Rapt in Silk: the backstory


The long-sleeved kaftan (top) appears as a detail on the cover of Cornucopia 23. It is preserved in the Topkapı Palace, but rarely on view.

The kaftan, with its large pomegranate motifs, dates from the second half of the 16th century and also appears as a detail – but not in its entirity, with its ceremonial long sleeves – in the pages of ‘Ipek: Crescent and Rose’, a magnificent book by Nurhan Atasoy, Walter B Denny, Louise W Mackie and Hülya Tezcan. This magnificently illustrated, scholarly work suggests that this was the exquisite seraser fabric with gilt-metal ground that dazzled the Englishman Thomas Dallam, who, when he delivered an organ as a gift to the sultan on behalf of Elizabeth I, describes how the sultan and his court were attired in ‘clothe of goude’.

The book was the second of a pair of scholarly tomes, sponsored by the Turkish bank TEB. It was intended, like Iznik, a decade earlier, to end up as a magnificent exhibition at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. Alas, TEB’s patience seems to have run out and this never happened, although an excellent kaftan show did eventually open at the Sackler in Washington DC in 2005 (the cover story of Cornucopia 34), and kaftans would provide a crescendo to the Turks exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Much of the research into Ottoman silk collections outside Turkey would also emerge in Nurhan Atasoy’s book Impressions of Ottoman Culture in Europe.

It could also be argued that these two projects paved the way for the creation of the flourishing Sakıp Sabancı Museum (directed by Nazan Ölçer, former curator of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, who also pulled off the magnificent Turks exhibition in London), and the Pera Museum. Julian Raby who edited the book with Alison Effeny, is now the Dame Jillian Sackler Director of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Tim Stanley, a regular contributor to Cornucopia, who also had a hand in the book at Azimuth, the London art book publishing house that published it, is senior curator of the Islamic and Middle East collection at the V&A. Hülya Tezcan later wrote a fine book on children’s costumes in the Topkapı Palace, sadly also out of print.

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