878. Undocumented.
Arrival in Europe: 1501-1600?
Ex collection: Meyrick
Bassani 1991a, no.71, 1997, 259; Bassani & Fagg 1988, no. 114; Burland 1900, ill, 5-6; Curnow 1983, cat. 83; Dias 1992, no. 261; Fagg 1959, nos. 7-11; Macedo & Montalov 1934, figs. 107-108; McLeod 1980, 26-7; McLeod & Mack 1985, 15; Mendes Pinto 1983, no. 27; Read & Dalton 36, pl. III/1.
As noted by Bassani a very similar design, with ship and crow’s nest, can be seen in a surviving saltcellar in a private collection in Belgium (fig. 36).
This salt cellar is made of ivory and shows Europeans with long hair, beards and hooked noses. Objects of this type were perhaps the first known examples of 'tourist art' from Africa: luxury items made as souvenirs for foreigners.
Africans along the continent's west coast first encountered Portuguese traders in the mid-fifteenth century. This marked the beginning of regular contact and trade, and the principal interest of the Europeans was the purchase of carved ivory items. Although ivory carvings were traditionally produced only for the royal court in the city of Benin, the ruling Oba (king) allowed decorated salt cellars, horns, spoons and forks to be made for European visitors.
- On display (G25/dc5)
- Exhibition history
1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa
1991-1992 Oct-Jan, Washington DC, National Gallery of Art, Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration
1993-1997, London, Museum of Mankind, Great Benin: a West African Kingdom
1997-1998 Sep-Jan, Osaka, National Museum of Ethnology, Images of Other Cultures
1998, Feb-Apr, Tokyo, Setagaya Art Museum, Images of Other Cultures
2005 Apr-Jul, BM, Views from Africa
2007 23 Jun-16 Sep, USA, Washington DC, Freer Gallery of Art & Arthur M Sackler Gallery, Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries
2007 27 Oct-2008 3 Feb, Belgium, Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- British and Medieval Dept. Register, v.3. Not included in Ethnography Department "British and Medieval Extracts" Register. Numbered on attached Ethnography Department tag: "48.a,b,c".
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Other BM number: Af.7398 (in error)
Previous owner/ex-collection number: 1383 (Meyrick Collection number)