Islamic civilisation has produced artefacts in a multiplicity of forms. These have attracted European collectors across the ages, shines a light on a small but fascinating collection housed at the Blackburn Museum in the north of England
What did some of Britain’s wealthiest Victorian industrialists do with their spare cash? As a recent elegantly curated exhibition at Two Temple Place lavishly illustrated, they invested in objects of art whose rivals are held in the likes of the British Library and Museum. The period of the 19th century was awash with growing collections of art owing to the expansion of European colonies across the globe. Nevertheless, it is the major collections of national museums that receive most of the visitors and scholarly attention to the detriment of smaller collections in the provinces such as the Lancashire museums.
Wealth here derived mostly from the production of cotton which was imported from the Americas, spun into cloth and exported throughout the British colonies. The booming textile industry in Lancashire reached its peak in the 1900s, gradually petering out as cheaper textile industries became increasingly hard to compete with. Lancashire industrialists not only invested in their communities, but along with charity works, they turned to philanthropy and their collections were eventually donated to public institutions that are now housed in the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Townley Hall in Burnley and the Howard Gallery in Accrington.
In a period when travelling was more affordable and therefore more accessible, it was not uncommon in the mid-nineteenth century for expeditions to be organised with the scope of bringing back ‘valuable knowledge in the form of objects’. Indeed, with the rise of western powers and the decline of Muslim lands which were integrated into European colonial empires, acquiring such objects became comparatively easy, especially in the form of booty from wars with the Ottomans. Paradoxically, the mass fabrication of decorative goods and source of wealth that bred the desire for the acquisition of ‘eastern’ objects was decried and the craftsmanship of the Muslim world was extolled as well as expertly sought-after.
In the beginning of the 19th century the study and collection of Islamic art was mostly in the hands of bibliophiles, palaeographers, medievalists, architectural theorists and art historians who were largely concerned with the ‘applied’ arts. Sometimes expeditions were accompanied by experts in oriental languages and trained archaeologists pushing the study of the ‘Orient’ into an academic discipline in its own right.
By the end of that century, the powerhouses of Europe put on a series of ‘universal exhibitions’ in order to show¬case the production of their dominions. Not only were they attended by the general public, but also by collectors and buyers. Such was the case of the Burlington House Exhibition of 1931 which hosted the International Exhibition of Persian Art. Spanning some 25 centuries and every kind of artefact, this event marked a milestone not only for the study of Persian art in the west but for Islamic art in general, for in terms of its Persian miniature paintings alone, a similar collection has been unrivalled.
How Robert Edward Hart (1878-1946) came to collect eastern manuscripts is unclear. His background was in the family rope-making business, which he took over in 1899 having graduated in mechanical engineering at Pembroke College, Cambridge. His love of knowledge is amply reflected in the variety of printed and hand-painted material, both of western and ‘eastern’ books and manuscripts. Far from flaunting his wealth, Hart rode to work on the tram and bequeathed his collection to the Blackburn public library which subsequently became the core of the Blackburn Museum of Art and Gallery. From his formidable collection of some 700 rare books, Hart’s fascination with early prints, particularly first editions, is evident. An ardent bibliophile, Hart’s book collection comprised several languages: German, French and Italian. Some of the earliest printed matter in Europe is well represented: from the Medieval Book of Hours produced in 15th century France to Giulio Ferrario’s volume on costumes in Africa and the Middle East. Hart was clearly fascinated by the evolution of the written word, as evidenced by the ancient Assyrian clay tablets in cuneiform text as well as Sanskrit texts and sacred texts of all three monotheistic religions.
While Thomas Boys Lewis’s impressive collection of a thousand Japanese prints was a relatively popular choice among contemporary collectors, Hart’s inclusion of Islamic manuscripts was
relatively rare. Indeed, by the 1870s, Japanese art had become the object of study and collection of western scholars and collectors, respectively. The work of Hokusai, for instance, was well known to European painters and collectors. It wasn’t until the 1920s and ‘30s, with archaeological expeditions to the Middle East and Iran that Islamic art objects became seriously studied and categorised. Another important factor to be borne in mind is that whereas Lewis had travelled to the Far East and Japan and had therefore selected the objects in situ, Hart’s books and manuscripts were most probably sourced from London dealers. Indeed, he is said to have acquired objects in his collection ‘quietly, even surreptitiously’ in-keeping with his private nature and reclusive lifestyle. Not being a specialist of oriental languages, Hart’s choice of manuscripts is all the more intriguing. The exhibited pieces comprise three copies of Muhammad ibn Sulaian al-Jazuli’s Dala’il al-Khayrat (Guide to happiness), one from 18th century Iran, one dated 1794 and a dated copy (1763) written in Maghrebi script which probably originates from North-West Africa. There are also two sheets from Nizami Gangavi’s Khamsa, from the 18th and 15th centuries. As well as scenes from Layla and Majnun, the Persian and Arabic al-Jazuli prayer books depict the haram in Makkah and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina.
The second exhibition case contains unbound sheets from the Shahnamah (book of Kings) dated around 1590 and possibly from Isfahan. Once again, Hart’s choice falls on the poetic tradi¬tion of Persia. Yet, considering that interest in Persian miniature paintings lagged behind the British predilection for Indian and particularly Mughal art and artefacts, Hart’s choice of manu¬scripts proves pioneering. If, however, the manuscripts in question were purchased after 1931, it is possible that he, too, became fascinated with Persian painting as a result of having visited the exhibition at Burlington House or may have obtained its catalogue.
From Cotton to Gold is the fourth exhibition held at Two Temple Place in London: the Bulldog Trust, which organises the yearly exhibitions, describes its mission to ‘showcase publicly-owned collections from around the UK’. Housed in a fabulous neo-Gothic mansion on the Embankment, a visit to the exhibition affords the chance to visit this ‘hidden gem’. Built by William Waldorf Astor in the 1890s, the wood-panelled rooms featuring extensive carving, stain-glass windows, moulded reliefs and mosaic-laid floor, lend themselves to eclectic exhibitions, particularly from the Victorian age to which the building belongs. For all their beauty and curiosity, the objects on display are dwarfed by their rivals in Britain’s national museums; yet for a brief period they can be appreciated not just for their own worth but in the surroundings of a period house.
The Lancashire collectors had the foresight and generosity to bequeath their collections to museums for the benefit of the public. Thanks to their philanthropic spirit, their collections continue to be appreciated by audiences today.