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The Persian Carpet in the West

March 22, 2011

Persian carpets have appealed to Western tastes for centuries, C. E. C. Tattersall, writing in 1934 accounted for their unfaltering appeal by suggesting that “this adherence to a tradition that only gradually changed is the keynote of Oriental craftsmanship.” (A History of British Carpets, pg. 33) The carpet holds a unique place in the domestic life of the Orient. It is utilized as more than a mere floor covering, for it may replace a great variety of articles such as tables, chairs, beds, pictures, to name a few.

Throughout the Middle Ages, western Europe was receiving imports of silks and textiles from Asia via the silk route, it is certainly likely that carpets were a part of this trade. During the time of the Crusades, Western soldiers would have become acquainted with the art of Byzantium and presumably brought back carpets as well other decorative works with them from the East.

Designs were slow to change, but as the centuries progressed, different styles of carpets can be ascertained. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the octagon style was popular. The octagon style consisted of repeating geometrical patterns of octagons containing birds or animals, derived from ancient Byzantine models. In the Templeton archive, there exist some 1910 sketches of ‘The Salting Carpet‘ contained in the V&A museum. This carpet in done in a sixteenth-century style, and was mistakenly attributed as such, it wasn’t until later that it was re-catalogued, controversially, as Turkish, nineteenth-century.


The Salting Carpet
: The flowers, figures of animals and geometric shapes all point to the carpet being of sixteenth century origin, or at least being inspired by it.

Although Europeans generally felt a certain horror towards the ‘savages’ of the East, they were fascinated by their artwork. In the mid-sixteenth century, arabesque or Moresque ornament was the height of fashion and examples of it can be seen in the decorative arts of Europe. No eastern carpets survive from before this period in the West. Persian carpets were arriving in Europe in considerable numbers from the second half of the sixteenth century and possibly earlier. They were valued at much higher rates than Turkish carpets, perhaps due to the quality of materials and level of craftsmanship.

European aristocracy are known to have commissioned bespoke carpets from the East, carpet designs appear not to have been modified for European tastes, except where a coat of arms was included for a custom order. Virtually all Oriental carpets at this time appear to be designed for local markets, and it appears that merchants were content to sell these stock designs, and presumably, European consumers were just as content to buy them.

The Oriental carpet as a status symbol can be deduced in paintings from the fifteenth century onward. Italian paintings of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries feature carpets that indicate to us their function then. Large carpets are used on the floor for special occasions such as weddings or can be seen on the floor in scenes of the Annunciation. (For example:   Domenico Ghirlandaio, Madonna and Child enthroned with Saints, 1483). It seems that on public occasions the use of a carpet reflected the dignity and authority of whoever might have it before them on a table, or even more so, at their feet. Such usage conferred dignity and honour and so was not to be lightly assumed by those not entitled to it. Other paintings reflect this preoccupation, such as The Somerset House Conference  (1604), in which the carpet as a status symbol is continued as a theme. Carpets also feature heavily in aristocratic portraiture, in the first two decades of the seventeenth century, carpets become an indispensable feature of the standing portrait. King James I is several times shown standing on one, often of floral design and therefore probably Persian in origin.

It has been pointed out by some early twentieth-century commentators (Creassey Tattersall and Arthur Upham Pope), that the aesthetic qualities of the Oriental carpet outweigh the materialistic. The consensus seems to be that the practicalities and decorative qualities of the carpet were more important to their makers and designers than any overarching symbolic purpose. As Tattersall, head of the Textiles branch at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the author of A History of British Carpets (1934) emphasised:

            “It would be a mistake to suppose, because so much has been said about the utilitarian aspect of carpets and about the practical details of their production, that there is not another very important point of view.” (A History of British Carpets, pg. 33)

