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The Bequest of a Gentleman

Magdalen College’s collection of Kütahya ceramics

The potters of Kütahya designed their ware to brighten monastic settings. Today these ceramics bring a glow to the old Oxford college of a discerning collector. John Carswell follows in the tracks of their journey from 18th-century Anatolia to English academe. Photographs by Lottie Davies

I first met Lt-Col RHR Brocklebank when he invited me to lunch at his house on the north side of Hyde Park Square. He fitted the image his name suggested, tall and patrician with a military bearing. The lunch was quite formal and very English – I seem to remember roast pheasant with bread sauce, and claret to drink.

Although I was many years his junior, he managed to put me at my ease. He was curious to know why I had contacted him. I told him I had naively embarked on a project to catalogue all the Kütahya pottery in the world. Since the 16th century, Kütahya in northwest Anatolia has been producing pottery to rival that of the more famous Ottoman workshops at Iznik, closer to Istanbul. Kütahya pottery is quite different – distinctive in the diversity of its shapes and brilliant colours – and flourished with the decline of Iznik. It started to be widely collected from the 19th century. My project was to be a pendant to publishing the Kütahya tiles in the Armenian Cathedral of St James in Jerusalem.

These had originally been destined for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as part of a joint venture of the Armenian, Orthodox and Latin churches to restore the building in the early 17th century. As a result of internal discord the project was abandoned and the tiles were dispersed among the refectory, library and various churches of the Armenian Convent, which surprisingly occupies one-sixth of the entire Old City.

Apart from the pictorial tiles, there were decorative tiles of numerous types, of which the largest group (thousands of them) line the walls of the St James complex and all its chapels, its churches of St Theodore, the Holy Saviour and the Holy Archangel, and the refectory. This wholesale refurbishment was linked to the appointment of Yovhannes Vardapet of Bitlis as the new Armenian Patriarch in Istanbul in 1715, who in turn consecrated Grigor Vardapet as the Patriarch in Jerusalem. Grigor left for Istanbul in 1717 to raise money for the impoverished community in Jerusalem. He was so successful that, on his return in 1721, he had enough funds to set about a massive programme of repair and restoration throughout the Convent, to construct the Monastery of the Nativity in Bethlehem and to buy property in Jaffa and Aleppo. In Jerusalem, the work was supervised by Elia, a monk who recorded in the colophon of a manuscript dated 1737, “I plastered to the glory of God and for the reconstruction of this holy see.”

I was interested in the Brocklebank collection primarily because it contained a bowl that appeared to be part of a group of vessels accompanying the tiles to Jerusalem, made simultaneously in Kütahya in 1718/9 for the Cathedral of St James. Brocklebank had also been one of the first scholars to treat Kütahya pottery as a serious field of interest, and had published a seminal article in The Burlington Magazine in 1932. This made references to pieces he himself had collected, so it was not unexpected that during lunch my eyes should wander to the contents of the bookcase lining one wall of the dining room. There was the bowl, and dozens of other pieces including Iznik and Persian Kubachi dishes, Syrian tiles and Indian metalwork.

After lunch we had a closer look, and I discovered that the inscribed bowl with 12 saints in the cavetto (the inside) was in a much more primitive style than those of the 1719 series. I later found it was dated 1764/5, and the earlier colour scheme of blue, turquoise, yellow and red included a new colour, manganese purple, which was consistent with the development of Kütahya pottery in the mid-18th century. I realised that Brocklebank’s collection contained examples of the whole repertoire of Kütahya ware, which included ewers and basins, cups and saucers, coffee cups, large and small dishes, covered bowls, jugs, rose-water flasks, pilgrim flasks, incense burners and holders, bottles, salt cellars, hanging lamps and ovoid ornaments. Perhaps the most amusing are the lemon squeezers, which use a unique interior trap in the faceted boss, an ingenious adaptation of a long tradition of earlier Islamic aquamaniles.

I would later find it was not the only private collection of Kütahya pottery; there were similar ones in Wimbledon, Alexandria, Athens, Istanbul and the United States. As I began to document the other collections around the world, the general pattern of the industry’s evolution began to emerge. As for the painted decoration, the potters drew on many different sources – textiles, Chinese porcelain and celadon, Islamic pottery and even Japanese Kakiemon enamelled ware. Once dismissed as charming peasant pottery, compared with the splendour of Iznik, on closer inspection it is more sophisticated than would at first appear.

