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Ivory has been used for making works of art from Biblical times onwards. The comparative ease with which it can be manipulated and its durable nature have always attracted craftsmen of all nations, and the latter quality has led to the preservation of a surprisingly large number of ancient examples. While the principal pieces made prior to the seventeenth century are now in museums, occasional examples appear on the market and fetch high prices. They are usually pieces with religious significance: leaves of small folding altar-pieces (diptyches) carved finely with scenes from the life of Christ or with the history of a saint.
More within the reach of the collector are figures. If European they date mostly from the mid-seventeenth century, but are later when Oriental. German carvers were prolific workers, and their output was rivalled only by that of Flanders where the sculptor Frani;ois Duquesnoy (known as Il Fiammingo) influenced many craftsmen. J. C. L. Luck made figures in ivory and also modelled in porcelain for the Meissen and other factories, and a number of porcelain groups and figures owe their origin to him and his fellow craftsmen in ivory. The range of articles made from ivory is very wide: large tankards heavily carved with numerous mythological figures and set off with elaborate silver mounts, snuff boxes, tobacco-rasps for grating the `noxious weed' to make snuff, candlesticks, and both religious and secular figures and groups, to name only a few.
Both the Chinese and Japanese were skilful carvers of ivory, and the former had two main centres of production: Pekin and Canton. At the latter were made many of the pieces which have been described as being `more distinguished for bizarre complexity of pattern than for artistic feeling'. To that category belong the familiar `concentric balls'; those ingenious collections of balls, loosely one inside the other and all of them painstakingly carved and pierced from a single piece of ivory.
The carvings made by the Japanese are well known for their meticulous detail, often carried to extremes. They vary in size from several inches in height to the miniature netsuke. The latter were used ceremonially to hold the inro (or small medicine box) suspended from the girdle of the kimono by a silk cord, and their design is infinitely varied. The finest are the work of men who specialized in making them and the ingenuity of their design is matched by an exquisite finish.
During the past hundred years many reproductions of European ivories of all periods have been made, and it is true to say that a large number of the pieces thought to be antique (and shown as such with pride in the cabinets of collectors) are no more than a century or so old. Equally, but in more recent years, netsuke have been copied in great numbers, not only in ivory and similar materials that resemble it, but also in such entirely worthless substances as celluloid. The modern imitations of both Eastern and Western work show few signs of the great care and skill used in making the original pieces. Further, they have usually been smeared copiously with brown stain and dirt to simulate the dust of ages and hide their casual execution.
Other animal and vegetable substances:
These include a number that resemble ivory more or less closely: the teeth of the hippopotamus, walrus, narwhal, and spermwhale, and the bones of animals. From the latter, Napoleonic prisoners of war held captive in England constructed models of sailing ships. Many of them were extremely well made, especially when the conditions in which the craftsmen lived and the lack of suitable tools and materials are considered. Models of guillotines were made also by the same men, but these are understandably less popular with collectors.
The horn of the rhinoceros was esteemed by the Chinese for use in preparing medicines and also, when in the form of a drinking-vessel, for the testing of liquids. If poison was present it was said that a white liquid would become visible. Be that as it may, the Chinese craftsmen skilfully carved cups from the brown horn, which acquires an attractive dull sheen with age, and made elaborate blackwood stands to bear them. Tortoiseshell was known and valued by the Romans, and in more modern times was much used as a veneer on furniture in combination with brass; a type of ornamentation perfected by the French cabinet-maker A. C. Boulle at the end of the seventeenth century. During the nineteenth century, tortoiseshell was often used for veneering small articles, pin-boxes and teacaddies being particularly favoured. Like horn, it was moulded and carved both in Europe and the Far East, and it has been imitated with varying success in celluloid and other transparent materials.
Mother-of-pearl is the lustrous pearl-like inner lining of many seashells. It is found all over the world, but shells from tropical waters are esteemed because of their large size. Complete shells were carved with religious and other scenes, tea-caddies were covered with the material, and the Chinese made many thousands of gambling counters from it. These were of various shapes and each was carefully engraved. Mother-of-pearl was employed as an inlay from the seventeenth century, both in wood and lacquer, and in Victorian times was inset in black japanned and gilt furniture, tea trays and other objects. An unusual technique was to inset minute pieces of it, carefully arranged in a pattern, into black lacquer covering a vase or a bowl of Chinese porcelain. This was done in the Far East in the eighteenth century, and such decoration is termed `lac burgaute'.
English ivory-carvings are the subject of English Ivories by M. H. Longhurst (1926), and there are other works in foreign languages dealing with the work of Continental craftsmen. Japanese netsuke are described and illustrated in Netsuke, by A. Brockhaus, written in German and published in Leipzig in 1905, and The Art of the Netsuke Carver, by F. Meinertzhagen, London, 1956.