Perpetuating the memory of one of the greatest men of the Victorian age
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.
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.
Dr Sara Choudhrey presented two series in this exhibition, Iznik Series and Driftwood Series.
In the Iznik Series, Sara’s works provided a contemporary interpretation of traditional Iznik floral motifs. 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. Sara paintings brought focus to the individual motifs, highlighting their invaluable part in contributing to larger and complex compositions.
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 pieces explore themes regarding our ever-changing environment alongside man-made productivity and adaptability that govern and manipulate interactions in natural spaces.
Sara’s work, including pieces featured in this exhibition, can be seen on her website here.
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.
The Emery Walker Trust Islamic Collection can be seen on the Emery Walker Trust website, here.