Combs and Case thumbnail 1
Combs and Case thumbnail 2
+5
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Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
British Galleries, Room 56c

Combs and Case

1673 (dated)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

This case and combs are among the earliest surviving works of art made in Jamaica that reflect European influence. Highly prized for its colour, translucency and brilliant shine, tortoiseshell was used for furniture inlays and luxurious accessories in the 17th century. Their decorations were incised and brushed with resin, often coloured yellow to simulate gilding.

This set belongs to an intriguing group of tortoiseshell objects, including 45 combs, 26 cases and 2 caskets made in Jamaica between 1671 and 1692. Most of these objects are now in the National Institute of Jamaica. They bear a combination of European motifs and native plants such as palm, pineapple and cocoa trees.

The combs in this set are carved with tulips and sunflowers, inspired by late-17th century English embroidery. On the case are a palm tree and crops important to English trade, the sugar cane and cotton bush. The newly awarded coat-of-arms of Jamaica engraved on the other side of the case relates directly to Britain's seizure of the island from the Spanish.

Tortoiseshell objects were probably commissioned and given as gifts by English governors and their families to friends in England. In 1682, Lady Lynch, wife of governor Sir Thomas Lynch, sent one set of the combs and case to Lady Arlington, along with '400 lbs of the best white sugar from Barbados ... and some vanillas'. English sugar merchants in Jamaica signified their financial prosperity and upward mobility through these gifts to relatives and friends in England.

New research by Jade Lindo, a V&A/RCA History of Design MA student 2021-22, has determined that this case and its combs were probably made by Paul Bennett, recorded as a comb-maker in Port Royal, Jamaica in 1673. Bennett and another craftsman, Matthew Comberford worked for two decades until an earthquake in 1692 destroyed Port Royal.
visit V&A trail: Britain and the Caribbean In this trail Avril Horsford, one of our African Heritage Gallery Guides, explores the traumatic history that connects Britain and the Caribbean, resulting from the lucrative and brutal trade in enslaved Africans, taken to work on sugar plantations in the 17th century. These objects reveal...
read Tortoiseshell combs from Jamaica A set of two combs with a matching case in the V&A's collection belong to an intriguing group of tortoiseshell objects, made in Jamaica between 1671 and 1690 – a period of British colonial exploitation and profiteering in the Caribbean.
object details
Categories
Object Type
Parts
This object consists of 3 parts.

  • Comb Case
  • Comb
  • Comb
Materials and Techniques
Tortoiseshell, resin; carved and engraved
Brief Description
Tortoiseshell comb case and two combs, engraved, Port Royal, Jamaica, dated 1673, probably made by Paul Bennett
Physical Description
Tortoiseshell case and two combs, incised and brushed with yellow resin. The combs are carved with tulips and sunflowers. The case is engraved on one side with the coat-of-arms of Jamaica, born by the representation of two indigenous persons, with 'JAMAICA 1673'. On the other side there is a palm tree, sugar cane and cotton bush.
Dimensions
  • Case length: 7.625in
  • Case width: 4.875in (Note: Dimensions from departmental notes)
Dimensions checked: measured; 31/03/1999 by dw combs are approximately 18 x 11cm each
Marks and Inscriptions
JAMAICA 1673 (Engraved on the comb case below the coat-of-arms)
Gallery Label
  • British Galleries: This comb case is decorated with the arms of Jamaica. On the back is an image of the island's most important crop, sugar cane, beside a palm tree and a cotton bush. The English took control of Jamaica in 1655 and established sugar plantations. A local maker may have made this set as an advertisement for the island and its products.(27/03/2003)
  • Text written about this object for 'Uncomfortable Truths / Traces of the Trade' gallery trails (Trail 3: 'Britain & The West Indies'), 20 February - 31 December 2007. Helen Mears & Janet Browne (additional interpretation provided by actor Rudolph Walker). 'COMB CASE / The tortoiseshell case and combs are among the earliest surviving works of art made in Jamaica that reflect European influence. The style of the decoration suggests that they were all made by the same unknown artist. The decoration on the case relates directly to Britain's seizure of the island. The newly awarded arms of Jamaica are engraved on one side, while three plants important to Jamaica's economy are represented on the other. 'All made by hand, maybe by an African or Arawak. See the artistry that existed, fantastic creativity. Growing up in Trinidad you made your own objects - even a scooter, we probably invented the wooden wheels for it! The image on the case reminds me of a theatrical setting.' Rudolph Walker OBE'(20/02/2007)
Object history
Purchased from Jane F. Thornhill for £20 in 1877.
Historical context
See:

H.M. Cundall, Early Jamaican Handicraft, (The West India Committee Circular 29th March, 1923)

Frank Cundall, Tortoiseshell carving in Jamaica, in The Connoisseur, July 1925, p.154ff, and December 1929

Frank Cundall, 'Tortoiseshell - Carving: A Notable Specimen in Jamaica', 1929, National Art Library, V&A

Frank Cundall, Governors of Jamaica in the 17th Century, London: The W.I. Committee, 1936

Philip Hart, "Tortoiseshell Comb Cases - A 17Th Century Jamaican Craft" (Kingston, 1963), The National Library of Jamaica

Jen Cruse, Colonial Craftsmanship in Jamaica, in America in Britain XXXIX pp.18-25, (Journal of the American Museum in Bath)

Evelyn Haertig, Antique Combs and Purses (Carmel, CA: Gallery Graphics, 1983)

Donald F. Johnson, ‘From The Collection’, Winterthur Portfolio, 43 (2009), 313- 334





Summary
This case and combs are among the earliest surviving works of art made in Jamaica that reflect European influence. Highly prized for its colour, translucency and brilliant shine, tortoiseshell was used for furniture inlays and luxurious accessories in the 17th century. Their decorations were incised and brushed with resin, often coloured yellow to simulate gilding.



This set belongs to an intriguing group of tortoiseshell objects, including 45 combs, 26 cases and 2 caskets made in Jamaica between 1671 and 1692. Most of these objects are now in the National Institute of Jamaica. They bear a combination of European motifs and native plants such as palm, pineapple and cocoa trees.



The combs in this set are carved with tulips and sunflowers, inspired by late-17th century English embroidery. On the case are a palm tree and crops important to English trade, the sugar cane and cotton bush. The newly awarded coat-of-arms of Jamaica engraved on the other side of the case relates directly to Britain's seizure of the island from the Spanish.



Tortoiseshell objects were probably commissioned and given as gifts by English governors and their families to friends in England. In 1682, Lady Lynch, wife of governor Sir Thomas Lynch, sent one set of the combs and case to Lady Arlington, along with '400 lbs of the best white sugar from Barbados ... and some vanillas'. English sugar merchants in Jamaica signified their financial prosperity and upward mobility through these gifts to relatives and friends in England.



New research by Jade Lindo, a V&A/RCA History of Design MA student 2021-22, has determined that this case and its combs were probably made by Paul Bennett, recorded as a comb-maker in Port Royal, Jamaica in 1673. Bennett and another craftsman, Matthew Comberford worked for two decades until an earthquake in 1692 destroyed Port Royal.

Collection
Accession Number
524 to B-1877

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record createdMarch 27, 2003
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