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Carpet Clues

An Egyptian rubbish heap reveals its buried treasure, mysterious birds deceive the eye, and Chinese clouds have silver linings. Philippa Scott continues her guide to the world of rug collecting

  • Carpet fragment from Fostat, Egypt. Akin to a primitive velvet in construction it fetched £15,000 at Bonhams in 1999

What did the earliest mediaeval carpets look like? A clue came to light in the spring sales, in the shape of two palm-sized fragments found on the rubbish heaps of Fostat, outside Cairo – not the first time these ancient dumping grounds have proved a valuable source of information on the early history of textiles. The fragment shown above, measuring only 14cm by 13cm, fetched £15,000 at Bonhams.

With bright floral motifs within a diaper format, this was one of several types of carpet being produced in Islamic Egypt around the eighth and ninth centuries. The yarn is looped through the warp and weft rather than knotted, as in a primitive velvet.

Know your knots
For several centuries now, most carpets have been woven with either the Persian (or Senneh) knot, or the Turkish (or Ghiordes) knot. The warps run from the top of the loom’s frame to the bottom; these are the threads that will form the fringe. Knots are twisted round the warp threads, and in the Turkish method both ends come forward between two strands. At least one pass of the horizontal weft secures each row of knots. This knotting method is very old, and was used in the fifth-century Pazaryk carpet in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, found in a frozen Siberian tomb. Once woven, the carpet is sheared to an even surface.

Confusingly, not all Turkish carpets have Turkish knots; the comparatively recent urban workshops of Hereke, Kayseri and Bandırma sometimes use the asymmetrical Persian knot. The best way to learn to identify knots is to examine as many fairly loosely woven rugs as possible, including those with areas of wear. A magnifying glass or jeweller’s loup is helpful. Raise the pile in rows, and check against a clearly drawn diagram in any good carpet book – no good diagrams, no-good book! With practice it will become clear that the yarn in the symmetrical Turkish knot comes straight forward between two warps, while thread tied in the asymmetrical Persian knot has a clear preference for one side. Turkish carpets made in the 18th century or earlier will almost certainly have Turkish knots.

Talking Turkeywork
The green-ground fragment in Christie’s April sale, with its distinctive Ushak “bird” pattern, is thought to be late-16th-century English. The first rugs brought to Europe from Turkey were rare, desirable and very expensive – more likely to be displayed draped carefully over a table than covering a floor. Prices were high, even for wealthy connoisseurs, and commissioning a copy was an attractive alternative. These carpets, none of them actually made in Turkey though they used the Turkish knot, came to be known as Turkeywork.

English Turkeywork was used extensively for upholstery. Usually the structure is dense and tight, whereas the Christie’s fragment has the flexibility of the Turkish original, though the colours and the quality of the wool are typically English and quite different from hand-knotted German carpets of the period. No French hand-knotted pile carpets are known to survive from this time.

Mystery bird patterns
Q: When is a bird not a bird?
A: When it’s a Bird Ushak.
Throughout the Ottoman decorative arts, in all media, basic patterns recur, though in wildly varying versions. One such pattern is the “bird” design, seen copied in the Christie’s fragment, which gave its name to the highly valued Bird Ushak carpets.

The Bird rugs from Uşak in western Anatolia form one of several clearly recognisable groups of classical weavings produced mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries. (Another is the Lotto Ushaks, with their red ground and yellow arabesque tracery. See Cornucopia 17.)

There are no green-ground Turkish Bird Ushaks. Unlike Christie’s Turkeywork fragment, one of the striking features of the originals is their ivory ground, the result of using undyed wool. Sotheby’s sold a fine example, dated circa 1600, in the important 1995 Toms Collection sale.

Bird Ushaks may have been the carpets described as weisse Türkische Teppiche in a 1503 account from Kronstadt in Transylvania (today the Romanian city of Brasov). Several Bird Ushaks survive to this day in Protestant churches in Romania, the bequests of wealthy burghers.

