BLOG: A History of ivory carving by John Culme

15th May 2020
BlOG: A history of ivory carving by John Culme Image

'Those who use articles of ivory . . .  are little aware of how this material is procured.'

By John Culme

Class 28 at the Great Exhibition of 1851 was the section devoted to 'Manufactures from Animal and Vegetable Substances, not being Woven or Felted.' The contributions in this area from the United Kingdom alone included variety of items: D. Hay Jones's 'Welsh rustic picture-frame, made of the natural excrescences of the apple-tree'; J. King's 'Baskets and chandelier, manufactured of coloured straw'; H.P. Truefitt & Sons' 'Carved ivory brushes and comb. Tortoiseshell combs, Head-dresses of natural hair'; Lockington Bunn & Co.'s 'Specimens of the various descriptions of native Para India-rubber, or caoutchue, and of gutta percha, with samples illustrative of the various stages of manufacture'; J. & J. Stevenson's 'Ladies' ornamental, dress, and other combs, manufactured from ox and buffalo horns'; J.H. Bass's 'Corks cut by machinery,' &c., &c.

After the closure of the Exhibition many of these items were presented to Her Majesty's Government, the objects derived from animal products eventually finding their way to the new museum at South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert Museum) to form the nucleus of a permanent 'Trade Collection.' The foreword to the first catalogue of this collection, published in 1860, explained that, 'Hitherto there has been no special collection in [the United Kingdom] of Animal Products arranged commercially, and explaining popularly and connectedly their useful applications through the several stages and processes of conversion and manufacture.' The collection was divided into five categories: animal substances used (I) in textile and clothing manufacturing; (II) for domestic and ornamental purposes; (III) for pigments and dyes; (IV) in pharmacy and perfumery; and  (V) the application of waste matter, such as albumen (egg white) in the making of photographic prints and guano for manure.

The general public, it was felt, was either ignorant of or willing to ignore the importance of the use of animal products in so many branches of industry. The museum's Catalogue of the Collection of Commercial Products of the Animal Kingdom gave an exhaustive account, from the benign use of wool for broad and narrow cloths, carpets tartans, &c., and a specimen of silk from worms bred in England in 1789 by the Rev. Swain for which he was awarded a medal from the Laudable Society, to the malign. The latter included fur, feathers, down and quills as well as every type of ivory: elephant, hippopotamus, narwhal, &c. To the Victorian reader such details, including tallies of the prodigious quantities of these products consumed, probably came as nothing more than facts of passing interest. 

Peter Lund Simmons (1814-1897), the compiler of the Catalogue, however, seems to have shared our 21st century sense of shock and distaste: 'Those who use articles of ivory, such as fans and chessmen, are little aware of how this material is procured, the quantities of it which are annually used, and the number of noble animals which are yearly slain for the purpose of supplying the constantly-increasingly demand.' He even mentioned the highly questionable records of  big game hunters like Major Thomas William Rogers of the Ceylon Regiment (killed by lightening in 1845) who shot 1,000 elephants in Sri Lanka with his own rifle and of Roualeyn George Gordon-Cumming (1820-1866) who destroyed a similar number in Africa. 

Hippopotamus and narwhal ivory was ideal for the making artificial teeth while 'Elephant ivory is the most esteemed, the African varieties being preferred to the East Indian [and] wild elephants yield better ivory than those which are domesticated.' In the late 1850s the import of ivory into the United Kingdom was some 468 tons per annum, the wholesale value of which was about  £600 per ton and  £1,100 for the best quality. This amounted to £52,416 annually. 'According to this calculation,' the Catalogue stated, '26,208 elephants have been slaughtered yearly to supply the demands of commerce.'  The greatest consumption by far (200 tons every year) was in connexion with the Sheffield and Birmingham cutlery trades, for use as handles.  It comes as little consolation that, 'Every part of the ivory, owing to the costliness of the material, is turned to some account; even the dust collected from the ivory turners is a most valuable gelatin, and is used for jellies, by straw-hat makers, and for other purposes.' 

Although, in L.P. Hartley's often quoted phrase, 'The past is a foreign country,' we can hardly congratulate ourselves for living in more enlightened times; according to Tanya Steele, present head of the United Kingdom office of The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), more than 20,000 African elephants are still being killed every year for their ivory, 'their tusks turned into carvings and trinkets.'

