The Collection of Islamic Ceramics at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford

Following the devastating destruction to The Great Mosque of Aleppo and the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo, Cleo Cantone believes an attempt should be made to highlight the importance of collections of Islamic art, not just for their aesthetic merits but for the heritage they represent

As horror rages through the Middle East, my heart sinks when I read about the destruction of monuments that have stood the test of time for centuries until now: The Great Mosques of Aleppo and Damascus come top of the list. Just a few weeks ago, it was the turn of the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo. It appears that although most of the glass pieces shattered, much of the ceramics survived. What follows is an attempt to highlight the importance of collections of Islamic art not just for their aesthetic merits but for the heritage they represent. These techniques were perfected by Muslim craftsmen and have not been reproduced ever since. They are invaluable tools for students of Islamic art and their safekeeping in museums around the world makes them accessible to the wider public. Officially reopened in December 2009, the Ashmolean’s history spans nearly four centuries. Originally intended to house the collection of natural curiosities of Elias Ashmole, who spent a derisory £467 for its construction in comparison to the recent £66 million cost of renovating it, today the museum showcases a fraction of its actual holdings. I went along to explore the Ashmolean’s newly displayed Islamic collection now housed in the Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud Gallery. The splendid new Islamic Middle East gallery, situated on part of the first floor, comprises mostly ceramics, but also metalwork, glass, textiles, carpets and manuscripts. Donated by individuals in the late 19th century, these objects reflect the tastes of the period and the interests of collectors, in particular Gerald Reitlinger (1900-1978). The objects in Reitlinger’s collection used to be kept in his Sussex house in a room called ‘the Museum.’ Like Frederick Leighton, Reitlinger obtained items for his collection on his travels to the Middle East as well as China. Reitlinger also took part in archaeological excavations with the University of Oxford in the early 1930s. As his collection grew, he started writing on the subject and he developed an interest in Chinese and Japanese ceramics as well as European wares with eastern influence. As he expressed before he died, his collection was donated to the Ashmolean and the pieces were displayed in what was then the Reitlinger gallery – a dimly lit, small space tucked away at the back of the museum. The present renovated gallery maximises the high ceiling by displaying the objects in tall glass cases which makes it slightly tricky to view objects in the upper shelves (image1). Accessing the gallery from the stairs, the visitor passes through a vestibule dedicated to Asian Crossroads – Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time. To guide the visitor, a timeline and a touchscreen information pad are located in this area. Arab navigators had established maritime trade routes by the 9th century, linking Arabia with western Asia and China by sea rather than by the well-known Silk Road. A pertinent quote by Ahmad ibn Majid writing in the 15th century reminds us: “Know, oh seeker, that every man knows his own coast best…but the sea is not peculiar to each region and when you are out of sight of the coasts, you have only your knowledge of the stars and guides to rely on.” My interest in the East-West connection draws me to a selection of pieces that reflect the connection between the Middle East, Iran and China. Indeed, export wares have been produced for centuries and the Islamic world is no exception in this trade. Since the first centuries of Islam, monochrome glazed wares have been used to contain export goods and fragments of these have been found from East Africa to the Far East following the aforementioned maritime trade routes. The 9th century saw a revolution in the technical development of glazed ware in the Middle East. Inspired by the high-fired white ware from China that reached the region, local potters started to experiment with new glazing techniques which included new possibilities in decoration. It was Iraqi potters who developed lustre painting, a technique that was already being used on glass but its use in ceramics proved revolutionary: by firing the wares twice, the painted decoration acquired an unprecedented metallic sheen. Thenceforth, potters experimented with a varied palette and decorative schemes became increasingly figurative. By the following century, opaque white wares with painted decoration were being made from North Africa to Central Asia. In the 14th century, there was another injection of wares from China, this time celadon, a type of greenware, which again influenced Islamic potters. What proved far more influential in the Muslim world however were the famous wares from the Jingdezhen kilns in China with their characteristic cobalt and white colour scheme. These so-called blue-and-white wares were widely copied, especially in Iran and Central Asia but also in Turkey. Often even patterns and shapes were Chinese-inspired, such as the Turkish Dish with Grapes, ca. 1530 (image 2) and the dish from Iran with its distinctive Chinese dragon (image 3). From the late 16th century under and over glaze wares were produced in Iran, incorporating vegetal and figurative motifs in various coloured slips. Known as ‘Kubachi ware’, a particular kind of polychrome ware emerged in north-western Iran in around the second half of the 16th century. In the late 17th – early 18th centuries a type of translucent white pottery came into vogue. It was known as Gombroon ware after the name of the port on the southern coast of Iran. A particularly striking example is a ceramic bottle that resembles pilgrim flasks from the same period (image 4). A similar vessel is found in the Chinese gallery on the second floor. This blue-and-white moon flask or bianhu was made during the Ming dynasty in the first quarter of the 15th century in the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. Potters in the Muslim world were not able to produce successful copies of this type of china until they developed the technique of fritware. Made with quartz, this stone paste allowed craftsmen to make thin-walled vessels which were covered with a transparent glaze and incised decoration. Thus fritware made its way from Egypt to Syria and Iran. The dish from Iran (image 5) is a beautiful example of fritware with incised decoration depicting two birds against a floral background with lotus flower outlines. I sincerely hope that the damaged objects at the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo will be restored and that, just as pieces of ceramic can be stuck back together, so will hearts be healed and find mutual reconciliation. •


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