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A painted wooden feast bowl carved in the image of a bird with abalone shell inlay - Donald Ellis Gallery

Grease Bowl

Northern British Columbia

ca. 1860-63

wood, paint, abalone shell

width: 6 ½"

Inventory # N2978-10


acquired by the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, PQ


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, England
Sotheby’s New York, Oct 5, 2006, lot 6

The present feast bowl 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 perky, upright eagle image is another example of a vessel that appears to have been relatively new when it was transferred to Rev. Dundas. This bowl and others that he acquired may even have been made by craftsmen at Metlakatla in the months prior to his and Verney’s arrival on the Grappler. Nonetheless, these bowl offer highly respectable examples of traditional sculpture in that particular area and period of time. The paintings on the wings and tail of this eagle, though not relief-carved in the manner of some of the older bowls, are still composed and laid down in the same manner and general style as the earlier carvings.

In addition to the painted embellishments, this eagle includes a perfectly round inlay of abalone shell for the eye, which has an extremely fine and shallow eyelid line cut around it. The head is not painted (except for the vermilion red inside the mouth) indicating the bald eagle representation. This is not a common technique in older works, where such naturalistic portrayals are subordinated to the conventions of the ancient two-dimensional design tradition. The appearance of the growth rings of the wood on the inside of the bowl clearly indicates that this vessel was carved from spruce. Along with hemlock and cedar, spruce is one of the climax trees in the northern Northwest Coast rain forests and, in some areas, the most abundant species of large tree. Its use is rarely mentioned in the ethnographic and art historical literature, except in reference to war helmets and canoes among the Tlingit. Tight-grained spruce, however, was in fact employed for a wide range of carved objects, such as combs, headdress frontlets, masks, small figures, and other objects like bent-corner bulged bowls and red-corner boxes. Spruce  was more commonly used in carvings made before the very early 19th century. Northwest Coast artists seldom use it today, though fine-grained fresh spruce is a grand wood to carve, and it bends more readily than any other local wood. Like alder and maple, spruce is an ideal wood for making food storage boxes and grease bowls because it imparts no unpleasant flavour to the food.