Palaces of Silk

As the Sadberk Hanım Museum celebrates the art of embroidery, Min Hogg marvels at the motifs of palaces, fruit and flowers, sea and cityscape, wrought stitch by stitch, to adorn every Ottoman home

  • Houses with bay windows and fantastic gardens adorn this delightful 19th-century napkin

Sultans of the Ottoman court were madly picky as far as embroidery was concerned, which is hardly surprising considering what a major part it played in their sumptuous clothes and furnishings.

The words “palace work” did not necessarily imply needlework made in Topkapı itself (although as early as 1550 there was a school in the palace where 200 little girls were taught the intricacies of stitching). Rather, it indicated the strictly controlled and sophisticated standards of design and quality imposed upon the massive quantity of embroidery orders farmed out to teams of master craftsmen in town guilds all over the empire.

Domestically, too, embroidery dominated the lives of women and girls, who, rarely permitted to leave the house, were much in need of an occupation. Females of several households would gather together and stitch their days away.

From grand to humble, Turkish houses shared such a minimalist style of furnishing – the sum total being low platform divans around three sides of a room and a few recessed cupboards – that, rather in the way graffiti artists cannot abide a blank wall, the Ottoman compulsion was to introduce colour and pattern by embroidering absolutely everything they could lay their hands on.

In the 16th and 17th centuries design inspiration came from nature, finding expression in flowers and fruits in stylised shapes and repeating patterns with swirling arabesque stems and predominating shades of red and blue. The 18th and 19th centuries brought freer, fantastical, almost abstract elements and a greater variety of colour, with much metallic thread wrapped around cardboard to give a cushioned effect. Architectural and maritime motifs, including amazing city panoramas, were also fashionable, as were portraits of sultans.

The fact that so many of these beautifully embroidered treasures survive suggests that many were made as ceremonial status symbols and scarcely, if ever, used. Nobody in their right mind would willingly sleep on a gold-thread-and-pearl-encrusted pillow, and European lady travellers recoiled from wiping their hands on the fabulously embellished napkins on offer. In any case, it was de rigueur to dab only the tips of your fingers very, very lightly.

Min Hogg is editor-at-large of ‘The World of Interiors’
See www.minhogg.com for her exquisite wallpaper and fabric designs

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 49
  • Parisian Panache

    The V&A’s Tim Stanley eyes up the Louvre’s astonishing new Islamic offering

  • The Dutch Orientalist

    Aard Streefland tells the story of the Dutch orientalist Marius Bauer (1867–1932)

  • Crimea: the Heartland

    The Crimean khans founded their capital in the fertile foothills of the Crimean Mountains in the 15th century. This was the nucleaus of the land known as Cim Tartary. The garden palace of Bahçesaray is a glorious reminder of the khans’ 350-year reign

  • Crimea: the South Coast

    Dramatic and picturesque, Crimea’s southern coast became a resort for doomed royalty and a refuge for ailing literati

  • Crimea: the West Coast

    Two ports – Sevastopol and Yevpatoria – rule Crimea’s flat west coast. One was built for war, the other for recreation. Both played a part in the Crimean War

  • Eastern Crimea and the Kerch Peninsula

    Geonese merchants, a millionaire painter and a symbolist poet brought fortune and fame to the eastern stretches of Crimea’s south coast and its fertile hinterland

  • The Crimean War: Into the Mouth of Hell

    Balaklava, Sevastopol, Inkerman, the Valley of Death – in Britain, where the savage toll was so acutely felt, these names still have the power to arouse pride and fury. Algernon Percy travelled to Crimea to visit the evocative battlefields

  • Crimean War: The Empire Strikes Back

    From the Danube to the Caucasus, conflict raged. The Ottomans were fighting for their territories and their lives, but the full story of their courage is only now being told, says the military historian Mesut Uyar 

  • The Crimean War: The Real Reason Why

    The war of 1853–56 was a calamitous clash of imperial ambitions. Turkey sustained heavy losses, but without them she might have ceased to exist. David Barchard puts the conflict in context

  • Yevpatoria: Bathed in splendour

    With its healing brine baths and golden beaches, its wealth and variety of architecture, and its layers-deep history, this resort offers something for everyone – from hedonist to hypochondriac

  • No surrender for Anna

    Yevpatoria in Crimea was the home the young Anna Akhmatova, an icon of Russian literature, who fell foul of Stalin

  • Chekhov’s ‘Warm Siberia’

    Like many writers, Chekhov made his way to Crimea to nurse his TB in a milder climate. His two houses, now museums, became magnets for artists. One he left to his sister, the other to his wife.

  • Into the silence

    By any standard, Hüsamettin Koçan’s mountain-top Baksı Museum, in the northeastern Anatolian village where he was born, deserves a place among the world’s top ten remote museums.

  • Prince on Tour

    Philip Mansel on the future Edward VII’s Ottoman expedition

  • Connoisseur 49

    This silver goblet was one of more than 600 medieval treasures from Central Asia crowding Bonhams’ elegant rooms in Edinburgh for six days in January.

  • The Unlikely Saviour of Sancta Sophia

    Thomas Whittemore, the American scholar and philanthropist, was instrumental in restoring the Byzantine treasures of Ayasofya. Robert S Nelson delves into his enigmatic life

  • Heavenly Berries

    Mulberries come in an array of hues: black, white, pink, purple; some enticingly sweet, others astringent and healing. As Berrin Torolsan can testify, having grown up with them in her Istanbul garden, all are adored – by man, mallard and pine marten alike. Here she traces the history of this lucious fruit

  • Nine Days in Crimea

    From the towers of Tatary to the tombs of Scythian kings, from clifftop citadels to an underground castle, from Balaklava to the beaches of the Tsarist Riviera, Crimea is a land to fall in love with, waiting to be enjoyed, not destroyed

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Issue 49, April 2013 Travels in Tartary
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