Perpetuating the memory of one of the greatest men of the Victorian age

A PLACE IN PATTERN: 
ISLAMIC ART AND ITS INFLUENCE IN BRITISH ARTS & CRAFTS

“TO US PATTERN DESIGNERS PERSIA HAS BECOME A HOLY LAND, FOR THERE IN THE PROCESS OF TIME OUR ART WAS PERFECTED, AND THENCE ABOVE ALL PLACES IT SPREAD TO COVER FOR A WHILE THE WORLD, EAST AND WEST.” – WILLIAM MORRIS, 1882

IZNIK BORDER TILE DESIGN

Pencil and watercolour on paper. William Morris Society Collection.

In this exhibition we present three different, yet intersecting expressions of Islamic art. We feature original work by researcher and artist Dr Sara Choudhrey alongside works on paper from The William Morris Society’s collection and objects from The Emery Walker Trust collection.

Islamic art is an all-encompassing term, often used to describe historical examples of art and artefacts, and even architecture, related to the Islamic world. In many cases these were produced in parts of the world where Islam was or is the dominant faith. Islamic art spanned many centuries and continues to this day in all parts of the world. Places such as Turkey, Spain, Morocco, Syria and Pakistan still hold wondrous examples of historical sites, monuments and working mosques covered in beautiful patterns. The long and continuing history of Islamic artistic output has led to wider cultural influence, including upon the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The word ‘Islamic’ relates to the Islamic faith. Alongside the spread of the Islamic faith, there developed a visual culture associated with the people and places it touched. The three main elements that make up this visual culture are decorative geometry, floral motifs and Arabic calligraphy. The latter two are based on the former, as geometry connects to the natural world, the underlying order and language of the universe attributed to Divine creation.

By exploring the collections and archives at The William Morris Society and The Emery Walker House, artist/researcher Dr Sara Choudhrey demonstrates how these three elements were also present in the works produced by William Morris and his contemporaries. Her research provides an insight into the admiration that Morris and his associates had for artefacts from the Islamic world, and where they would have encountered them through their travels and viewing exhibitions.

Alongside these collections we present artworks by Dr Sara Choudhrey, who has in turn been influenced by not just Islamic art, but also the geometric and floral elements depicted in the work of William Morris. The presence of contemporary Islamic art alongside these collections demonstrates a cyclical continuity of influence, where no single region nor timeline dictates engagement with Islamic visual culture. This is a theme of ongoing interest to Sara, who is concerned with the use of pattern as a means of exploring perceptions of space, engagement with man-made and natural spaces and the idea of belonging and identifying with a place. Sara explores these themes through colour studies focussing on individual motifs from the Turkish Iznik design tradition and complex geometric compositions referencing surface design found in site-specific locations such as those in Spain.

This exhibition therefore brings together the collections as an interconnected and evolving whole.

THE WILLIAM MORRIS SOCIETY

William Morris’s designs feature striking similarities with those seen on Islamic artefacts, most notably the use of symmetry and floral motifs. Morris’s many designs were developed with a similar purpose to those of Islamic art, designs that could be applied to almost any surface- in Morris’s case curtains, cushions, ceramics and most famously wallpapers.

Morris had a close association with the South Kensington Museum (the present day Victoria and Albert Museum) and would have taken an interest in their developing collection of objects of Ottoman origin (present day Turkey) and Persian origin (Iran). In fact, as an acknowledged expert in the decorative arts of the Middle East, in 1884 he was invited to become an Art Referee and advise the museum on new acquisitions.

This interest in Islamic arts and culture was shared by a number of those within Morris’s artistic network, including Philip Webb, John Henry Dearle, Emery Walker and Morris’s daughter, May.

Iznik Tile Design

Watercolour on tracing paper, mounted onto card. This drawing matches a 16th century Iznik tile in the V&A Museum’s collection.

Iznik Tile Design

Watercolour on tracing paper, mounted onto card. This tile-based drawing depicts saz leaves - a type of twisted, serrated-edged leaf - alongside half lotus motifs and red tulips on a spiral base.

