Mar 15 2017
Museums Sheffield’s Curator of Decorative Art, Clare Starkie on the history of the city’s Grice Ivories collection and the global ivory trade today:
Currently on show at Weston Park Museum, Stories from the East is the largest display of Sheffield’s Grice Ivories collection in over 15 years. The exhibition looks at the stories, traditions and beliefs that inspired these remarkable carvings.
The Grice Collection of Chinese Ivories is the result of one man’s passion for an art form. This exceptional range of carvings is one of only two internationally significant collections of historical Chinese ivories in the UK, and the only one in a public museum. The collection comprises around 150 items, most dating from the 1700s and 1800s. Representing some of the world’s finest examples of Chinese craftsmanship, these carvings were largely produced as part of the growing export trade to European collectors at the time.
The collection was amassed by Dr John William Hawksley Grice, a medical doctor working in Tianjin, a city in northwest China. Grice had become interested in collecting carved ivory, bamboo carvings and jade, objects which were popular in China but not well known in the West. When Grice decided to sell his ivory collection a family friend from Sheffield suggested asking local businessman and philanthropist, J G Graves.
Graves bought the collection in 1937. He officially presented it to the City on 2 March 1939 and it went on display at the Graves Gallery. Graves envisioned the collection as a source of inspiration for workers in Sheffield’s cutlery industry, who used ivory as part of the decoration of metalwork, such as cutlery handles. The collection remained on show until the 1990s, when the gallery was refurbished.
Relatively little is known about the actual production of the ivories. Grice didn’t visit the workshops himself, or record the origin or dates of the pieces he collected . Many of the works can be attributed to the capital city Peking (now Beijing) or Canton (now Guangzhou), which were the main centres of ivory carving. The names of the highly skilled carvers are almost never recorded, makers did not sign their work and their production is largely a mystery.
We do know that carvers generally worked in family businesses in small workshops, passing down skills from generation to generation. It was a specialist handicraft with methods changing little over time. Emperors also set up special workshops in the Forbidden City in Beijing to make high-quality objects for the Imperial court.
As demand grew, production grew to meet it. Government-run factories produced ivories on a larger scale; in the mid-1900s the Beijing Ivory Carving Factory employed over 800 people and used a staggering 4 tonnes of ivory every year.
Since 1989, there has been a ban on buying and selling ivory across international borders in order to protect the world’s endangered elephant population. Despite the international trade ban, around 20,000 African elephants are illegally slaughtered every year and their tusks are then smuggled to markets in Asia, the USA and Europe. One third of the population of African elephants has been wiped out since 2007 and now only 350,000 remain in the wild, with an animal killed on average every 15 minutes.
Until recently, China was believed to operate the largest ivory market, handling up to 70% of the world's trade. It is estimated that 90% of ivory sold in China is traded illegally. In December 2016, China’s State Council announced a ban on all ivory processing and domestic trading. This ban will see all of the 34 licensed carving factories and 130 retailers in China close by the end of 2017.
In the UK, ivory objects made before 1947 may still be sold legally as antiques. Parliament recently debated whether to consult on the ban of all domestic ivory trade in the UK, although no timeline was set.
There are differing opinions on the effectiveness of a comprehensive ban on ivory trade. Some experts suggest it will significantly reduce the impact on the elephant population, while others express concerns that this will increase the illegal trade and drive the price of ivory up, making poaching more likely. What is clear though is that world governments must continue to invest in security, law enforcement and the education, training and skills needed to support the many communities whose livelihood is currently dependent on poaching and ivory trafficking.
There has been much recent media coverage of the discussions around the trade in historic ivory and the place of museums and their collections in that conversation. While some feel that museums should not hold any ivory materials in their collections, these works often represent important examples of historic craftsmanship and cultural traditions, or provide unique biological information that can be used to support work including conservation and understanding the impact of climate change.
We remain mindful of the ethical debate surrounding the acquisition and display of ivory. Today, Museums Sheffield doesn’t actively seek to collect ivory items and will only acquire historic ivory in exceptional circumstances.
Stories from the East highlights some of the complex ethical considerations that museums like ours must continue to review and reflect upon. We hope the exhibition encourages our visitors to do the same.
Stories from the East continues at Weston Park Museum until 9 July 2017
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Top: Fan from 1800s. Photo © Museums Sheffield
Bottom: Landscape in a basin, 1800–1900. Photo © Museums Sheffield