Website technical difficulties
See all stories
15 Jul 2022

A mysterious ivory item

Written by Thalia Ostendorf, PhD candidate, University of St Andrews
An ivory pot with a tall lid attached by a chain is displayed against a plain grey background. Both the lid and the pot are covered in intricate carvings.
As part of a Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities (SGSAH) doctoral internship Beyond Beckford, Wu Yunong, a PhD student from the University of Glasgow and Thalia Ostendorf, a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, are carrying out research at Brodick Castle. Thalia tells us more about some of their discoveries.

In the winter of 1845, The Illustrated London News published a story on the ‘Sale of the Beckford Collection’. After William Beckford died in 1844, his collection was broken up and the items sold. The auction had already been reported on, but some items were considered so important that the paper wanted to highlight them. The sixth day, the paper states, ‘was perhaps the most attractive in the entire sale.’

Lot 369 is one of the items that appeared on the sixth day of the sale. It is described as ‘an exquisitely carved Ivory Vase and Cover, of Eastern workmanship, representing the metamorphoses of the Goddess Buddha; the inside is lined with silver gilt.’

It is one of the few items that does not list a sale price, which would explain why it is still in the Beckford Collection at Brodick Castle today; it was not sold at that auction. The description ‘Eastern’ without further specifics of place or time, as well as the misinterpretation of the carvings, shows how an interest in ‘exotic’ objects at that time often ignored vital information about where these objects came from and who made them. This 19th-century description is anything but accurate.

A later description refers to the vase as a ‘gilt metal-mounted hookah.’ However, the base does not seem to open and, although the shape might remind one of a hookah, it has no openings or attributes that would suggest that was its function. This description does mention the object’s origin in more detail – based on the carvings, it states that it is a 17th-century Sinhalese object. The Sinhalese people are native to the island of Sri Lanka. In the 17th century, when this object was made, the island was ruled by the Kingdom of Kandy.

The Kandyan Kingdom (1597–1815) was the last independent monarchy of Sri Lanka before it was seized by the British and absorbed into the British empire. In the 17th century, the island of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon/Celiao/Selan/Selon) was a place of many riches, which made it very appealing to European traders. The island was the primary source of high-quality cinnamon and expertly carved ivory. The climate also turned out to be excellent for growing other spices and cash crops such as coffee and tea. This was a time when these spices and luxuries were effectively worth their weight in gold.

The Portuguese were the first European nation to discover that Sri Lanka was the source of cinnamon in the 16th century. The spice had been present in Arab and European markets, but its origin had been kept secret by the Arab traders who held the monopoly. However, from the 16th century onwards the Kingdom of Kandy had to keep Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English seafarers and colonisers at bay, all of whom coveted the island’s resources. With the help of the Dutch, the Kingdom of Kandy eventually expelled the Portuguese in the 1640s, and from then until 1796, Dutch Ceylon was established. Although the Dutch had gained control over the coastal areas of Sri Lanka, the Kandyan Kingdom remained in control of the interior.

The craftmanship of the carvings on the box indicates that it probably was made by Sinhalese craftspeople and may have been part of the commercial exchange between the Kingdom of Kandy and the Dutch East India Company (VOC). However, as had been the case with the Portuguese traders before them, the Dutch remained at odds with the Kandyan Kingdom and with other European powers who had an interest in the island’s trade and European-established plantations. The British invaded the Kandyan Kingdom in the early 1800s, eventually absorbing their lands (and resources) into the British empire. The British also inherited the Dutch coffee plantations on the coast, but they soon failed because of a fungus that destroyed the coffee plants. ‘Ceylon tea’ became the main staple of the island.

The ivory used in Sinhalese carving came from Sri Lankan elephants (Elephas maximus maximus), a native elephant in Sri Lanka that used to roam the entire island. In the first half of the 19th century, forests were cleared for coffee and tea plantations, and the elephant population in the mountains never recovered. Trophy hunting of Sri Lankan elephants was popular under British colonial rule, with some individuals shooting hundreds for sport until the 1830s. The elephant is now protected under Sri Lankan law (killing them carries the death penalty) after a steep decline in the elephant population since the 19th century.

The Sri Lankan ivory carving industry began as early the 1st century BC and was highly regarded for its exquisite quality. The carvings on this box and cover depict elephants, dancing figures (popular in the Kandyan period) and deities. The main religion of the Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka today is the oldest school of Buddhism (Theravāda), and so there are a few possibilities as to which deities might be depicted on the bowl. It is most likely that those at the base are kinnaris (the female plural of kinnara). In Hinduism and Buddhism, these are celestial musicians who are half-human and half-bird. It is also possible that some of these carvings represent the god Saman, a Sinhalese Buddhist deity who is often represented alongside a white elephant and who is the guardian deity of the local Sri Pada mountain. Sinhalese ivory combs were also often carved with various deities, especially yakshinis (female nature spirits in Buddhism), which might be the figures we see at the top.

It is clear that this is an object with many secrets still. It is even hard to say whether this is a vase with a cover, or a bowl, or a box with a lid. When we were examining it up close, it turned out that the bottom can be unscrewed to reveal the gilt lining inside. Why is this plug in place here? William Beckford was known to commission silver mounts for the porcelain items in his collection – could this be one of his additions? And how much did he know of where it came from?

Explore Brodick Castle

Visit now