By W. D. Webster. Review by Crispin Howarth
William Downing Webster (1868 – 1913) began collecting and dealing in arms, armour and ethnographic material from the 1890s until his death. In this period of some twenty years he dealt in the flotsam and jetsam of the vast colonial trading networks of the Victorian era – remarkable objects from many corners of the globe. As a dealer, Webster sold to collectors and to museums in Great Britain, Europe and the United States and he is perhaps best remembered for the large amount of objects from the Kingdom of Benin, exceptional bronzes and impressively carved elephant tusks.
The catalogues are littered with objects from Benin but equally the Oceanic content is very strong. Fijian, Tongan and Maori clubs and sculpture all feature, and, objects from what was British New Guinea (the southern half of PNG today) are well represented with many Papuan Gulf and Massim items. Interestingly enough there are objects from German New Guinea including Malagan and coastal Sepik figures and adornments. Webster published thirty one catalogues between 1895 and 1901 yet only the later fourteen editions, beginning in 1898, had photographs rather than illustrations and it is these which form the book.
The catalogue comes with the prices of the offered objects and it is interesting to read the associated values which perhaps reflect a greater interest in ethnographic pieces at that time. A somewhat workaday Papuan Gulf stone bladed adze was £4, the large ancestor figure, also from the Papua Gulf, featured here was offered at £4.4 shillings and the three Massim figures were offered at £1.10 shillings each, which today roughly would be around AU$1,500 per figure.
It is the work of Julien Leen, based in the Netherlands, who has been very diligent in seeking out original copies and co-ordinated their scanning, colour correction of the images, and compilation. The resulting re-publication now makes the majority of Webster’s catalogues available all in one volume, and what a publication it is. The book acts as an important tribal art reference and even for the most knowledgeable there will always be a handful of objects which you will not have seen before. Do not expect a high-end quality production. It must be kept in mind this is reproduction from old original material, however it must be said, the images are enlarged from the original copies and, on the whole, much improved. Overall this is a fine example of ‘print on demand’ technology that enables us accessibility to an exceptionally rare, useful and fascinating series of publications from a century ago.