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Finely carved and painted Tsimshian clan hat - Donald Ellis Gallery

Crest Hat

Northern British Columbia

ca. 1840-1860

wood, paint

width: 21 ½"

Inventory # N2978-15



acquired by the Scottish Reverend Robert J. Dundas from Anglican lay minister William Duncan in 1863 at the village of Metlakatla, British Columbia
by descent in the family
Simon Carey, London, United Kingdom
Sotheby’s New York, Oct 5, 2006, lot 17


Tsimshian Treasures, Ellis (ed.), Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 2007, pgs. 74-75

The present clan hat was acquired by the Scottish Reverend Robert J. Dundas from the English lay missionary William Duncan on a trip to Canada in 1863. In 1862, Duncan had established a model Church of England mission at Old Metlakatla, an abandoned settlement near Prince Rupert, B.C. Dundas acquired almost 80 objects from Duncan, including crest helmets, rattles and antler clubs which remained in the Dundas family for several generations.

This magnificent forehead mask, with its long, thin, toothed beak (or proboscis), appears quite similar to certain other masks and headgear that have been identified as representing the mosquito.  Many aspects of this headpiece exhibit a master’s hand, including both the cleanly carved and finished sculpture and the beautifully conceived and executed two-dimensional design work. Like the bear crest hat, this hat is composed of a masklike head with backswept wings on each side that is incorporated into an integral wooden skullcap.

The ovoid-shaped eyes appear as if they once held shallow inlays, perhaps of abalone shell or more likely copper or some other thin material. The small faces painted so finely on the front of the ears are similar to images that appear in box and chest compositions. This headdress is carved from a single piece of wood, including the ears, unlike the aforementioned bear crest hat.

The formline designs painted on the wing panel on each side of the head define the physical structure of the wings. The large ovoid shape denotes one of the joints of the wing and its method of attachment to the creature, and the arrangement of the multi-layered U-shapes replicates the layering of primary and secondary wing feathers of a bird. This ancient design convention has been transposed in this case onto the representation of a mosquito’s wing.

The black painting on the head flows over the carved definition of the forehead, the eyesockets, the cheeks, and the ‘beak’, while parallel lines of vermillion red dashing add not only colour, but also visual texture to the image. The contrast of vermilion red against the black paint gives strong emphasis to the red pigment, a reminder of the blood that is the essential food of the mosquito.

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