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Feast bowl carved with a humanoid face and dark crusty patina - Donald Ellis Gallery

Grease Bowl

Northern British Columbia

ca. 1780-1820


width: 6 ¾"

Inventory # N2978-9


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, BC
by descent in the family
Simon Carey, London, United Kingdom
Sotheby’s New York, Oct 5, 2006, lot 3

The present grease 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.

The same type of surface patina that helped point toward great age in the raven bowl also suggests that this small and unusual vessel was many decades old by the time it was acquired by Rev. Dundas in 1863. The first European mariners to reach the northern Northwest Coast arrived between 1774 and 1800. Durin gthis 26-year period, the limited voyages of these explorers and fur traders only made contact in a few far-flung locations. They nonetheless often found trading partners that could provide what they had come for - sea otter pelts primarily, but also fresh or preserved foods to supplement the hardtack (unleavened bread) and salted beef and pork that were their dwindling daily fare during an extended voyage at sea. Profitable relations brought certain ships and captains back to the same locations as often as they could make the  journey. They had to sail from the Northwest Coast to China, then return to the Atlantic coast of North America or Europe for refit and resupply, and sail back again to the Northwest Coast to trade anew. In those days, such a voyage would take a year or two, limiting the number of trips a single ship or trader could accomplish while the otter populations remained strong, and the coastal peoples were still willing to barter their pelts at rates that were highly profitable to the mariners.

We may never know precisely whose visage has been immortalized in this remarkable and early oil bowl. Was it a trading captain of the eighteenth century that somehow ingratiated himself to a local clan leader? It would seem that only a positive relationship would likely lead to the inclusion of one’s image on an important object of ceremonial feasting, but what was the particular nature of the event or the meeting that spawned this enigmatic image? It surely has the character of a portrait, with facial and tonsorial characteristics that could point to a specific Euro-American personage, if only we knew who that might be. In any case, this bowl illustrates the remarkable facility that the early Tsimshian artists had with wood and portraiture, even on a very small scale.

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