This lust for 'carvings and trinkets' of ivory stretches back to antiquity and examples of such work survives from every age. Among the most intriguing are the lathe-turned  ornamental standing cups and miniature towers of ivory which were made during the 16th and 17th centuries, frequently by wealthy amateurs. Created for their own amusement and the delight of their friends, these 'objects of wonder' are breathtaking as much for their delicacy as for the invention of their designs. Rarest and most extraordinary of all are the asymmetrical examples where the cup seems to lean and sway as if seen through water or reflected in a distorting mirror. A notable exponent of ivory turning and carving of this period was Marcus Heiden (active 1618-1664) who worked in Coburg for Duke Johann Casimir (1564-1633). His table centrepiece of 1638/39, rising from the model of an elephant to an elaborate 'finial' in the form of a galleon in full sail, is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Nearer our own time, Horace Walpole (1717-1797), the antiquarian and connoisseur who lived at  Strawberry Hill, his 'Gothic mousetrap' villa near Twickenham, owned a 'turning lathe' and tools. In the 19th century there appear to have been many talented amateurs in England, adept in turning ivory and wood on the lathe. In 1886 a Major Barry exhibited various turned ivory ornaments at the Ryde Amateur Art Society on the Isle of Wight. General George Calvert Clarke (1814-1900), a Crimean War veteran, was another military gentleman who won praise for his 'splendid specimens of high-glass turning in ivory,' which he exhibited at a meeting of the Amateur Mechanical Society in London in 1886.

Several clergymen indulged their passion for this type of lathe work. The Rev. Robert Coningham who lived at Rose Hill, Abbots Langley was one. Following his death in 1836, his widow, the writer Louisa Capper, put the contents of his workshop up for sale:

'To Amateur Turners, Ivory and General Turners, Cabinet-makers, and Others.

'TOPLIS and SON will Sell by Auction, at their Rooms, No. 16, St. Paul's Church-yard, THIS DAY, Aug. 23, at Twelve, by order of the Executrix, LATHES and TOOLS, all of Messrs. Holtzapffel's make, removed from Rose-Hill, Abbots Langley, far [sic] the convenience of sale, comprising a screw mandril lathe of the most complete and costly description, with eccentric and other chucks, a six-inch centre lathe, with oval chuck, vertical, and horizontal grinding machines, strong vice, about 3000 tools for turning, cabinet-making and carpentering, two benches, too chest, small quantity of ivory and hardwood, &c., &c. May be viewed this day and Catalogues had at the Rooms.'

(Morning Advertiser, London, Monday, 22 August 1836, p. 4d)

The Rev. John Henry Holdich (1811-1893), sometime of Bulwick Rectory at Wansford, Northamptonshire, the possessor of a private income, was another who passed some of his leisure hours in ivory and wood turning and carving in wood. The photograph of ten examples of his lathe work, mostly in ivory, some with hardwood details and one delicate cup formed from an egg shell, is illustrated here. The centrepiece, a tower rising from a number of columns to a slender pinnacle, was 10 ½ in. (26.5cm.) high. In a letter to the editor of the periodical, The English Mechanic and Mirror of Science, published in London on 26 June 1868 (p. 296, with engraving based on the photograph on p. 302), Holdich described this piece as a 'Temple or Pagoda, of ivory, except the cap and base, which are of ebony. I believe there are about 136 in this (I have no spiral apparatus). The spirals are done with the overhead motion and drill.'

The Rev. Holdich and his fellow amateurs may have been privileged with money and time on their hands but their skill and delight in lathe work was shared by a number of men in much less fortunate circumstances. On display at The North London Working Classes' Industrial Exhibition held at the Agricultural Hall, Islington in 1864, for instance, was a collection of similar items. They were all the more remarkable, as The Times of London (8 November 1864, p. 9c) put it, because 'in nearly every case [they were] the production of the workmen's leisure hours. . . . Those paintings and drawings by labourers, letter-carriers, and porters; those models in wood, and ivory turnings, and ironwork by clerks who have gone through their eight or ten hours' work in a close office; the visible and successful struggle after self-improvement which all those works suggested, the labour and self-denial each costs to produce, made this North London Exhibition one of the most striking social features of the day. . . .'

