DAMASCUS TILES

I looked at Arthur Milner’s gorgeous large-format book Damascus Tiles yesterday, which is a history, a gazetteer and a large collection of high-quality photos.

It explained why there was such confusion in Britain until the 20th century about the precise origin of these tiles, because there was not only influence and export but also movement of the potters from place to place. The story isn’t just of Damascus but also of Jerusalem, Istanbul and Cairo and the rise and fall of empires over a thousand years.

Milner calls the enthusiasm for Damascus tiles in Britain at the end of the 19th century “a craze”, and the focus of the craze has to be the Arab Hall in Frederic Leighton’s house (which he describes as the largest one-bedroomed house in London), mainly tiled with panels from the Near East but also with fill-in sections by William de Morgan. It’s closed till the spring, but I’ll look at it again then with fresh eyes.

TURKISH CERAMICS AND CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

Ceramics has alway been a field of cultural appropriation and there may have been little ceramic art without it. One of the most obvious cases is the appropriation of material culture both by and from Turkish potters. Istanbul’s great glory is its Iznik tiled mosques, so I was disappointed to find that, athough the walls of the Topkapı Palace are gorgeously tiled, the Palace’s collection of ceramics is from China, not from Iznik. If you want to see Iznik pottery, go to London, where the British Museum has the best collection in the world.

Topkapı Palace, wall with Iznik tiles.

The development of Iznik pottery was motivated by the desire to imitate Chinese porcelain, which was done in a roundabout way, covering the local greyish clay with fine white slip then painting it in brilliant colours under a clear glaze. There are Chinese motifs on Iznik vessels, with their characteristically Turkish decorations of tulips, carnations and saz leaves, in the form of the cloud patterns round the margins of plates. The Chinese returned the compliment by taking Iznik motifs and painting them in blue and white on porcelain dishes for export.

Border decoration on Iznik plate derived from Chinese cloud motifs

This Turkish pottery was naturally admired everywhere. In Britain in the 19th century it was copied and adapted without understanding. Its origins weren’t known because the Iznik manufactories were long gone. As every visitor to Turkey discovers, Iznik designs are sold everywhere, but the pottery comes from Kütahya now.

A 19th-century Cantagalli vessel using Iznik motifs.

A large cache of this pottery had been brought to England from Syria, so it was called Damascus ware. Some was found in Greece too, so it was also called Rhodian. The British thought that Ottoman Turks were incapable of creating such lovely work but that Persians were, so these wares were called Persian as well.

A “Persian” vessel by the Crown Derby Porcelain Company, mid 1880s. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

Under these confused names, Iznik patterns were put on tiles, which were all the rage at the time. Some were made by hand by William de Morgan for Sir Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall, many more were produced in industrial quantities by Minton Hollis. The “Persian” style was freely adapted and elaborated by Crown Derby, with raised gilt patterns, to make amazing bling for export to the USA. Homage was also paid to the Iznik potters by the Cantagalli company in Italy, who made much closer copies.

Sir Frederic Leighton’s Arab Hall in Kensington, a mixture of antique tiles from Turkey and new ones from London.