Consider the Coconut

By Greg Bailey

Conservation Window

 

Watch conservators at work at the Conservation Window, open every Friday – Sunday, 12:00-4:00 p.m. at the Walters Art Museum. The coconut box in this article will be the featured object on Sunday, March 31st.

 

Recently, the carved coconut box below came to the Objects Conservation lab at the Walters Art Museum in preparation for exhibition. Conserving this coconut box gave the conservation staff opportunity to consider the coconut and the ways it has been used over the centuries.

Coconut Box

The exterior of the coconut shell is gently cleaned by rolling small cotton swabs lightly dampened with tap water. Some of the dust and dirt removed from the surface is visible on the used cotton swabs at the lower right. The coconut shell is shown resting in a temporary support made from Ethafoam and Tyvek sheet; soft, inert materials that will not scratch the surface of the object. French, c. 1600. 5 x 3 3/4 x 3 7/8 inches. Walters Art Museum 61.302

Today, coconut is a common food, whether baked in a cake, stirred into a curry, or eaten fresh from the shell.  Because it is possible to buy coconuts at nearly any supermarket or grocery store, they are not considered especially rare or unusual.  But this has not always been the case.

coconut cross-section

A cross-section of a whole coconut. The smooth, greenish skin and fibrous brown husk (also known as coir) are typically removed before coconuts are shipped to stores. The copra, or interior of the coconut, contains the white flesh and coconut milk, both of which can be eaten. The thin, dark shell can be used for a variety of purposes, and is sometimes incorporated into art objects.

Coconut palms are not native to Europe, and in the past coconuts were imported or traded from faraway places in Asia and the new world.  The rarity, cost, and exotic nature of coconut shells meant that they were often treated as precious materials and mounted with silver, gold, enamels, or jewels.  During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, coconuts were often included in treasuries and chambers of wonders.

The  painting shown below depicts a Renaissance goldsmith in his shop in Bruges.  On the shelf at right, a coconut mounted as a cup is shown peeking from behind the curtain.  The inclusion of the coconut among the goldsmith’s wares, including jewelry, gemstones, and pearls, indicates the rarity—and cost—of coconuts during the Renaissance.

A Goldsmith in his Shop, by Petrus Christus, 1449. Oil on panel. 39 3/8 x 33 3/4 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.110

A Goldsmith in his Shop, by Petrus Christus, 1449. Oil on panel. 39 3/8 x 33 3/4 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.110

Coconut Shell Cup, Russian, c. 1660-1690. 4 ½ inches. Walters Art Museum 44.194.

A coconut shell cup, set with silver gilt mounts ornamented with filigree enamel and colored stones. After removing the fibrous outer layers of the coconut, the hard shell may be polished, as with this example. The speckled surface seen here is characteristic of coconut shells. Russian, c. 1660-1690. 4 ½ inches. Walters Art Museum 44.194. On view in the Chamber of Arts and Wonders.

A second coconut shell cup, set with silver mounts. The coconut shell may also be carved, though the thinness of the shell limits the depth of the carving. Carving can obscure or remove the speckled surface of the shell, making it appear more like wood. Dutch, carved by Cornelis de Bye, dated 1598. 6 ¾ inches. Walters Art Museum 57.1046. On view in the Dutch Gallery.

The carved coconut box below recently came to the Objects Conservation lab at the Walters Art Museum in preparation for exhibition.  The surface of the coconut shell has been coated with wax sometime in the modern era, making it appear dark and glossy.  Traces of tarnished silver remain on the copper alloy mounts and hinges.  It is therefore very likely that the metal mounts were originally coated with a thin layer of silver, and would have appeared bright and shiny.

Coconut Box

Top and side views of the carved coconut shell box. The coconut is shown resting on soft sand bags to keep it from rolling. French, c. 1600. 5 x 3 3/4 x 3 7/8 inches. Walters Art Museum 61.302

Coconut Box

The exterior of the coconut shell is gently cleaned by rolling small cotton swabs lightly dampened with tap water. Some of the dust and dirt removed from the surface is visible on the used cotton swabs at the lower right. The coconut shell is shown resting in a temporary support made from Ethafoam and Tyvek sheet; soft, inert materials that will not scratch the surface of the object. French, c. 1600. 5 x 3 3/4 x 3 7/8 inches. Walters Art Museum 61.302

Conservation

To reinforce the fragile areas of broken shell near the hinge, small bridges of Japanese paper are adhered over the cracks. Japanese paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree is used because it is strong and has fibers that are much longer than paper made from cotton rag or wood pulp. Individual fibers are teased away from dyed and undyed paper, then combined to match the mottled brown color of the interior of the coconut shell. They are adhered with a stiff paste made from wheat starch.

After repair - coconut box

Detail of the interior of the coconut, after the cracks have been reinforced with paper fibers (circled in red). The black areas on the rim and hinge preserve traces of tarnished silver. Where the thin silver layer has worn away, the yellow color of the copper alloy mounts is visible.

Now that the coconut shell box has been cleaned and stabilized, a custom mount will be made so that it can be safely displayed in the Collector’s Study.

The object below was recently acquired by the Walters Art Museum as part of a large collection of Russian enamels.  It was made in Moscow around 1900.  Though it looks like a coconut cup, it is in fact wood that has been carved and stained to resemble a coconut.  Compared with the Russian coconut cup above (Walters Art Museum 44.194), this object lacks the dark color and speckled surface of true coconut shell.  The linear grain of the wood can be seen clearly.

Bratina

Russian bratina, or drinking cup, in the form of a mounted coconut. Wood set with gilt silver mounts and a gilt silver liner, the exterior decorated with filigree work and filigree enamel. Russian, 1896-1908. 4 7/8 x 3 1/16 inches. Walters Art Museum TL.2010.17.215.

Microscope photograph of a coconut shell, showing the irregular, fibrous structure. Micro scale bar at bottom, 1 division = 0.1 millimeters.

Microscope photograph of wood board, showing the linear grain pattern. Micro scale bar at bottom, 1 division = 0.1 millimeters.

Talk to a conservator, learn more about this object or watch its conservation at the Conservation Window on March 31st, 2013, 12:00-4:00 p.m.

Further Reading:

Learn more about the Goldsmith in his Shop, and take a closer look at the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:

http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/150000100

“Mounted Bezoar Stones, Seychelles Nuts, and Rhinoceros Horns:  Decorative Objects as Antidotes in Early Modern Europe,” by Marnie P. Stark.  Studies in the Decorative Arts, Vol. 11 No. 1.  2003-2004.  pp. 69-94.

Can coconuts neutralize poison?  This article describes the various myths and superstitions surrounding exotic materials in Renaissance Europe, including Seychelles nuts, a type of palm nut related to the coconut.

http://www.jstor.org/stable/40663065?seq=1