At this 1864 exhibition W. Brown, an ivory turner in Blackfriars, showed 'Six Ivory Balls, one within the other, with a cube in the centre, all turned out of one solid piece.' Two other London ivory turners, W. Martin and G. Marshall, chose to exhibit similar work made from vegetable ivory (palm nuts), a relatively inexpensive ivory substitute imported from South America.

While Brown, Martin and Marshall were probably working ivory turners and carvers to the trade, 

Victorian Londoners and visitors to the metropolis in search of fancy ivory work would sooner or later have been directed to one of the luxury goods shops in the City and West End. William Lund & Son of Cornhill in the City, established in 1796, was just one of many such retail establishments. Ostensibly purveyors of dressing cases and fine cutlery, Lund's was also known for its stock of turned ivory goods, including toilet implements, talcum powder boxes and needle cases. But a firm specialising in the actual making as well as selling turned ivory goods to the public was that of Martin Fentum (1826-1891).

The name Fentum would have been well known to music lovers in late 18th and 19th century London because the family had been engaged as music and opera ticket sellers in the Strand since the 1760s. The founder, Jonathan Fentum (d. 1783), a flautist, was Martin's great-grandfather. There are many surviving flutes and other turned woodwind instruments which were sold by the Fentum family business, some of which are mounted with ivory. It is probably no coincidence that Martin Fentum was apprenticed to a turner. 

By 1851, when he was only 25, young Fentum had opened his own business at 8 Hemming's Row, near Leicester Square; the Census for that year describes him as a 'Master Ivory Turner employing 1 man & 4 apprentices.' He even managed to submit 'Improved ivory chessmen and board' to the 1851 Great Exhibition (class 28, no. 48).

Between then and 1862, Fentum expanded his business by opening additional premises at 85 New Bond Street. His showing at the 1862 International Exhibition in London was 'Works in ivory and hard woods' (class IV, no. 979) and 'Lathe and saw for working in ivory' (class VII, sub-class B, no. 1595). His set up comprised a small workshop with demonstrations at the lathe as well as examples of his productions, for which he was awarded a Prize Medal (see photograph).

In fact, the Western Annex of this exhibition was full of  'machinery in motion.' 'There are traction engines and washing and mangling machines. Among the processes of manufactures shown are needle making, medal striking, gold-chain making, type casting, type printing by hand, lithographic printing, copper-plate printing, a potter's wheel, brick and drain-tile making, and wood carving.' (The Morning Post, London, Friday, 2 May 1862, p. 5d)  By all accounts the public was fascinated to see for themselves this busy hive of industry, the plant and gadgets which drove mass-production and modern workmanship.

Meanwhile, the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851 as it had stood in Hyde Park had been dismantled, redesigned and reassembled on an estate at Sydenham, south London. The new building, with an assembly of 40,000 guests, was opened by Queen Victoria on 10 June 1854. The interior was furnished with grand courts filled with statuary and tableaux illustrative of the art of various eras, including Egyptian (destroyed by fire in 1866), Roman, Renaissance, &c. Visitors flocked to the vast new building for flower shows, daring performances by Charles Blondin (1824-1897) the tight-rope walker and many other events, including the annual Handel Festival which in which The Messiah was given with never less that 3,500 performers. 

A new feature was installed in the new Crystal Palace in 1863 in the form of an industrial section. 'If the machinery in the basement is less notable than the machinery was in the western annexe [of the 1862 exhibition],' wrote a correspondent to The Standard (London, Thursday, 28 May 1863, p. 3c), 'it is still uncommonly interesting, and housewives looking at it may learn from the machines of Messrs. Clark, of Leicester, how the thread with which they are accustomed to work is made and reeled, and how the exquisite ivory knick-nacks which now ornament so many drawing-rooms are produced by Mr. Fentum of New Bond-street, partly by delicate and beautiful machinery, and partly by skilled hand labour. . . .'