Strong colours and patterns may have been favoured over lighter and more delicate patterns in the Persian (and Oriental) carpet tradition for reasons of practicality (carpets getting soiled from use), but the decoration was the priority. The 1931 Persian Exhibition reflects this Western attitude to Persian forms and artwork. The planners of the Persian Exhibition deliberately avoided an intellectual approach to their material, lest it distract from the ‘pure form’ of the decorative material on show.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries marked the height of carpet trade between the East and West. Medallion designs dominated carpet making in Persia in the sixteenth century. The designs of this period were not geometrical but ‘free, flowing and floral’. Such carpets were produced in an edition of one, or sometimes in a matched pair, as was the case with the Ardabil carpet, which is one of the most outstanding examples of this period of carpet manufacture still surviving, it is carefully displayed in the V&A museum. The Chelsea carpet, also held in the V&A, is not as finely designed as the Ardabil, it was made for a secular setting, whereas the Ardabil was designed for a religious shrine. Before taking their current position in the V&A, both carpets were purchased from Iran by either carpet manufacturers or private collectors. Templeton’s made copies of both of these significant examples of Persian carpets. Persian carpet production of the sixteenth century, under the Safavid dynasty, was mostly aimed toward the upper end of the market. The Persian carpet industry produced luxurious carpets made of silk, embroidered with gold and silver, designed by court artists. The Ardabil carpet is the most famous example of the medallion carpets of the sixteenth-century.

Templeton copy of the Ardabil Carpet (20th century)


Templeton copy of the Chelsea carpet (20th century)

Quite apart from the machine made carpets of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, a large number of wealthy patrons also collected carpets, and loaned them to the V&A, or displayed them in their homes. Some of these names include the Duke of Buccleuch, Tattersall and George Salting. This fascination with the ‘authentic’ Orient flourished, especially in the late nineteenth century, with the popularity of the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movement. The Chelsea carpet (c1500-1550) is so named because it was purchased from a dealer based in Chelsea, London. Continuing into the twentieth century, carpet manufacturers like Templeton’s took inspiration from these public and private displays of carpets. Designers were sent on behalf of the company to copy the designs, which were sometimes drawn to scale, especially if a design was to enter production. In this age of ‘conspicuous expenditure’, where the home was utilized both for public and private life, Britain’s rising middle-class consumers wanted to present themselves as possessing an informed and educated taste. Persian carpets’ centuries’ old associations with luxury and aristocracy communicated a very clear message about status and position.

Stoddard-Templeton archive: Marked ‘London Material’ – From the later sixteenth century onwards medallions were featured less in carpet designs in favour of all over designs with flowers and large palmettes, sometimes with animals. This carpet has no museum (V&A or otherwise) catalogue number which suggests it may have been a copy of a carpet held in a private residence.

By the 1930s London was in the grip of a ‘Persian Cult’, dubbed as such by the satirical magazine Punch. The 1931 Exhibition of Persian Art in Burlington House, London was perhaps the climax of this Persian fever in Britain. More than two thousand works of Persian art were on display, with an estimated value of over ten million dollars. It was hoped by some observers that this concentration of Persian Art might serve to revive England’s flagging Arts and Crafts industry. It certainly provided scope for Britain’s carpet manufactories, as some design sketches from this period in the Templeton archive prove.

Persian carpets continued to enjoy bursts of popularity throughout the twentieth century. They seem to be consistently appropriated as traditional symbols of wealth and luxury, even if their modern, industrial circumstances of manufacture couldn’t be further distanced from its original roots. They are a feature of office floors and civic spaces all around the world, world-class museums like the V&A house historic examples of carpets that still attract as many visitors and admirers as they did a century and beyond ago. Why is their appeal so enduring? Their vibrant colouring and vigorous design make a bold and powerful aesthetic statement. From their first arrival into Western Europe they have always maintained those associations with rarity and luxury. They retain links with power, privilege and masculinity. Into the twenty-first century they are still used to decorate secular institutions such as offices and hotels, even in modern domestic interiors, where their vibrant forms contrast well with contemporary design. In a domestic setting, they take on a more intimate meaning, conjuring up romantic links with the exotic, suggesting a bohemian lifestyle. These are some of the reasons perhaps for their enduring popularity today.

Zoë Coleman

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