In the nineteenth century, British artists and designers adopted the art of the Islamic Middle East, taking principles they perceived to be ‘creditable’ and applying them to a Western context. However, in doing this, principles of form and technique, often based on assumptions, were decontextualized and manipulated. This can be seen in the work of Arts and Crafts designer William de Morgan, whose I will explore in this article. De Morgan’s designs, seemingly, drew from a web of Middle Eastern sources he believed to be ‘Persian’. It is important to extract, that although not all Islamic art is concerned with religion, whether made for a household, shrine or tomb, religion does play a dominant role in the culture. Therefore, taken out of that context, into a Christian Britain it is seemingly displaced by a western perception. Arguably, it is this western perception, that also feeds into the term Orientalism, the meaning of which has both connotations of nineteenth-century fashion and a Eurocentric power construct – the two go hand in hand.
De Morgan was particularly interested in the formal qualities of Islamic Middle Eastern tiles, which he assimilated into his own, purposing for the decoration of the Victorian interior. This can be seen in figure 1, a tile panel by De Morgan, composed of a long-necked deep blue bottle filled with what he describes as ‘Persian’ floral motifs. The appearance of this tile panel, however, is more similar to Syrian tiles, which had combined an Iznik floral repertoire with a ‘Damascus palette’ (sage green, turquoise and manganese purple). Perhaps, an explanation for De Morgan’s confusion could arise upon looking at Owen Jones’ popular book The Grammar of Ornament, which advocated taking certain elements of ‘Oriental Practice’. Jones argues that ‘Persian Ornament’ had ‘groups of natural flowers [that] are constantly found growing from a vase and enclosed in panels of conventional Arabian ornament’, notably similar to De Morgan’s design.
Despite having a misguided perception of Middle Eastern taxonomies, Jones had a profound influence on British design, and seemingly De Morgan. By reproducing these Islamic motifs, however, they become removed from their cultural reality and instead are re-presented as British commodity. De Morgan’s tiles were part of a wider demand for ‘fashionable orientalism’, that had become prevalent in British taste. Fredrick Leighton’s Arab Hall (figure 2) epitomises this fashion, by employing genuine Islamic tiles – either collected by Leighton on his travels across the Middle East with acquired those he had acquired from others- with replicates by De Morgan. In doing this, the panels create an exotic environment, comparable to the ‘grandest of palaces described in Arabian Nights’. This, however, was less based on reality, rather, a romanticised perception of the Middle East that had been constructed by tales from popular literature and travel.
De Morgan’s tiles were part of a wider demand for ‘fashionable orientalism’, that had become prevalent in British taste. Fredrick Leighton’s Arab Hall (figure 2) epitomises this fashion, by employing genuine Islamic tiles – either collected by Leighton on his travels across the Middle East with acquired those he had acquired from others- with replicates by De Morgan. In doing this, the panels create an exotic environment, comparable to the ‘grandest of palaces described in Arabian Nights’. This, however, was less based on reality, rather, a romanticised perception of the Middle East that had been constructed by tales from popular literature and travel.
Through Leighton’s interest in creating a so called ‘Arabian’, space he appropriates the arts of the Islamic Middle East and De Morgan helps to do so. If you look closely at the image of the Arab Hall, you may see a tile very similar to figure 3. Tiles like this, De Morgan used in conjunction with tiles that Leighton had acquired from the Middle East through agents such as Richard Burton. In a letter to Leighton, Burton stated that tiles had been ‘taken from the tomb (Moslem) of Sakhar’. In this letter, it is clear, quite how different the contexts are, tiles taken from religious tomb monuments now used to display the frivolity and wealth of a 19th century British aristocrat. Forced into a new British home context the complete tile panels are manipulated made to ‘perform for us’, as part of an oriental experience. This is articulated by Edward Said:
‘Orientalism is premised upon exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar, makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient renders its mysteries plane for and to the West.’
Despite addressing the ‘Poet or Scholar’, the designers of Leighton’s Arab Hall can also be encompassed, as the effect of the replicated and decontextualized tiles create ‘a highly artificial enactment of what a non-Oriental has made into a symbol for the whole Orient’.
Al-Azmeh, A. ‘Islamic Studies and the European Imagination’, in Islams and Modernities, (London: Verso, 1993).
Said, E. Orientalism, (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
Graves, M. ‘Uncomfortable in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of Art Historiography, 6 (2012).
Barrington, R. The Life, Letters and Work of Frederic Leighton. Volume II (New York: Wallachia Publishers, 2015), p. 141.
M. Droth, ‘Leighton’s House: Art In and Beyond the Studio’, Journal of Design History, 24 (2011).
D. Vanoli, ‘The Arab Hall, Leighton House Museum Restoration and Conservation works 2008—10’, Journal of Architectural Conservation, 18 (2012).
R. Pinkham, Catalogue of Pottery by William De Morgan (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973).
O. Jones, Grammar of Ornament, (London: Day and Son, 1856).
M. Carey, Persian Art: Collecting the arts of Iran for the V&A (London: V&A Publishing, 2017).Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in