Bird Ushaks also appear in European paintings from the mid-16th century to the first half of the 17th. A portrait by Hans Mielich from circa 1557 has one of the earliest depictions. We know from a Hungarian poet, Janos Rimay, who was in Istanbul in 1608 and again in 1620, that bird motifs were commonly in use in Anatolian carpets at the time. He himself bought three Bird Ushaks. But what of the pattern itself? Which poetic spark decided that it resembled four humming birds (natives of America) dipping their beaks into a flower. And when? A somewhat prosaic explanation was unearthed by the historian Halil ‹nalc›k: he cites a 1640 price list that includes “bathhouse” rugs with a design of “crows”.

Alas, we must set aside the appealing notion that the pattern is a fantasia of birds of any kind and look again. The first clue as to its true origin comes from the four stylised, curving leaves on the Iznik tiles in the 16th-century türbe of Süleyman the Magnificent in Istanbul (above right). This pattern is derived from two earlier sources: its floral elements are borrowed from the ubiquitous Chinese blossom-with-leaves motif, while its geometrical shape is based on the swastika, an ancient Eastern solar symbol.

The bird in Ushak rugs is an abstract form of the same motif ­– leaves in swastika format attached to a central rosette. Textiles, wood carving and ceramics all use variations of the floral swastika, proof of the power of invention within restrictions.

The Bird Ushak carpet in the Toms Collection uses another pattern important in Turkish carpets: the undulating cloudband, which also derived from a Chinese motif. Fashionable in the Islamic courts of the 15th and 16th centuries, it appeared in Timurid, Persian and Ottoman ceramics, paintings and textiles. In Turkey cloudbands were initially used in isolation or in groups, rather than as a continuous pattern. Perhaps the earliest example is on a gilded tile in the Çinili Kiosk, built by Mehmet the Conqueror in the grounds of the Topkapı in 1472. Beautifully drawn individual cloudbands also occur on early Iznik ceramics. Later came continuous borders, like that above, where the cloudband appears in an unbroken, symmetrical pattern on a vine, with large rosettes and small blossoms.

Once again, the pattern appears in European paintings: probably the earliest is The Annunciation by Jacob Claesz van Utrecht, which has been dated to 1532. This is surpisingly early: most Anatolian carpets of the period are characterised by angular, geometric motifs. This particular cloudband suggests that it was adapted from a more sophisticated curvilinear rendering, probably from Istanbul’s court ateliers.

Cloudbands reappear centuries later in breathtaking Koum Kapi rugs. The master weavers of the eponymous district of Istanbul were so skilled that they could weave embossed rose petals in eight or nine shades of metallic thread. Two rugs woven by Zareh Penjamin in about 1900 were sold by Christie’s in April. The example depicted has a central cartouche with one of several signatures used by Penjamin. Christie’s sold another Koum Kapi – a prayer rug, again with cloudbands – for £70,000. Made in Istanbul circa 1910, it is woven in silk and metal thread, an exact copy, but finer, of a 16th-century Safavid rug in the Topkapı.

Caveat emptor
Not all Ushaks are the real thing. A legendary Romanian weaver called Tuduk set up at the turn of the century, making rugs in the styles of the great Turkish weaving centres. Bird rugs were a speciality. A pumice-stoned pile would give the illusion of centuries of wear, enabling a Tuduk to lie harmoniously next to 16th- or 17th-century Ushaks. A Tuduk combining design elements from Persia to Spain, with an ivory field but no birds, made just £1,800 at Christie’s in 1998. Museums mistaking Tuduks for Ushaks have paid far more.

Price guide:
A Turkeywork seat cover, England, mid-17th-century, est. £200–£400, sold at Christie’s London for £1,265 in the Mayorcas Sale, February 12, 1999 (see Connoisseur, Cornucopia 17)
In April 1999 a Lotto Ushak made £166,500 at Christie’s.
The Bird Ushak illustrated on page 32 sold for £32,200 at Sotheby’s London in 1995.

Order Cornucopia 18 for the fully illustrated feature.
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