By Hermione Waterfield.
Bailers are used all over the world to scoop the water from the bottom of boats, but those in the Pacific are carved in wood. Objects for practical use, but nonetheless the Maori of New Zealand often decorated them lavishly.
They were prized items for those who sailed with Captain Cook on his circumnavigations, and two examples are now in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. The finest was collected by Joseph Banks on the First Voyage, beautifully balanced with fine carving it has often been published, but a very curious one was collected by the Forsters on the Second Voyage. Jeremy Coote, curator of the Pacific collections who has put all the museum’s collections on the web, is not proud of this example in his collections, in fact he can get irritated when asked for this bailer on loan rather than the handsome First Voyage example. The decoration appears to be unfinished and it might have been made for the visitors, but it is perfectly “genuine” – just the work of a quirky carver. (Fig.1)
The Liverpool Museum received a direct hit during World War II and the ethnographic collection was destroyed. After the war the Museum appealed for replacement material, and the museum in Taunton, Somerset, England sold them a group which included two strange bailers. One has carving in the Maori style, but has a lip so is more likely to have been used for grain (fig. 2). The other (fig.3) has been attributed to the notorious faker James Edward Little. Born in Torquay, a seaside town not far from Taunton, in 1876, he became a cabinet maker and his wife let rooms above the small shop. J.B. Russell, a dealer in natural history from London, who rented the rooms one summer in about 1905, found some clubs in a back room. These he bought from Little and asked to be alerted when any ethnographic material was found. When supply was short it appears that Little became creative. We do not know of anything from his hand with certainty (except for the cover of a feather box, now in the British Museum), but there are a group of carvings in the Te Ariki, New Plymouth, NZ . These are so obviously not by a trained Maori carver and were purchased by William Skinner from Little during a visit to England in 1908, that the style can be used as a touchstone for what we can imagine is the style developed by Little. The pharmaceutical magnate
Sir Henry Wellcome was a client of his, and after his death the museum in Birmingham acquired a bailer which is characteristic of what could be called his ‘Skinner style’ (fig. 4) with a very dark patina, and spirals which look as if they were applications of over-cooked spaghetti.
The Journal Man, no. 5, in 1905, published a bailer from the museum in Taunton which records that it was carved by Harry Kupa for Horo Hawea of Matea Kipewa of New Zealand, who gave it W.J. Cullen. When Cullen returned to England he gave it to the Taunton Castle Museum. (fig.5) Edge-Partington pronounced it to be the work of a European, but it is a serviceable bailer, so there is no reason to doubt the provenance. Indeed just because bailers have a curious appearance it does not necessarily mean that they are fakes. But there are fakers such as Little, and that scene is further confused because of works by J.F. Robieson, a New Zealander who carved in the Maori style and was in England for the twenty years between WWI and WWII. Jonathan Fogel hopes to publish an article on Little in Tribal Arts this year, but whether that will clarify the situation or confuse it further remains to be seen. Perhaps more information will surface.
Hermione Waterfield, former director of Christie’s, London, authority on tribal art who published (2006 and 2009) with J.C.H. King Provenance: Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England 1760-1990.