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Who bought Wallace's Javanese carving?

Posted by George Beccaloni on Aug 13, 2013 12:05:32 PM

I have discovered that a lucky buyer has an amazing stone carving brought back from Java by Wallace and they may not yet know its fascinating history! Ahren Lester, a friend of mine who is doing a PhD on Wallace, recently pointed out the following comment in a letter written by Wallace's son William in 1935:

 

"I may mention that the carved stone figure from Modjo-pahit, Java, which is illustrated on p. 78 "The Malay Archipelago" is in Charterhouse School Museum at Godalming. When I was last there is was unlabelled! It seems quite out of place in a school museum."

 

Looking in Wallace's book I found the illustration of the carving which William mentioned:

 

WallacesCarving.jpg

Illustration of the carved stone figure from Modjo-pahit, Java

 

Wallace writes about how he came to acquire it in Java in August 1861:

"In the house of the Waidono or district chief at Modjo-agong [in Java], I saw a beautiful figure carved in high relief out of a block of lava, and which had been found buried in the ground near the village. On my expressing a wish to obtain some such specimen, Mr. B. [Ball] asked the chief for it, and much to my surprise he immediately gave it me. It represented the Hindoo goddess Durga, called in Java, Lora Jonggrang (the exalted virgin). She has eight arms, and stands on the back of a kneeling bull. Her lower right hand holds the tail of the bull, while the corresponding left hand grasps the hair of a captive, Dewth Mahikusor, the personification of vice, who has attempted to slay her bull. He has a cord round his waist, and crouches at her feet in an attitude of supplication. The other hands of the goddess hold, on her right side, a double hook or small anchor, a broad straight sword, and a noose of thick cord; on her left, a girdle or armlet of large beads or shells, an unstrung bow, and a standard or war flag. This deity was a special favourite among the old Javanese, and her image is often found in the ruined temples which abound in the eastern part of the island.

 

The specimen I had obtained was a small one, about two feet high, weighing perhaps a hundred weight; and the next day we had it conveyed to Modjo-kerto to await my return to Sourabaya."

 

Wallace lived in Godalming, Surrey very near Charterhouse School from 1881 to 1889 and was very friendly with some of the Masters and pupils at the school. It is very probable that he donated the carving to the school museum during this time period. Since I have been trying to make a list of all Wallace-related artifacts in museums and other institutions I was momentarily excited at the thought of contacting the school to see whether they still had the carving.

 

I then remembered having heard that some or all of the contents of their museum had been sold at auction a few years ago (something that has sadly happened to many school museum collections), so I had a look on the web and discovered that they had indeed auctioned off some fine ethnographic and other pieces through Sotheby's in November 2002.

 

Eventually I managed to find a list of the auction lots on Sotheby's website and I spotted Lot 147 "A JAVANESE VOLCANIC STONE STELE DEPICTING DURGA PREPARING TO SLAY THE BUFFALO DEMON"- sold for £2,629. Since the chances that Charterhouse School museum had more than one Javanese stone carving of Durga are very small indeed, it is extremely likely that this is the artifact that Wallace once owned. Shame that Charterhouse parted with an amazing part of their history! Oh well, some lucky person now has it and hopefully they may get to hear about this post at some point and realise the significance of their purchase...

 

PS. I confirmed that the scene depicted in the above illustration does indeed show Durga slaying the buffalo demon. For example, here is another carving of the same scene.

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