Brass Monkeys

Seals have been used throughout history to mark, to authenticate and to formalize agreements. A mark of communication.  A mark of a presence of authority – trapping their secrets within, travelling across borders and timeframes. They form part of the origin perhaps of today’s emojis, each with their own unique design and sense of place or ownership.

Amongst the V&A’s Collection of Seals many are of unknown origin, their secrets remaining intact. Made from materials allowing portability and endurance of existence, each has their own story to tell.

Made of white steatite, ca. 2500 BC and one of many found in the Indus Valley of Pakistan, this seal depicts a standing unicorn or bull surrounded by a pictographic inscription. The curious vessel at the animal’s feet possibly held an intoxicating soma liquid drunk by priests in Vedic rituals.[1]

Seal and Impression – ca. 2500 BC.

In contrast, this seal from 1775 made of English porcelain in Derby, is a figure of a shepherd boy playing a pipe with a lamb at his feet. It is ornate, gilded and has a cornelian intaglio of a man’s head beneath.[2]

Seal – ca. 1775.

This seal made of porcelain, originating from Dehua, China in the sixteenth century, is the worn shape of a lion sitting quietly on a block, engraved with a positive seal of red characters on a white background at its base.[3][4]

Seal – 1620-1720.

From my own collection, inherited from Swedish ancestry and found in my mother’s collection, sits a Brass Monkey.

Authors Image.

Here it is. This object that I hold easily in my hand. This thing whose weight I feel heavy, whose warmth has been retained throughout all these years. Smooth curves drawn, punctuated with furrows amongst its round form and sitting on a flat plate. Like a seal that closes words into a letter without touching them. Printing time.

Not something I can recall directly from the shelf of my childhood, sitting high in its dusty place. Yet something I have come to know through loss. And gain. Through timelines passing between generations. It keeps its origin a secret never to be unlocked.

Brass monkeys, a phrase from the sixteenth century, in itself speaking of a landscape where ancient warships crossed thundering seas, held cannonballs on plates which constricted tightly in extreme cold, expelling their loads with a crash.[5] Or maybe a plop. Followed by a watery line traced as it slowly dances to its place of soft rest.

The frozen north where this brass monkey sat for many years. Quietly waiting and lost in contemplative thought. The thinker. Rodin’s great figure of Dante in stark contrast to this small object, which despite its size seeps its presence out to question the space that surrounds it. Tarnished through stillness of breath, yet alive with possibilities.







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