- Museum number
- Series: Benin Plaques
Relief plaque, lost-wax cast in brass. Wide plaque, rectangular in form with side flanges. Background surface decorated with river leaf patterns and stippling. One nail hole at top, one at centre right and two (?) at bottom right and left.
Depicts four page figures in front of palace compound, courtyard or altar entrance with high tiled roof and turret with snake slithering down centre. Four narrow columns flanking figures show series of rectangular plaques each with single figure. Central section of plaque has three steps with seated leopard figures at top; foliate background decoration.
Two innermost figures, facing front, carry ? spears and shields in mirror images. Both have tiered hairstyles, beaded and leopard's tooth necklaces, beaded anklets, baldrics with swords attached and patterened wrap-around skirts. The emada figures flanking them also face front. Both have tiered hairstyles with long plaits on either side of face, naked except for beaded necklaces and bracelets. Both hold circular leopard skin fans in right hands.
- 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 various compositions. 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, probably made in matching pairs, were fixed to these pillars.
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
Gunsch, Kathryn, 2018, 'Benin plaques: a 16th century imperial monument', London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
One of two known plaques depicting the interior of the palace and installation of the relief plaques. The second plaque is in the collections of the Berlin Ethnologisches Museum: III C 8377.
Body of the bird at top of turret on this plaque has been broken off but we know from other objects and written descriptions that it had outstretched wings and a curved beak. It may represent the bird of prophecy, or another bird of similar powers, for its role on the palace roof is said today to have been to warn of impending danger. The pillars supporting the turret have representations of European or Portuguese heads, which may be the plaques reported by Dapper (1668) or the carved wooden pillars seen by Van Nyandael (1705).
Following Gunsch (2018) the flange patterns on this plaque belong to the double-woven flange pattern group.
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
- Fair; missing section at top right, hole at top right of roof, further larger hole at botton left of roof with split to outside edge. Small holes in roof tiles at left, by side of larger left figure's head and through forehead of emada on right. Missing sections from bottom right and bottom centre edges.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were looted by British forces from the royal palace, its storerooms and compounds. Some of these objects were sold or exchanged on the coast. However, many were brought to the UK where they were sold through private auction, donated to museums, or retained by soldiers of the expedition.
The British Museum successfully petitioned the government to secure some of the relief plaques and over 300 were sent to the UK by the Consul-General [Sir] Ralph Moor and placed at the Foreign Office. During the summer of 1897 the Crown Agents for the Colonies, on behalf of the Foreign Office, agreed a temporary loan of 304 plaques to the British Museum. In September these were placed on public display in the Assyrian basement where they attracted considerable public 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.
See Collection File: Af1898,0115.1-203 (previously Eth.Doc.185).
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Previous owner/ex-collection number: 292 (Foreign Office number)