There is a well-known story recounted in the opening pages of this magnificent catalogue that illustrates the differing attitudes of the trustees of the British Museum (BM) and the founders of the Museum of Ornamental Art, the precursor of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), towards the collecting of medieval ivories. In 1858, the London dealer John Webb offered the trustees of the BM a group of whalebone panels from an extremely rare Anglo-Saxon casket. The trustees declined his offer, so that it was left to one of the curators, Augustus Wollaston Franks, to buy them in his own name and subsequently donate them. The so-called Franks Casket is today one of the most important early Anglo-Saxon antiquities in the museum.
There was no such ambivalence about collecting medieval ivories on the part of those responsible for directing the fortunes of the Museum of Ornamental Art and its successor institutions, with the result that the V&A’s holdings in this field are among the largest, most varied and most important in existence. First catalogued in 1927 and 1929 by Margaret Longhurst, this major new catalogue by the museum’s keeper of sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and glass, Paul Williamson, covers the same period as the first of Longhurst’s publications, although it quite understandably excludes the Egyptian, Assyrian, Coptic and Islamic material that she included and confines itself to early Christian, Byzantine and western ivories of the fourth to the 12th centuries.
The need for a new catalogue owes less to the fact that the 1927 publication has long been out of print, or that the collection has grown considerably in the intervening years, with the addition of such major masterpieces as the Basilewsky Situla, or even that Longhurst’s measurements were frequently inaccurate, but very much more to the huge increase in our knowledge and understanding of the material concerned. The development of new techniques such as radiocarbon dating has played no small part in this, but, as the author himself states, there can be no substitute for the traditional methods of art history, including close stylistic analysis and a detailed knowledge of the comparable material in other great collections. Williamson, whose first publication in the field goes back over 30 years, is superlatively well-qualified for this task and, ably supported by the photography of James Stevenson, has produced a work which is both a summation of a lifetime’s involvement with the study of medieval ivories and a triumph of scholarship.
Unlike the recent catalogue of the medieval ivories in the Louvre, which includes short introductory essays to each of its separate sections, Williamson’s catalogue is very much directed at those who already have some familiarity with the relevant material and the associated literature. Although the meaning of terms such as the “Romanos Group”, “Nikephoros Group”, “Ada Group”, “Later Metz Group” and others is briefly described in the individual entries, their use presumes more than a passing acquaintance with the pioneering work of Adolph Goldschmidt and Kurt Weitzmann in the years between 1914 and 1934. By the same token, Williamson’s summaries of the previous literature and the conclusions that he draws from his own acute stylistic analysis of the comparative material are not for the general reader and call for access to a well-stocked specialist library if the arguments involved are to be fully appreciated. As is only to be expected, these are of unfailingly high quality and will provide scholars in other institutions with much to reflect on in relation not only to the V&A’s own holdings in the field but also to the material for which they themselves are responsible. Some of them, particularly in institutions whose collections remain without catalogues or where the existing catalogues are either unobtainable or inadequate, may yet feel inspired to emulate the example set by Williamson’s achievement.
Published to coincide with the opening of the museum’s new medieval and Renaissance galleries, where most of the works included are now once again on display, this major contribution to the study of early medieval ivory carving is only the first part of a more comprehensive study, and a second volume is already in hand. There can be little doubt that it too will rapidly become one of the defining publications in the field.
Medieval Ivory Carvings: Early Christian to Romanesque (V&A Publications), 480 pp, £85 (hb) ISBN 9781851776122
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The V&A’s magnificent ivories'