A Study in Blue and White

Iznik Pottery
by John Carswell
The British Museum


Professor John Carswell, the recently retired director of the Islamic Department at Sotheby’s London, was Professor of Fine Arts at the American University of Beirut for twenty years, then Curator of the Oriental Institute and Director of the David and Alfred Smart Museum at the University of Chicago.

A painter and sculptor by training, he launched into prose with a recherche treatise on Coptic tattoos then, in Jerusalem, found himself intrigued by the “Matisse-like vitality” of a series of pictorial tiles. His research into these resulted in his seminal work, Kutahya Tiles and Pottery from the Armenian Cathedral of St James, Jerusalem, 2 vols, first published in 1972.

Many miles, many tiles, many pots and shards and publications later, British Museum Press have published Iznik Pottery, an attractively illustrated, conveniently sized handbook that no enthusiast of Turkish ceramics should travel without -it is to be hoped the binding and glue will hold up in Turkish hamams, where many sparkling examples of Iznik may be examined.

The British Museum has one of the greatest collections of Iznik pottery in the world, and how that came to be is part of the story of changing tastes in Turkey and abroad. However, it is only in Turkey that Iznik tiles which are a part of precisely dated buildings can be found, giving valuable evidence of the evolution of the Iznik industry. Anatolian Turkey’s tradition of fired earthenware stretches back some 10,000 years.

Iznik was situated on a major trade route and had all the pre- requisites for ceramic production. The text traces the origins of Ottoman tile production; the influences of Timurid and later potters from Tabriz; the adaptation of designs from Balkan metalwork and Chinese ceramics; Islamic book binding. Iznik vessels were sometimes adaptations from shapes in other materials such as glass and leather, and further stylistic comparisons are made with contemporary ceramics in 15th- century Egypt, Syria and Persia.

In the 16th century, European patrons commissioned dishes displaying their own coats of arms, and Iznik vessels were mounted with European silver- gilt mounts as a mark of the esteem in which they were held.

Iznik progressed through waves of fashions in colours and patterns: the early blue and turquoise of the 15th century was succeeded by a galaxy of fanciful flowered designs executed in subtle greens and greys and soft manganese purple, and this gave way to a crisp, bright palette emphasised by a brilliant impastoed red as tulips and carnations became fashionable.

The changeover can be seen wonderfully in Rustem Pasha Mosque, whose tiles incorporate examples of the earlier with the new.

As the book takes its reader through the centuries, the rise and decline in empire is reflected in the colours and artistry of Iznik’s tiles.

The book concludes on an optimistic note with Kutahya’s master potters of today, who are producing dishes in the best Iznik tradition.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 15
  • The Noble Heart

    A glorious thistle, the globe artichoke merits better than the usual simple boiling, especially if it is the giant Turkish globe, with its huge mouth-watering centre. Berrin Torolsan reveals how to do it justice

  • Home is where the yurt is

    Out of sight of the sea, high above Göcek Marina at Huzur Yadisi, another green peace prevails. In a hidden valley, Richard Tredennick-Titchen found an encampment of yurts that dramatically changed his life.


  • Four men and a snowcock

    One of Turkey’s finest birds is the grouse-like Caspian snowcock. To find it takes some organising, for it lives way above the summer pastures in remote areas such as the Aladaglar, the highest part of the Taurus Mountains.


  • The Holy Mountain

    Ottoman Athos unveiled: an unprecedented portrait of the glorious backdrop to a thousand years of unworldly devotion and Byzantine intrigue, By Anthony Bryer, with photographs by Graham Speake


  • Some corner of a foreign land

    On the Great Lake of the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, outside St Petersburg, stands this peaceful Turkish bath, an ironic legacy of a century of intermittent warfare

  • The Primrose Path

    In the garden we may take them for granted, but in the wild, their colours make the heart sing. Andrew Byfield celebrates the vibrant beauty of Turkey’s primulas.



Buy the Book
Buy the issue
Issue 15, 1998 Mountain Secrets
£12.00 / $15.79 / 97.61 TL
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