June 2011 The Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford NEWSLETTER Issue 71
s regular visitors to the Museum will know, there is a freestanding case at the
south-east corner of the lower gallery that is often used for artists’ installations. From time to time, it is also used to display items from the Museum’s collections about which there is something new to say. And there is certainly a good deal new to say about the African gown that was temporarily displayed there from September to December last year and that is being displayed there again this summer.
A ‘Costume of a King’ from West Africa A
that it was included in the African section of the textile display mounted in the court in the early 1980s, which is still its permanent home.
The gown’s recent history begins when it was found in 1974 during one of the Museum’s unfortunately all-too-frequent rehousings of its textile collections. No label or any other documentation could be found, so it was given the number 1974.9.1 and entered in the accessions register as ‘found unentered’. Originally provenanced to ‘possibly Nigeria’, it was later identified on stylistic grounds as being ‘a Mandingo chief’s gown from Sierra Leone’ and provisionally dated to around 1900. Indeed, it was with this information
In 1998 Alison Petch and I identified the gown as being part of the Museum’s founding collection. While no label has survived, we were confident that it matches the admittedly very brief records in various lists compiled by and for General Pitt-Rivers in the 1870s and 1880s: ‘Western African priest’s robe’ (Green Book), ‘Western African Priest’s tobe’ (Black Book), and ‘Primitive Articles of clothing: Priest’s tobe (W. Africa)’ (Delivery Catalogue). We were confident that there was no other item in the Museum’s collection matching these records and that there was every reason to suppose that the gown was indeed the one in the founding collection.
here the story would have ended if it were not for the research of Sierra
Leonean specialist William Hart. For in September 2009, Dr Hart wrote to the Museum to point out the close resemblance between the gown worn by the figure in the illustration entitled ‘Costume of a King’ published in the issue of The Illustrated London News for the week ending 28 November 1846 and the gown at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Close comparison between the gown and the sketch in The Illustrated London News shows that it is indeed the same piece. So the gown turns out to have been collected by Captain [late Admiral] Henry Mangles Denham during his survey of the West African coast on HMS Avon in 1845–6 and thus to be at least fifty years older than previously thought. Further research has established that the ‘African Guitar’ sketched in the Illustrated London News is also in the Museum’s collections (1884.113.5); and it seems very likely that the spear held by the figure in the sketch ‘African War Dress’ is also in the collections, as there is a ‘spear with a very large leaf-shaped head’ (1884.19.142) associated with the name Denham.
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