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A fine grease bowl carved in the image of a bird with dark crusty patina | Donald Ellis Gallery

Grease Bowl

Tsimshian
Northern British Columbia

18th century

wood

width: 7 ½"

Inventory # N2978-8

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acquired by the Diker Collection, now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY


PROVENANCE

acquired by the Scottish Reverend Robert J. Dundas from Anglican lay minister William Duncan in 1863 at the village of Metlakatla, BC
by descent in the family
Simon Carey, London, United Kingdom
Sotheby’s New York, Oct 5, 2006, lot 2

PUBLISHED

Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art from the Diker Collection, David Penney et al., New York, NY, Skira Rizzoli, 2015, pg. 18

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.

Used to serve the rich fish-oil condiment known as eulachon grease, this small bowl is more deeply and completely oxidized than most surviving examples from this time. The image is that of a proud and stern bird, and the attitude of the head and shape of the beak clearly suggest a raven, though that is a mere attribution, and not a fact realized through the bowl’s original owners. The opening of the vessel ,which is slightly wider than it is long, is a beautifully rounded shape bordered by a thinly carved and undercut rim. Across the opening, opposite the bird’s head, is a wide, shallowly relief-carved face, which may represent the perceptive qualities of the tail and its feathers.

Several characteristics of this bowl indicate its extended age in relation to other sculptures in the former Dundas collection. The aforementioned deep oxidation of the entire surface is one such indicator, a condition that requires decades to develop to this extreme level. More reliably, the design elements in the two-dimensional surface embellishment point directly to an eighteenth-century origin. Just how far back into that hundred-year time span this bowl was created is impossible to pinpoint. The simple and direct sculpture of the raven’s head and the tail face suggest that the inspiration for this work came from some very early, archaic-style sculptures, and not from the sculptural conventions commonly practiced in the 19th century. The use of angular and even square-cornered design shapes - such as in the rim designs near the raven’s neck and at the center of the bowl on each side below the undercut of the bird’s wings - also indicate an 18th-century style. The large ovoid shapes on either side of the bird’s breast are very wide, and the inner ovoid forms are relieved by only a narrow incised slit running from side to side. These last two characteristics are seen with great regularity in objects whose origins have been documented to the 18th century, such as those collected by Spanish and English explorers and fur traders in the 1780s and 1790 (see Brown, Steven C.  Native Visions: Evolution in Northwest Coast Art from the Eighteenth Through the Twentieth Century.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998).