Naomi Speakman

Medieval Ivory Carvings at the British Museum: Collecting in the 19th century

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

My thesis explores the collecting of medieval ivory carvings and the formation of the first major collection of this material at the British Museum in the 19th century.

Start Date: 2012
End Date: 2018
Themes: The 'lives' of objects from their making, use, reception, loss, collection and later use and understanding. What objects can reveal about the social, cultural, religious, creative and political history of their makers, users, owners, depositors and collectors.
Research discipline: Archaeology, Fine and decorative arts, Museum studies
Location: Europe, UK
Staff member: Dr Dora Thornton
Departments: Britain, Europe & Prehistory
University and department: The Courtauld Institute of Art
University supervisor: Professor John Lowden & Dr Alixe Bovey

What role did the British Museum play in the collecting, disseminating and understanding of medieval ivory carvings?

The British Museum was one of the first institutions to collect medieval ivories in significant numbers. Staff at the museum were powerful advocates for these objects.

How did the collecting of medieval ivory carvings change during the 19th century?

Medieval ivory carvings grew in popularity on the art market throughout the 19th century to become expensive, sought after artworks.

How were British Museum staff at the centre of the collecting of ivories in the 19th century?

Staff at the museum were connected to dealers, collectors and antiquarians through their professional and private activity.


About my research

The British Museum’s collection of medieval ivory carvings numbers over 300 objects. Last fully catalogued in 1909 in O.M. Dalton’s ‘Catalogue of the Ivory Carvings of the Christian Era’, little is known about the collecting history of these sculptures. The collecting of ivory carvings is intimately tied to the formation of the museum’s medieval collection in the 19th century and to the wider presentation of the Middle Ages at this time.

In the early 1800s these sculptures were not widely collected and were relatively popular to purchase. By the 1850s, however, medieval ivories were in greater demand and in 1856 the acquisition of ivories from William Maskell made the British Museum the repository for the largest collection of these sculptures in the country. This project will take a chronological approach to further understand how the museum and its staff formed this significant collection and the role that they played in influencing attitudes to medieval ivory carvings.

 

19th century photograph of the British Museum medieval gallery by Frederick York (b.1823, d.1903).

 

Ivory diptych of the Annunciation and Crucifixion, 14th century, French, 1856,0623.87.


Aims of my research

This project will take a chronological approach to further understand how the British Museum and its staff formed this significant collection and the role that they played in influencing attitudes to medieval ivory carvings. It will form the first detailed and large scale study of this material since 1909 and will seek to place the activities of the British Museum within the context of collecting, antiquarianism and medievalism in the 19th century.