Ivory cabinet

On display

The Dutch East India Company maintained a number of trading posts in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as part of their Asian network in the seventeenth century. Local wood and ivory craftsmen were able to produce fine furniture, European in form but richly hybrid in decoration, either for local Company officials or for export.

The top panel of this cabinet shows a Dutch party being received among the huts and palms of a seaport in Ceylon, while their ships ride at anchor. The back shows the climax of an elephant hunt, with six wild elephants penned in a stockade and European soldiers in the foreground. The door panels have pairs of a lion-headed variant of the auspicious hamsa bird, a common motif in the later ivory and metalwork of Ceylon. Traditional foliated scrollwork, with parrots and lion-headed serapendiyas (mythical creatures), appear on the front and side panels.

Details

  • Catalogue text

    In the 17th century the vigorous and highly organised Dutch East India Company built up an unrivalled Asian trading network which included a near-monopoly of the lucrative spices of Indonesia. As part of this commercial empire the Dutch established a number of trading posts in India and in the coastal regions of Ceylon, from which was the last Portuguese stronghold had been removed by 1658. In Ceylon they were able to advantage of the ancient indigenous traditions of wood and ivory-carving. Considerable quantities were produced after Dutch models, similar to the work associated with the Company’s headquarters of Batavia (modern Jakarta), as seen for example in two carved ebony chairs said to have been owned by Charles II’s queen Catherine of Braganza, which came to the Museum from Elias Ashmole in 1683.

    The ivory carvers of Ceylon were already accustomed to producing fine pieces in the European (Portuguese) taste as export or presentation items, as is shown by a small surviving group of elaborate caskets incorporating Christian and European imagery which date from the mid-16th century. The Museum’s cabinet is a similarly hybrid production, although of a later type. It is overlaid with carved ivory panels, mingling scenes of Europeans with traditional decoration. The top panel shows the reception of a European party among the huts and palms of a port in Ceylon, with several ships riding at anchor among billowing waves. The back panel depicts the culmination of an elephant hunt, with six elephants penned in a stockade and four European soldiers among the participants. The two sides of the cabinet are decorated with intricate foliated scrollwork, with a pair of flying parrots, around a central lotus rosette. The door panels have pairs of fiercely strutting śerapendiyas (or śarapendās), a lion-headed variant of the auspicious haṁsa bird which is a common motif in the later ivory and metalwork of Ceylon. The five internal drawers are decorated in a similar style.

    In: Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987)

Further reading

Harle, J. C., and Andrew Topsfield, Indian Art in the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1987), no. 103 on pp. 91-92, illus. pp. 91-92

Marianne Yaldiz, and others, Magische Götterwelten: Werke aus dem Museum für Indische Kunst Berlin (Berlin: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 2000), no. 120 on pp. 77-78, illus. p. 78 fig. 120

Veenendaal, Jan, Asian Art and Dutch Taste, Titus M. Eliens, ed. (Zwolle and the Hague: Gemeentemuseum, 2014), p. 39, fig. 47

Hartkamp-Jonxis, Ebeltje, ‘Sri Lankan ivory caskets and cabinets on Dutch commission, 1640-1710’, Thijs Weststeijn, Eric Joorink and Frits Scholten, eds., Netherlandish Art in its Global Context (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2016), illus. pp. 175, 178-179 figs. 3, 12, 14

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