What became of the Brocklebank collection after his death? He was a wealthy man – a millionaire – and left it all to Magdalen, his Oxford college. This included his “Turkish and Persian pottery with the Queen Anne oak case in which they stand, Italian majolica and Staffordshire pottery and bronzes, and all the catalogues, books and sale lists that belong and pertain to them”, an Augustus John portrait of his son, chairs and other furniture, to make “the nucleus of an art collection” for his old college. The Kütahya is now displayed in vitrines set in the walls of the dining room of the President’s Lodgings at Magdalen, and his collection of Italian and Flemish paintings and other works of art is in a gallery dedicated to its benefactor.

But what is most interesting are the personal papers that form part of the bequest and the light they shed on his background and tastes. They begin with his life as a schoolboy at Eton and his photograph of June 3, 1899, of the rowing crew who have just taken part in the Bumps; they are all waving flowered boaters, and everyone is methodically identified.

There is a leather-bound book entitled The Collections with the initials R.H.R.B. (for Richard Hugh Royds Brocklebank) inset on the cover. Inside, he notes that it was begun in 1881 by his uncle Ralph, who had 105 pieces acquired from the Huth, Quailes, Zachilie, Eldem, Hakki Bey and FW Myers collections, some of which were exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1885. During the war, when RHRB was in Cairo he bought two hanging ornaments. In 1931 he saw Antony Benaki’s collection in Alexandria, and in 1935 the Benaki Museum in Athens. This is followed by a typewritten list of his Majolica, Pottery and Porcelain, a reference to an article on “Les faïences turques” by Tahsin Chukru in Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society of 1933–34, which he annotated with the words “I know of no text book or guide giving such a description”, and a purchase of items from the dealer Sassoon in 1920, which he bargained down to thirty-seven pounds, as well as other details of his buying and selling activities. It also contains notes on the evaluations I had made and a little booklet made to identify the Kütahya pieces.

On a more intimate level, there is a diary of an affair with a girl in service, and a nightmare about foxhunting: “Oh dear not a wink of sleep all night the fox and hounds ran over my bed and across my chest.” This dovetails neatly with an incident on a later visit that I made with Charles Dowsett, professor of Armenian at Oxford, to read the Armenian inscription on Brocklebank’s Kütahya bowl. Somehow the topic of foxhunting came up and Charles made an unfortunate reference to Oscar Wilde’s quip about “the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”. He was not invited again.

Other records include details of Brocklebank’s marriage to Charlotte Carissima Broddeburg, née Blood, and the birth certificate of his son John, born on June 6, 1921. He also notes the death of his wife in 1949, and her bequest of a necklace and a cross of Bourg-en-Bresse enamel to the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is a packet of photos of Venice, and newspaper cuttings, all financial, about stocks.

There, too, is a book by Lt-Col Hugh Brocklebank, DSO, A Turn or Two I’ll Walk to Still My Beating Mind: Commentary on a private collection (privately printed by Cresset Press, 1955), about painters in the family collection, and an attached letter to Tom Boase, director of the Courtauld Institute. Finally, a document dated February 12, 1975, is an inventory of the gift made by his daughter Lady Rayleigh of RHRB’s chattels to Magdalen in memory of his son John. In conjunction with the Brocklebank collection of works of art, the papers give an interesting oblique glimpse of the tastes and times of a courteous, cultivated man.

Cornucopia would like to thank Prof David Clary, President of Magdalen, and Mrs Clary for assistance in the preparation of this article. The photographs were taken courtesy of the Brocklebank Bequest, Magdalen College, Oxford.

John Carswell’s original study The Kütahya Tiles and Pottery in the Armenian Cathedral of St James in Jerusalem was published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford in 1972, and was one of the last books designed by the famous typographer Vivian Ridler, Printer to the University, for which he used the 17th-century Armenian font belonging to Oxford University. The book was republished by the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia in 2005. John Carswell has also been asked to publish the Edmund de Unger collection, recently bequeathed to the Islamic Museum in Berlin.

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