- What’s On
Sir Mark Sykes, who put his stamp on history as co-signatory of the controversial Sykes-Picot agreement, had a deep love of all things Ottoman. When his family home, Sledmere in Yorkshire, was restored after a fire in 1911, he indulged his passion by creating an exquisite Turkish Room. Christopher Simon Sykes, author of a recent biography of his grandfather, recalls the last great patron of Ottoman ceramic art
In the winter of 1887 my grandfather, Mark Sykes, aged eight, was struck down by a disease of the lungs, and was bedridden for several weeks. On his recovery, his doctors prescribed three months of the year in a hot, dry climate, a suggestion that suited his father, Sir Tatton Sykes, a rich and eccentric Yorkshire baronet, who was accustomed to spending a third of each year travelling abroad, his favourite destination being the lands that made up the Ottoman Empire. In the autumn of 1888 Mark accompanied his father to Egypt, the first of many trips they were to make together over the next ten years…
By the time he was 20, Mark, an only child and heir to the large estate of Sledmere in East Yorkshire, had well and truly caught the bug that infected so many young men who visited that part of the world – a fascination with “the mysterious East”, its peoples, its legends, its sights and smells – and in 1898 he set off on his own trip that was to take him through what we now know as Syria and Iraq. The resulting book, Through Five Turkish Provinces, illustrated with his own photographs, was followed by several others, establishing him as something of an expert in that region of the world, and when in 1911 he was elected to Parliament as the Conservative MP for Hull Central, he made “the Middle East”, as he referred to it in his speeches, his specialist subject. This directly led to him being invited, on the outbreak of war in 1914, to join the staff of the war minister, Lord Kitchener, to work on Middle Eastern affairs, and to his becoming one of the signatories of the controversial Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Mark’s love for the Middle East touched his very soul, and when in 1911 his family home, Sledmere House, an 18th-century mansion built in the Adam style, was destroyed by fire, and the decision taken to rebuild it, he was determined that the new house should in some way reflect his passion. The fire, which had gutted the house, leaving only the outer walls, had burned slowly from the roof down, allowing an extraordinary rescue operation that resulted in 90 per cent of the contents being saved, after being carried out by a human chain and deposited on the front lawn.
These were all to go back into the reconstruction, which was also to contain a room inspired by Mark’s travels. His first idea was for a Turkish room, probably influenced by some of the beautiful Ottoman rooms he had seen on his travels, such as the 18th-century house of the Arzeb family in Hama, Syria, which he described as “a triumph of the combined skill of artists, workmen and architect”…
As the Topkapi prepares to open up parts of the palace long kept hidden, we recall the time Cornucopia was granted rare access to what remains the most secret section of all – the quarters of the Black Agas. These powerful African eunuchs guarded the Harem and controlled the finances of the hugely wealthy Queen Mother. Text by Berrin Torolsan. Photographs by Fritz von der Schulenburg
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