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Art is only nature operating with the aid of the instruments she has made

 

Paul Henri, Baron d'Holbach; French philosopher

 

Rarely have I come across a quote more fitting, than the above to the subject of this month's blog: a carved hornbill skull held in the bird collection at Tring.

 

By the accounts of all those who have had the pleasure of viewing the skull in the flesh (or in the bone, I should say) it is a truly remarkable thing. While other Museums do have examples of carved hornbill skulls, most are just etched, rather than actually carved in relief like the specimen I'm featuring today.

 

Jo Cooper, Senior Curator of the Avian Anatomical Collections at Tring, says:

It's a rather spectacular thing, and it's quite a rare piece.

 

Our specimen is crafted from a helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), a species found on the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo. It is the bird's casque - an ivory-like plate at the front of the head which it uses for fighting, or jousting - that features our intricate artwork. The helmeted hornbill is the only hornbill with a solid casque (and therefore the only one suitable for carving). The composition of other species' is more spongey or honeycomb-like. Such is the density of the helmeted hornbill's casque, it is said to make up around a third of the weight of the bird.

 

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A helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) with it's large and heavy casque. © Citron, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

The carving on our skull depicts a Chinese battle scene, set in a town by a river. There is also a figure holding a flag bearing the Chinese wén character, which can be translated to mean literature and culture. Jo says:

The level of detail is extraordinary, to the point there's a tiny bird, a kingfisher, which can be seen diving.

 

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The solid casque of the helmeted hornbill is the only one suitable for carving, which is exquisitely intricate and detailed in our specimen of the month.

 

The specimen was acquired by Tring several years ago and was presented to the Museum by former curator Philip Burton, following his retirement. Burton had been given it by an eminent ornithologist.

 

Its origin dates to the 19th century, but Burton's and the Museum's records can only account for it up to the 1950s. Jo says:

Before that, we just don't know its history, but it is an antique object that goes back well into the 1800s.

 

The Museum consulted with experts at the Victoria & Albert Museum to help establish the specimen's provenance, and they confirmed that it was most likely created in China because the country had an established trade out of Borneo of the rare hornbill ivory. The Chinese often used it to make decorative belt buckles, snuff boxes and other small accoutrements.

 

Our beautiful hornbill specimen is not on public display, but Jo says it is very much at home at Tring:

This is the kind of thing you'd expect to see in the V&A or the British Museum, but actually it has a zoological interest too, so I think it's a good fit for Tring. It's also about cultural use and cultural relations, and that's what a lot of our collection is about as well.

 

We have a few (other similar) artifacts, in terms of things that have been modified, but nothing on par with this.

 

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Spot the kingfisher?

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Call me a hopelessly stereotypical girl fascinated by sparkly things, but two of my favourite galleries in the Museum are the Earth's Treasury and the Minerals Gallery.

 

Yes, they're both filled with pretty crystals, gems and minerals, but I love them also because they're a testament to the beauty of our planet, and, in the case of the Minerals Gallery, it harks back to the inception of this Museum, this cathedral to nature, with its original 1880s layout and oak cabinets.

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Top: the Minerals Gallery pictured in the 1920s (left) and today (right).

Bottom: a beautiful array of gemstones in the Earth's Treasury.

 

As I've mentioned before, I have a particular soft spot for amethyst. This is mostly to do with the fact that I like the colour purple, and not necessarily because of the particular properties ascribed to the stone (that it 'wetteths the witt', makes a person calm and fruitful, and even protects against drunkenness). However, I do find the uses of minerals and the belief in their alleged attributes (subscribed to from as early as 200BC until at least the 1750s) a fascinating topic.

 

In pre-Englightenment times, some minerals, in addition to their use as decorative items and the manufacture of pigments, were credited with 'magico-medicinal properties'.

 

I recently dropped into a Museum Members' event to hear Dr Christopher Duffin, scientific associate in the Earth Sciences Department at the Museum, discuss the subject:

The intense colours and durability of gems and semi-precious stones, as well as the shapes of certain fossils or 'figured stones' led to the assumption that they could cure certain diseases by sympathetic magic, or similia similibus curantur (like cures like). A good mineral collection could benefit its owner in a multitude of ways.

 

Without giving away the most extraordinary claims and spoiling Dr Duffin's event for future attendees, let me tell you about just a few of the qualities attributed to certain gemstones and the reasons why:

 

  • Lapis lazuli and azurite: used to treat melancholy (brilliant blue colour - makes you feel happy)
  • Nephrite jade: used to treat kidney conditions (nephrite - nephritic syndrome)
  • Haematite: used to treat conditions involved with blood (haematite - haemorrhage, etc)
  • Magnetite: could draw out arrows and heal battlefield wounds (magnetite - magnetic properties)
  • Amber: used to treat urogenital problems (yellow colour - urine)
  • Almandine garnet: could strengthen the heart and help with circulation (red colour - heart and blood)

 

It might be hard to imagine today, with the hindsight of empirical science, that such theories could be considered credible, but Dr Duffin says:

(In pre-Enlightened times) everything was seen against the backdrop of good and evil, and that everything the planet had been provided with - the plants, the rocks - had been put there for a purpose to help mankind.

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Almandine garnet: for the benefit of the heart and the circulatory system.