Iznik Tile Design

Pencil and watercolour on paper, mounted onto card.

DR SARA CHOUDHREY

IZNIK SERIES

GOUACHE ON PAPER, 2016

Hatayi Gold IV, 2016, approx. 20 x 20 cm
Hatayi Gold III, 2016, approx. 20 x 20 cm
Hatayi Gold II, 2016, approx. 20 x 20 cm
Hatayi Gold I, 2016, approx. 20 x 20 cm

Abstract and stylized floral motifs were commonly found on decorative ceramics produced in the town of Iznik and sent to decorate some of the most famous and historical sites of the Ottoman Empire, most notably within present day Turkey. Providing a contemporary interpretation of traditional Iznik floral motifs, Sara Choudhrey’s paintings bring focus to the individual motifs, highlighting their invaluable part in contributing to larger and complex compositions. The series is also a study of colour, where the relationship between colour and shape is heightened by proximity of individual motif components. Where gaps were deliberately left with ceramic glaze in the original works, gaps created in these contemporary works provide a new consideration of the effect and dynamism of boundaries, space, change and growth.

driftwood SERIES

ink, GOUACHE and water on laser-etched wood, 2019 

Driftwood 05, 2019, 25 x 25 cm Photography: Will Noor/ Cambridge Islamic Art
Driftwood 06, 2019, 25 x 25 cm

These pieces are the latest in a series of hybrid artworks produced as part of Sara’s Driftwood series. The pieces which can on some level be described as paintings, explore themes regarding our ever-changing environment alongside man-made productivity and adaptability that govern and manipulate interactions in natural spaces.

In the Driftwood series, the physical flow of water is merged into the material form of the wood to provide a visual interplay, an interaction that signifies resistance, compromise and conformity. The motion is conveyed through the layered painting process, hinting at the passage of time and questioning our relationship with the environment as a wider notion of our impact on space and its impact on us.

The juxtaposition of the free-flowing medium absorbed and solidified within the surface of the wood is a documentation of process as well as physics. The artwork is etched with shapes forming borders, where the use of geometry from the Islamic world is not simply a surface design but a demonstration of purpose and adherence. In Driftwood the pattern becomes a tool, leading the liquid, a method which contends against the natural inclination for liquid to seep into and stain the material at will. Therefore, a relinquishing of control must be accepted whilst also striving to reach a goal.

THE EMERY WALKER TRUST

A ten-minute walk from William Morris’s London home, Kelmscott House, is the home of Emery Walker, a key member of the Arts and Crafts movement and close friend and adviser of Morris. The Walkers were great admirers of arts and crafts, reflected in the family’s beautifully adorned home that is open to the public today and includes work by William Morris, William De Morgan and Philip Webb, to name just a few. Amongst the Walkers’ possessions are a number of objects that originate from destinations across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, including locations where Islam was or had been the dominant faith of the local population.

The Walkers were passionate about learning and travel and visited many places throughout their lives. These journeys included, but were not limited to, Emery’s almost complete tour of Spain and Morocco in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and his daughter Dorothy’s month-long cruise of the Mediterranean and Asia in 1954. These countries were places with a rich Islamic architectural and visual heritage stretching back hundreds of years, where the Walkers would have seen bright and colourful patterns made with geometry, floral motifs and Arabic calligraphy, carved and painted onto plaster and wood.

Selection of Moroccan Ceramics, Late 19th Century

Emery Walker visited Morocco in 1907 and encouraged his wife, Mary Grace, and daughter Dorothy to visit there in 1911. The family were so captivated by their trip that many Moroccan crafts can be seen displayed at the House today. One of the more unique groups of ceramics purchased by the Walkers was a set of multi-coloured dishes, jars, bowls and flasks from Fez in Morocco. All the pieces feature geometric line-based decorations and petal-shaped borders. The bright colours yellow, green and blue against a soft pink or white base made for a vibrant display for a family home. Similar pieces had become quite popular in Britain in the late 19th century when they were introduced at the Annual International Exhibition of 1871 held in South Kensington.

