The connoisseurs’ preserve needs expansion

The study of carpets has changed little since the 19th century and new approaches are needed


James F. Ballard, left, described as “the world’s greatest rug collector”, with a French dealer, from a 1927 St Louis newspaper

The three books under review here—Carpets of Afghanistan, The Carpet and the Connoisseur: the James F. Ballard Collection of Oriental Rugs and Early Carpets and Tapestries on the Eastern Silk Road—take a traditional approach to the subject, in many ways a study established from the late 19th century.

Textiles are in general still considered as a minor art within the traditional hierarchy of architecture, sculpture and paintings. Carpets, on the other hand, belong to the upper realms of art history and scholarly discussions. There is also serious money involved in the market. Curiously, in a textile world dominated largely by women—as makers, historians and curators—carpet collectors are with a few exceptions men, which might confirm the gender divide that has long equated women with consumption and care and men with collection. But historically, men have had the money to acquire carpets, especially the great collector James F. Ballard (1851-1931), whose carpets are the subject of the second book under review.

Carpets include textiles made in the knotting technique, creating a short or long pile, or flat weaves, called kilim, woven in a tapestry or soumak technique. Archaeological evidence suggests that carpet making emerged independently in different cultures, mainly within Asia, but were traded over vast distances. During the great dynasties in modern Turkey (Ottomans, 1281-1924), Iran (Safavids, 1501-1732) and India-Afghanistan (Mughals, 1526-1858), the most beautiful carpets were made of the highest quality in terms of material, technique and artistry.

Persian carpets generally came to Europe as royal and diplomatic gifts while trade of other carpets flourished from the 15th and 16th centuries. Carpets became visual statements of status; European rulers and religious leaders of the time are seen in paintings portrayed with luxurious carpets, their inventories revealing large numbers of them. However, this is not indicative of carpet collecting as we now understand it. Most of the famous collections—both in private homes and museums—in Europe and the US were formed during the latter half of the 19th century, when oriental carpets were purposefully acquired to be collected and not used. This interest for collecting coincided with the establishment of the large art and design museums and international exhibitions. Carpets were also collected as part of the 19th-century concern to preserve “ancient cultures” then being destroyed by modernisation and Western colonisation. Ironically, with the involvement of such major institutions as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum in London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, it could be argued that they speeded up the process and indirectly encouraged the decline.

Collecting carpets became fashionable, particularly among businessmen, and owning oriental ones became a sign of sophistication. To many, they came to symbolise the romance of the Orient—the unspoilt and exotic east. The carpets had to be free of European influence and concur with the “true principles of design” by avoiding shading and perspective. Carpets were studied as art objects with a focus on their designs, their relationship to other decorative arts from the same cultures and endless speculation as to the symbolic meanings of the motifs and their origins. The different carpets were categorised after their dominating motif, such as animal, star or medallion, after European painters who included them in their paintings—for example Memling, Holbein and Lotto—or after the locations where many of a certain kind have been discovered, for example Transylvanian and Polonaise. Of major importance was also a detailed technical analysis of the thread and knot counts. The study of carpets has not much changed since the late 19th century; it is still more or less based on connoisseurship.

These three books are from this tradition and demonstrate similarities in their approach to the subject matter but presented slightly differently. None is for the general reader and a pre-existing knowledge is recommended. Two of the books—The Carpets of Afghanistan and The Carpet and the Connoisseur—follow in the tradition of carpet books, with a focus on collecting, authenticity, design and technical analysis. They are both loaded with technical information and identification tools, and are therefore incredibly useful for the collector-to-be as buyers´ guide books, and for collectors and museum curators as encyclopaedic reference books. Early Carpets and Tapestries on the Eastern Silk Road is the result of a more-than-a-decade-long quest to identify the production place of some foreign fabrics in the collection of Gion Festival floats associations in Kyoto, Japan. This study is different from the other two books, as it is dealing with the material’s context, but displays the similar obsessive traits as the carpet collectors. It also mainly discusses the ink-painted tapestries and does not deal much with the carpets in the associations’ collection.

There is a need to expand the study of carpets, to study their makers’ creativity and expression of culture, and not just praise the traditional craftsmanship. I would like to know more about the dynamics behind the transfer of motifs, the antique carpets’ original use and secondary use in Europe. With few exceptions, all carpets were part of a commercial transaction, and I am curious as to what degree the manufacturers had to adapt their production in order to accommodate Western market demands. Oriental carpets are beautiful objects and can demonstrate early Eurasian trade and contacts, and give evidence of a developing and changing world—if we only let them.

• Helen Persson specialises in Chinese export textiles and the archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943). She has lectured and published extensively on the subject, most recently on Chinese silks for the Mamluk market in Global Textile Encounters (ed. M.-L. Nosch, Centre for Textile Research, Copenhagen, 2015). She was the curator of Chinese textiles and dress for nearly ten years at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and is now senior curator at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm

The Carpets of Afghanistan

Richard D. Parsons

ACC Art Books, 224pp, £45 (hb)

The Carpet and the Connoisseur: the James F. Ballard Collection of Oriental Rugs

Walter B. Denny with Thomas J. Farnham

Saint Louis Art Museum/Hali Publications, 240pp, £46 (pb)

Early Carpets and Tapestries on the Eastern Silk Road

Gloria Gonick

ACC Art Books, 192pp, £40 (hb)