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Connoisseur 29

A small and perfectly formed exhibition of Iznik pottery held in Qatar has given birth to a fittingly exquisite catalogue

  • Sage-green saz leaves with curving stems of blue hyacinth on a superbly painted Iznik dish from around 1550 (Museum of Islamic Art, Doha)
  • Scalloped Iznik tile, c1565: When Iznik tiles moved beyond the court and started to be used to decorate mosques, in the second half of the sixteenth century, strong colours were needed to make a visual impact in large spaces and to contrast with the austere grey stone. This scalloped tile – similar to ones in the 1559 [Mosque of Rüstem Pasha]( in Istanbul – bears the name of the Prophet Muhammed in thuluth script. Touches of the new sealing-wax red (from lead oxide) contrast with the dramatic expanses of intense blue. White is used here, not as the customary ground, but for the masterly calligraphy. Dramatic colours became the hallmark of the reign of Selim II (1566–74).
  • Iznik tile, c1575: By the time this tile was made, Iznik potters had developed full mastery of colour. Shades of viridian green join shades of cobalt, turquoise and strong red. The design, of arabesque saz leaves, peonies and spiral stems, is also outstanding – naturalistic yet stylised, graceful, dynamic and beautifully balanced

Iznik today is a peaceful backwater a hundred miles south of the seething metropolis of Istanbul. It stands enclosed by fifth-century Byzantine walls and surrounded by peach and olive groves – quietly prosperous in a rural sort of way. You would never know that for two centuries it produced the finest pottery in the history of Islamic art. A collection of Iznik objects built up in the last decade will be housed in Qatar’s new Museum of Islamic Art.

A taste of what will be on permanent view was provided in March by a dramatic exhibition in Qatar’s capital, Doha. With just thirty-four pieces, it spanned the entire two centuries of Iznik’s history from 1480 and the wealth of sources that inspired it. The catalogue to this collection, by John Carswell, brilliantly captures the rich colours, lustrous glazes and confident designs that make Iznik ceramics unique. In this article we highlight five of the exhibits, and Godfrey Goodwin, doyen of Ottoman art historians, offers a personal appraisal of the exceptional catalogue.


Thanks to John Carswell, a catalogue of an exhibition of some thirty Iznik objects is transformed into a major text. This book is a work of art in its own right, from its loose cover onwards. And if thetext at times spreads across wide pages, the journey is one of grace. Carswell’s text is a deceptively easy journey for the mind. Its visual sensitivity is illuminating even to someone who has enjoyed Iznik for more than fifty years.

The quality of this royal collection from Qatar is indisputable. There is no equal to the vigour of the wrestling tulips obeying elementary forces as they forge their ways in opposite directions. And one can only be pleased to meet animals such as leaping foxes which seem as though they could be stroked. Carswell makes the point that this collection appeals to the senses and the intellect alike. John Carswell asked Misha Anikst to design the book, which was an inspiration. I well recall the thrill – there can be no other word and it ceases to be vulgar – I experienced when I had the opportunity of visiting Anikst’s printing workshop in Moscow at the time of the Chernobyl disaster. Here was creative work which defied the insolence of a dictatorial regime.

One must praise the quality of the illustrations in this book, which are all-important because they expose every detail of the colouring and above all the shadows created by, say, the overlap from leaves into the background. Carswell rightly determined that the photographs, by Richard Valencia, should dominate the book. One is forced to look again at pieces which one thought one knew. And Valencia’s work supports Carswell’s insight and experience in more ways than by shadows. The element of chance is the life force which differentiates pottery from porcelain. At Worcester or Sèvres this visual energy might be called smudging. It is nothing of the sort. It is the vitality of the potter’s hands, and its power could not be plainer to see. It transcends the dictates of the palace design studios, and the rules that caged the artist’s creativity.

Our appreciation is greatly enhanced by Julian Henderson’s probing pages on the technological details essential to our appreciation of Iznik masterpieces, especially his analysis of the glazes used. Kânuni Süleyman – Süleyman the Magnificent – gave up the use of gold and silver plates in favour of Iznik as a sign of mourning when his wife Haseki Hürrem died. Among those at the palace who used Iznik plates were the halberdiers, whose barracks were next to the harem’s carriage door. They were very careless in their washing up. Forty years ago, when the major restoration of the palace began, work was held up by the main drain. It was clogged with bits and pieces of Iznik which had been used to cover tables in the sultan’s private kitchen. Try as I might, I could not get two pieces to match, hundreds though there were.

Godfrey Goodwin

To read the full article, purchase Issue 29

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Issue 29, 2003 Ottoman Gardens
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