While Fentum's lathes and ivory turning manufactory remained a feature at the Crystal Palace until the early years of the 20th century, the business had been forced to relinquish its original Hemming's Row premises because it stood in the way of the construction of the new Charing Cross Road,  which was opened by the Duke of Cambridge on 26 February 1887. A year before Martin Fentum held a sale, the details of which make interesting reading, giving some idea of his stock-in-trade:

'Ancient and Modern Ivory Carvings, Altar Pieces with Ivory Figures, Ivory Model of Westminster Column, 40 Crucifixes, 40 Carved Ivory Figures, Caskets, &c.; Carved Chessmen, 800 Ivory Brushes, 300 Mirrors, Gentlemen's and Ladies' Silver-fitted Travelling Bags, 100 Sets Billiard and Pool Balls, and the whole of the large stock of Ivory Articles of Mr. Fentum.

'CHADWICK and SONS will SELL by AUCTION (in consequence of the premises being taken by Metropolitan Board of Works), on the Premises, 8 Hemming's-row, St. Martin's-lane, Charing-cross, on MONDAY next and following days, at 12, the whole of the Valuable Collection of Antique and Modern IVORY CARVINGS, collected by Mr. Fentum during the last 40 years of his extensive stock of Ivory articles. - On view, Catalogues at the Auctioneers' Offices, 35, St. Martin's-lane, W.C.' (Daily News, London, Wednesday, 17 February 1886, p. 8a)

Martin Fentum died at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, City of London, in August 1891, the victim of an accident when he was thrown from his dog-cart in nearby Princess Street around the corner from Cornhill where William Lund & Son were still in business. Fentum's son, Charles (1864-1894) and the latter's wife, Sarah Alice (née Pond, 1865-1944) succeeded. A visitor to their new central London showroom at Prince's Buildings, Coventry Street, Leicester Square in 1893 remarked: 'Mr. Fentum's charming morceaux are held by persons of taste and culture. He numbers among his patrons some of the most distinguished people in the land. Her Majesty the Queen and several of the Royal Family have patronised his establishment on several occasions. . . . The stocks held at Coventry Street embrace desirable specimens of the proprietor's taste and skill in the shape of delicate statuettes, elaborately and elegantly finished toilet ornaments, costly articles of luxury, lovely knick-nacks and almost everything conceivable for ornament and use that skill and ingenuity can carved out of ivory.' (Illustrated London and Its Representatives of Commerce: Progress, Commerce, London, 1893, p. 190)

Today, we prize these 'lovely knick-nacks' with a mixture of appreciation and distaste; the former as examples of fine craftsmanship, the latter because of the cruel sacrifice made by so many majestic  creatures for the sake of their tusks. Current legislation aims to curb if not entirely eliminate the commerce in ivory and the slaughter of elephants and other endangered species. Indeed, nobody in their right mind wishes to encourage such a loathsome trade, let alone flout the new rules governing the sale and exchange of ivory goods. That said, the sometimes extraordinary and beautiful work of generations of ivory carvers and turners is still to be seen, admired and cherished in most of our museums, from a mid 19th century Japanese Shibayama button in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, to an early 18th century French gold-inlaid carved ivory snuff box in the British Museum and the ivory model of a pavilion made by Nathaniel Brown Engleheart (1790-1869) in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Photograph captions


A group of objects made by the Rev. John Henry Holdich, including 'an ivory vase, with flowers on hard wood pedestal, a specimen of the power of the elliptic chuck; a temple or pagoda of ivory, with the exception of the cap and base, which are of ebony – there are about 136 pieces in this; a very delicate ivory vase with flowers, on hard wood pedestal; a cup, the body and cover of which are made of an ordinary egg shell; a transparent cup and cover, so thin that a piece of paper with the date on it, gummed inside, is clearly read through; ivory balls, containing cubes, spikes, or cones, and other articles.' (photo: probably the Rev. J.H. Holdich, 1868; The English Mechanic and Mirror of Science and Art, London, Friday, 19 June 1868, p. 266b)


Martin Fentum's exhibit at the International Exhibition of 1862, including (centre) a replica in turned and carved ivory of the then recently erected 'Westminster Column' (Westminster Scholars War Memorial). (photo: The London Stereoscopic & Photographic Co., Ltd., London, 1862).

[link: Westminster Scholars War Memorial]