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Gulbenkian Ivories NOVEMBER 2015

Gothic Ivories, and the story of a collector

 The writing of a book on the Gulbenkian Ivories is nothing short of a fairy tale. 

We begin with the collector himself – the remarkable Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869–1955), an entrepreneur who made his fortune in oil extraction and trade. His love of collecting started in the souks of Constantinople, where he gathered up clusters of antique coins with boyish enthusiasm. In 1892 he married Nevarte Essayan, a renowned beauty from an Armenian noble family. Throughout his life he accrued a collection of rare quality and excellence – everything from Old Master and modernist pictures; sculpture and silver; to Islamic ceramics, rugs and textiles. The ivories are especially notable – mainly from France, exquisite examples of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century art, intricately carved and striking.  

The carvings possess the strange quality of ivory everywhere: hold one in your hand and it changes rapidly from cool satin to the warmth of human flesh, and remains warm for long after. Ivory and human skin both contain collagen – they hold many of the same properties, and so sculptures through the ages have used ivory to best portray the human figure. There is something of Pygmalion in the collection – the Greek sculptor who, according to legend, married his finest work. Gulbenkian’s adoration for the collection echoes through the room it is contained in; you can almost imagine him taking your arm, guiding you to his latest acquisition and explaining its origins with the rapturous tones of a man in love. 

It is no surprise that Gulbenkian was so enamoured by them. The twining, dancing figures reach for each other, drawing in the observer. A comb shows a couple twined in a passionate embrace, curlicues of ivory framing them; a snapshot from a romantic tale; a fantasy of all-conquering love and utopian bliss. In another work, Christ hangs suspended on a cross while angels weep in the background; there’s a haunting sense of religious contemplation about the diptych, the angular faces expressing infinite sorrow at the plight of the Christ. Onlookers crouch at the foot of the cross, hands held aloft in a silent, immortal plea for clemency.  

The ivories waited for the right author to study them. They needed in-depth, meticulous study; an author who was passionate about the collection. One day, in early 2011, Sarah Guérin sought to study two pieces as part of her PhD – and it was as if stars had aligned to deliver the perfect author at the perfect time. Enthusiastic, passionate and highly knowledgeable Sarah embarked on her role as the author of the first work on the Gulbenkian Ivories with a dedication that is to be admired.