Following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were looted by British forces from the royal palace, its storerooms and compounds. Some of these objects were sold or exchanged on the coast. However, many were brought to the UK where they were sold through private auction, donated to museums, or retained by soldiers of the expedition. The British Museum successfully petitioned the government to secure some of the relief plaques and over 300 were sent to the UK by the Consul-General [Sir] Ralph Moor and placed at the Foreign Office. During the summer of 1897 the Crown Agents for the Colonies, on behalf of the Foreign Office, agreed a temporary loan of 304 plaques to the British Museum. In September these were placed on public display in the Assyrian basement where they attracted considerable public attention. The Museum initially received 203 of these plaques as a gift from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In the summer of 1898 a further eleven plaques were sent to the British Museum from the Foreign Office and three of these were selected by the Museum and were subsequently presented as a gift. Of the remaining plaques the Foreign Office retained eight and the rest were offered for sale to major museums, collectors and private dealers in Europe and the UK. Today over nine hundred plaques are known to exist in museums and private collections around the world. See Collection File: Af1898,0115.1-203 (previously Eth.Doc.185).
Relief plaque, lost-wax cast in brass. Wide plaque, rectangular in form with side flanges. Background surface decorated with river leaf patterns and stippling. One nail hole at top right; one hole at bottom right. Remains of two iron nails at right side. Depicts two standing warrior figures, facing front, both carry spears in right hand, shield in left hand. Wear tall helmet with stiff front panel and horsehair at sides, two feathers at either side; deep beaded collar, leopard's tooth necklace, quadrangular bell, leopard-faced body armour with pendant strips terminating in bells, bracelets, beaded anklets and wrap-around knee-length skirt.
The relief brass plaques that used to decorate the Oba's (king's) palace are among the most well-known of all the royal arts of Benin. Although frequently described as 'Benin Bronzes' most plaques are made of leaded brass in various compositions. It is widely accepted that they date to the 16th-17th centuries. In the years prior to the British Expedition royal influence in Benin was increasingly under threat from rival powers, both internal and external, with a focus on economic power and control of the important trading monopolies. However, the court and palace remained the political and spiritual centre of the Benin Kingdom. Earlier accounts written by Europeans visiting the city describe its size and scale. The palace complex was set up around atrium courtyards; some had galleries with wooden pillars supporting the roof. Brass plaques, probably made in matching pairs, were fixed to these pillars. The Benin brass plaques represent a distinct and unique corpus of work, unparalleled elsewhere on the continent. They are cast using the cire perdue (lost wax) technique and show significant variation in the depth of the relief. Some of the plaques portray historical events or commemorate successful wars, while others are a vivid depiction of Benin court life and ritual. Several groups of plaques show clear stylistic similarities. William B. Fagg suggested that these plaques represent the work of master brass casters. Fagg, William, 1973, 'Nigerian Images', London: Lund Humphries Gunsch, Kathryn, 2018, 'Benin plaques: a 16th century imperial monument', London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group ~Read & Dalton 1899: Two figures dressed as Af1898,0115.20 but with high bead collars and narrow anklets. They are armed with shields of the usual type, and spears with leaf-shaped blades and openwork metal shafts, one of which has been broken off short.
Exhibited: 1965, Oxford, Pitt Rivers Museum, Art from the Guinea Coast 1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa 2011 31 May - 2021 11 October, Bristol, M-Shed Museum, Transatlantic Slave Trade LT Loan
Fair; section at top left corner missing. Small chip from top right corner. Section from bottom left corner and edge missing. Top half of spear in right figure's hand missing. Small holes in shin of right figure's left leg and between legs of two figures.