- Museum number
- Series: Benin Plaques
Relief plaque; lost-wax cast in brass. Rectangular in form with side flanges (largely missing). Depicts entrance or gateway to palace courtyard with tiled roof and high turret with snake slithering down. Entrance flanked on each side by armed guard bearing shield and mace and naked attendant holding circular leopard skin fan. Holes for attachment at top and bottom right. Background surface is decorated with stylised quatrefoil (river leaf) patterns and stippling.
- Production date
Height: 55 centimetres
Width: 39 centimetres
Depth: 6.50 centimetres
- Curator's comments
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
Read & Dalton 1899:
Group of four standing figures, in front of a verandah with three steps, said to represent the king's fetish house. The two inner figures stand on each side of the entrance, and are dressed like the lateral figures in Af1898,0115.39, but without feathers in their headdresses. They are armed with spears and shields. The two outer figures have similar headdresses, but are completely naked, wearing only bead necklaces and metal armlets of unusual design. Each has a circular fan in the right hand. The roof of the verandah appears to be covered with shingles, and in the middle is a pyramid, down the front of which runs the figure of a snake with the head downwards. The four pillars show a number of cast or carved figures, one over the other, among which may be noticed a pair of the type represented in Af1898,0115.17. On the top step are two figures of leopards, and two objects which are probably meant for polished stone axe-heads. Though most of the background of this panel is punched with the ordinary quatrefoil design, the doorway has a fantastic floral scroll pattern, which is found on several castings.
- On display (G25/od)
- Exhibition history
1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa
1977 London, BM, Animals in Art
- Acquisition date
- 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.
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number