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Painted crest helmet carved with the double image of a frog and human figure - Donald Ellis Gallery

Frog Crest Helmet

Northern British Columbia

ca. 1830-60

alder, paint, abalone shell

height: 9 ¼"

Inventory # N2978-2



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 22


Tsimshian Treasures, Ellis (ed.), Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 2007, pgs. 18, 70-71

This crest helmet 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.

Clan crest hats of this type are carved of a single block of wood, hollowed out to the extreme, and often sculpted with a three dimensional image that wraps around the hat form. Though there is a visual relationship between this type of headpiece and sculptured war helmets, the semi-conical hat shape of this type is based on the form and proportions of the spruce-root woven hat tradition. Spruce root hats were frequently painted with design images that reflected the clan affiliations of the owner, and manifested the history and power of the clan in a portable display object. Hats woven of spruce roots are masterpieces of the weaver’s arts and complex shapes that require a great deal of experience to perfect. Perhaps the greatest number of existing woven hats that were painted appear to be Haida in origin, but it is likely that Tsimshian artists also wove and painted this type of head covering. Many carved headpieces like this one replicate not only specific features of the hat form, but also the texture of the weaving on the spruce-root hats. Those texture patterns were carved in emulation of the designs found on the brims of woven hats, which were executed in self-patterned twining. In this example, however, the hat form is finished with a smooth surface.

At what point in time the first carver decided to create a wooden version of a woven hat and incorporate a sculptural crest figure in place of the painting is unknown. The earliest such hats in existence today, which exhibit artistic styles and wear patterns that suggest eighteenth-century creations, are Tlingit in origin. Some of these are housed in museums, while others have remained in Native hands, and continue to be employed in the traditional ways for which they were initially created.

Tsimshian-style hats, like this one, also exist in museums and private collections, and exhibit a wide range of design imagery and compositional styles. This beautifully made hat combines the wooden replication of a classic spruce-root hat shape seamlessly incorporated with the sculpture of a supernatural frog, a crest of the Ganhada, or raven clan. The frog’s head protrudes far out over the flared rim of the hat, while its body and legs encircle the crown with its feet laid gently on the surface of the hat brim. The limbs of the frog are painted black with red spots to imitate the varying colors and textures of the animal’s skin. The simple raised ridge of an eyelid line outlines the domed eyes of the frog. As is common in Tsimshian-style totem poles, the eyelid ridge is not flattened off and painted black, which is the usual method in Tlingit and Haida styles of carving. The elegant rise of the rounded brow ridges and the shallow relief of the eyesocket are also Tsimshian stylistic traits.

Beneath the lower jaw of the frog, a masklike human face peers out as if the total image is that of a human wearing a frog’s skin. Bright pieces of iridescent abalone shell are inlaid in the eyes of this deeply carved small face. Though it could have been carved of one piece with the rest of the sculpture, the face is actually carved of a separate piece of wood, which is inlaid into a large opening on the lower jaw. Through this opening, the carver entirely hollowed out the frog’s head, between the shape of the hat and the tip of the animal’s snout. This effort was undertaken to lighten the entire headpiece, and also to deter any cracks from forming as the wood initially dried out while the sculpture was completed. Lastly, the jaw covering and its human face were carved and fitted tightly into the opening. Even the face is hollowed out like a mask from behind, to make everything as light as possible.

The human face represents the inner essence, the spirit of the supernatural frog and its connection to the Ganhada lineages. The overall image of this grand headpiece is a remarkable example of the heights to which Northwest Coast crest display aspired. Adorned with this finely sculptured hat, the wearer of this frog-spirit headgear projected a regal and noble image that would glorify and reflect the power and the history of his clan and lineage.

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