Ivory carving has long been considered a fine art and cultural tradition in China but in recent years the Chinese love for the product of animal tusks and teeth has become a conservation issue.
Demand for the material has pushed poaching and smuggling to new levels and endangered species, especially African elephants. Now China has agree to shut down its commercial ivory by the end of 2017.
Long before anyone gave the matter a thought, the city of Sheffield acquired a collection of antique carved pieces dating from the 16th century to the early 1900s.
Acknowledged as some of the UK’s finest examples of Chinese craftsmanship they are now on display at Weston Park Museum in an exhibition. Stories from the East: The Grice Ivories which explores the folk tales, figures and traditions that inspired them.
It also includes a section looking at the global effect of the ivory trade today.
The collection was originally amassed by Dr John Grice who worked in China from 1922 to 1956 and was purchased for the City of Sheffield in the 1930s by local benefactor J G Graves to go on show in the new Graves Gallery.
In the Thirties people liked to look at exotic things
Sheffield’s collection is one of only two important and internationally renowned collections of historical Chinese ivories in the UK, and the only one in a public museum. Stories from the East represents the largest display of the Grice ivories in over 15 years and will explore the wealth of Chinese history, culture and the diverse spiritual beliefs reflected in the collection.
Made mostly during the 1700s and 1800s, carved ivories were often created as decorative pieces for European collectors. Sheffield’s Grice Collection features some of the finest examples of the craft, from religious, historical and mythological figures to ornate calligraphy brush pots and decorative plaques, each demonstrating the immense skill of the artists who made them.
“In the 1930s people still liked to look at exotic things,” observes Clare Starkie, Museums Sheffield Curator of Decorative Art.
“Dr Grice was part of the British community in China and collected local art. He liked bamboo and jade as well as ivory. Not many people were collecting it then,
“An acquaintance from Sheffield mentioned there was this man called Mr Graves who was starting a gallery and the two met in the 1930s and Graves bought the collection of 154 items for the city of Sheffield.
“I met his daughters in 2008 when we organised a previous exhibition to coincide with the Beijing Olympics. They recalled how people would bring items in bags to sell to their house which was not far from what was then Peking. His choice was entirely aesthetic and he wouldn’t haggle. The first price is the final price, he would say.
“He was interested in the techniques as well and made notes about the items which he passed on to Mr Graves.”
The Sheffield philanthropist envisioned the ivories as an educational resource for the many ivory carvers who worked in Sheffield’s metalwork trades, hoping they would find inspiration in the remarkable craftsmanship on display.
“There’s a parallel between the freelance ivory carvers and the little mesters. They would come and see the collection and be inspired. The cutlery handle-makers would practise their skills in their spare time.”
On display are examples of what Sheffield craftsmen created with ivory such as an ornate chess set and model of an Indian temple.
Visitors will discover many of the stories behind the works on display, from Daoist Immortals in their Heavenly Paradise to heroic military deeds.
“The figures are based on mythical or real people,” continues the curator. “General Yue Fei is still revered today in graphic novels, computer games and an epic TV series in the mould of Game of Thrones. Liu Ji was a military strategist, statesman and poet from the 12th century who is known as the Chinese Nostradamus because of his prophecies.”
A display called Landscape in a Basin shows leaves and flowers carved out of ivory reflects how the natural world influenced many of the great Chinese thinkers and philosophers.
Amelia Knowlson from Sheffield Hallam University has used 3D printing to highlight the detail in some of exhibits. “We are bringing new technology to this traditional craft. Ivory lends itself to the scanning process,” adds Claire Starkie.
Stories from the East: The Grice Ivories is at Weston Park Museum until July 9.