A highly unusual and rare set of four late Elizabeth I carved oak pilasters or terms, circa 1590 - 1600
Lot 164
A highly unusual and rare set of four late Elizabeth I carved oak pilasters or terms, circa 1590 - 1600
Sold for £1,500 (US$ 2,035) inc. premium

Lot Details
A highly unusual and rare set of four late Elizabeth I carved oak pilasters or terms, circa 1590 - 1600
All modelled as a mummy-like figure standing beneath an exotic tree, each face carved with Simian features, and with arms crossed at the waist, above a tapering pedestal decorated to the top with a scroll-edged and punched cartouche, carved to the centre with a further Simian face, the pedestal on a moulded plinth, 38.5cm high, (4)


  • There are several possible interpretations of the iconography of these unusual terms.

    The Simian features of the creatures carved to these pilasters suggest that they could be represent monkeys, animals that were relatively common in England in the Medieval and Early Modern periods. Some of Henry VII's private papers are said to have been destroyed by his pet monkey, and Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII's first wife, is known to have kept many as pets, and was painted with one by Lucas Horenbolte c. 1525. A Hans Holbein sketch taken c. 1541 - 42 survives of Henry VIII's son, Edward, whilst still Prince of Wales, holding the monkey of Henry's fool, Will Somers. Monkeys were kept not only as pets but were used to train dogs for bear and bull baiting.

    Several English churches are decorated with carvings which depict monkeys in various guises. Monkey musicians decorate carved capitals in the chapel in the South Aisle of Bristol Cathedral, and the main lights of the early 14th century Pilgrimage Window at York Minster features a funeral procession of monkeys with a monkey bell-ringer, cross-bearer and four pall-bearers carrying a bier to which another monkey clings. The vertical borders also contain animal images of squirrels and monkeys, with some of the latter holding urine flasks mimicking the medical profession. There are other examples of the monkey funeral procession - an image based on an apocryphal story of the funeral of the Virgin - at Stanton St John, Oxfordshire, and in St Peter Mancroft, Norwich.

    Elizabethan depictions of monkeys are known from a set of hangings embroidered by Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth of Hardwick in or around 1570, known as the Oxburgh Hangings. One of the panels from this series, now in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, depicts 'An Ape', whilst another features an ape-like creature standing on its hind legs between a banner reading 'A Great Munkey'. The V & A have identified this image as having been taken from a woodcut in a book by Conrad Gesner, Icones Animalium ('Pictures of animals'), published in Zurich in 1560. The woodcut is entitled 'CERCOPITHECUS' but Gesner also refers to goggle-eyed wildmen, so presumably the creature depicted in the hanging is an amalgam of the real and imaginary. The Oxburgh monkey's upstanding hair is reminiscent of that adorning the heads of the pilasters offered here.

    A second possibility suggested by their headdress-form hair - reminiscent of Egyptian funerary masks - their sunken cheeks, and crossed arms, is that they are a representation of Egyptian mummy-like figures. This inspiration is more difficult to account for, because whilst depictions of Africa are known, more specific visual representations of Egypt and Egyptians have not been found. Shakespeare's characterisation of Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra - for which one of the sources was Plutarch's, The Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans - is as an exotic world of luxury and indulgence, which stood as a metaphor for sovereign rule. Trade with Egypt was common throughout the Middle Ages, and the wealthy paid a fortune for - amongst other things - ground-up mummy, as a medicinal remedy. Artists also used it as a pigment. By the 1500s, though, the supply of mummies ran short and in 1564 a merchant was horrified to discover that much stock was made from the bodies of slaves and others who had died from the most loathsome diseases. Scholarly interest in the Ancient Egyptians revived in the later 16th and early 17th centuries, and artefacts were beginning to be brought to England. In 1615, George Sandys returned from Egypt with stone 'idols' which he illustrated in his Relation of 1615, and then donated to the Tradescant's Lambeth Museum.
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  1. David Houlston
    Specialist - Oak Furniture
    Banbury Road
    Oxford, United Kingdom OX5 1JH
    Work 01865 853667
    FaxFax: +44 1865 372 722
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