Ceramic tile painted with Iznik-style floral motifs, 20th century

Tiles were used to decorate the sacred and holy sites within Islam. By the time the Walkers travelled to Turkey, the Iznik period had long passed, the last of the Iznik ware being produced in the late 16th century. However, the tradition of decorative ceramic production was alive at the time of their visit and remains so today as repairs and replacements are required to maintain the historical sites. This ceramic tile is a 20th century replica of an Iznik-style tile. Just like the original, the design is mirrored, with a vertical line of symmetry down the middle. The tile has been designed in this manner to allow for coverage of large surfaces. The central floral motif, known in the Turkish language as a hatayi flower, is said to be inspired by the lotus flower.

Miniature Qur’an in silver locket, David Bryce, early 20th century

In addition to their interest in Islamic art, the Walkers were also fascinated by Islamic religious artefacts, which enabled them to engage with Islamic cultural output in language and literature. This interest is reflected in this miniature Qur’an, the holy book of Islam containing the revelations sent from God to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. This Qur’an, measuring just 2.5 cm in height, was produced at the turn of the 20th century by David Bryce, a Scotsman who specialised in miniature books. The text is in Arabic (the popular Naskh script) on paper, bound in red card with gold swirling decoration. The Qur’an is encased within a silver locket embossed with a similar swirling pattern and has a circular glass portal to the front, which also serves as a handy magnifying glass. The small script was difficult for everyday reading, but encased as it was, and designed to be hung from a chain, it served a very practical purpose. These miniature Qur’ans were supplied to Muslim soldiers serving in the First World War, enabling ease of carriage and spiritual support.

Inside Miniature Qur’an

Ceramic Kashkul, Iran, late 19th century

Calligraphic inscriptions were commonly found adorning art and architecture of Islamic lands, regardless of function and media. Calligraphy was most often inscribed in Arabic script where applied in a religious context. Persian poetry was also used as adornment, as can be seen on this Iranian ceramic kashkul, also known as a dervish beggar’s bowl. Kashkuls were traditionally made from hollowed and engraved Coco der Mer shells. Those made from valuable materials or engraved with highly intricate and ornate patterns would have served a decorative purpose, being displayed indoors, whilst a more functional fabric or woven bag would have been used to collect alms out of doors. ​The inscription is a phrase invoking happiness for Omar Khayyam (1048 - 1131), a famous Iranian mathematician and philosopher better known for his poetry which was translated to English as the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859. By the late 19th century it had become very popular, and Emery Walker himself kept an 1887 edition in his library. William Morris had hand-lettered and illuminated two manuscripts of the Rubaiyyat with Edward Burne-Jones (c.1872) and verses from the Rubaiyyat were also used by May Morris in the design of her The Homestead and the Forest cot quilt, embroidered by her mother Jane Morris (c.1889).

Buckle with Islamic style decoration, metal

Many of the objects collected by the Walkers on their travels are decorated with geometric patterns, a common feature of Islamic art. Although featuring plant-based motifs the design of this buckle’s decoration is based on a geometric grid, made up of equally divided segments within a circle. The root of the design here is based on the square. Therefore, the value of 4 becomes a root for all the subsequent divisions and intersections (of 4, 8, 16 and 32) used to place the smaller integrated motifs. Even the small flower in the centre has 16 petals. This consistency of a mathematical approach for constructing patterns in the Islamic design tradition provides a sense of harmony and proportion to all parts of the composition. The overall design is reminiscent of the motifs and designs found carved into the stucco walls of the mid-13th century Alhambra Palace, built during the height of Islamic Spain, and also palaces built in Morocco which would have been the source of exchange and influence in architecture across the region.

Images © The Emery Walker Trust

Learn more about the Emery Walker House Islamic art collection here.

 

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If you enjoyed this exhibition please read our blog post; Inspired by the East: Thomas Wardle and William Morris, guest written by Dr Brenda King, Chair of the Textile Society.