GROUND BE­NEATH YOUR FEET

De­mys­ti­fy­ing the ex­oti­cism and lux­ury of car­pets

India Today - - CONTENTS - Wil­liam Robin­son is the In­ter­na­tional Head of car­pets, Is­lamic and In­dian Art at Christie’s Lon­don and Lucinda Wil­lan is a ju­nior specialist, Car­pets at Christie’s, Lon­don

AN­TIQUE

Bang went the gavel: “Sold, £4,200,000”; the Van­der­bilt Mughal Star Lat­tice car­pet made a record price for an In­dian car­pet, tripling its low es­ti­mate and beat­ing the pre­vi­ous record by many mil­lion pounds. Wo­ven as a spe­cial com­mis­sion for a mem­ber of the late 17th century Mughal court, it is one of the most sublime clas­si­cal car­pets still in ex­is­tence. Piled en­tirely in ul­tra-fine pash­mina wool, it is also the ul­ti­mate lux­ury car­pet.

Early writ­ten ac­counts as­so­ciate car­pets with ex­tra­or­di­nary lux­ury and ex­oti­cism, equally prized in East­ern and Western cul­tures. It is not sur­pris­ing that they have been im­bued with mys­ti­cal and mag­i­cal qual­i­ties in lit­er­a­ture, from Prince Hu­sain’s magic car­pet in One Thou­sand and One

Nights to Solomon’s fly­ing car­pet of green silk and gold. The im­por­tance of car­pets as sta­tus sym­bols can be seen in paint­ings of Re­nais­sance Europe, Safavid Per­sia and Mughal In­dia alike where great rulers and even the Vir­gin Mary and Christ are de­picted on ori­en­tal car­pets.

Buy­ing a car­pet is of­ten a daunt­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. There is a wide range of pro­duc­tion qual­ity and tra­di­tions from Turkey to China. So make sure you buy from a trusted source such as a rep­utable dealer or an auc­tion house. The first con­sid­er­a­tion: fig­ure out what type of car­pet ap­peals to you. Car­pets can be di­vided into four broad cat­e­gories: tribal, vil­lage, work­shop and court pro­duc­tion.

Tribal weav­ings, such as the Beshir prayer rug, were wo­ven for per­sonal use rather than sale. Pat­terns are in­her­ited, of­ten laden with sym­bol­ism. They rely on a sim­ple de­sign lan­guage; it is their use of space, pro­por­tion and colour that ac­tu­ally lend drama.

Vil­lage weav­ings are sim­i­lar to tribal ex­am­ples but were of­ten made specif­i­cally for sale. They have strong pri­mary colours and bold de­signs, as seen in the Hale­vim Star Kazak rug. There is a tribal qual­ity to their de­signs but, be­cause they are made with an eye on the mar­ket, there is an el­e­ment of fash­ion in­volved, an adap­ta­tion of de­signs.

Work­shop car­pets are char­ac­terised by their re­fine­ment and tech­ni­cal qual­i­ties. The silk Koum Kapi and Amoghli Meshed car­pets are two very dif­fer­ent but good ex­am­ples. Work­shop car­pets are char­ac­terised by so­phis­ti­cated curvi­lin­ear, of­ten sym­met­ri­cal de­signs, the best be­ing made of ex­tra­or­di­nary tech­ni­cal fi­nesse and the finest ma­te­ri­als such as kurk­wool (soft wool from the throat of the sheep), silk and metal-thread.

The peak of work­shop pro­duc­tion is seen in court weav­ings: a mere tiny frac­tion of car­pets ever pro­duced. Their im­por­tance can­not be over­stated; they were fre­quently de­signed in the court de­sign stu­dios and their pat­terns were

SOME OF THE GREAT­EST WEAV­INGS PRO­DUCED DATE FROM THE 15TH-18TH CEN­TURIES. DUE TO THEIR AGE AND IM­POR­TANCE, THEY ARE OF­TEN IN POOR CON­DI­TION, OR COSTLY”

widely im­i­tated. The Be­h­ague Kir­man ‘vase’ car­pet (sold at Christie’s in 2010 for £6,200,000) and the Cor­co­ran Kir­man sickle leaf car­pet (sold in 2013 for a world record price of $33,800,000) are su­perla­tive ex­am­ples of court pro­duc­tion, show­ing that the great­est weav­ings can com­pete with Im­pres­sion­ist, Mod­ern and Post-War works of art when it comes to com­mand­ing great prices.

Hav­ing iden­ti­fied what type of car­pet most ap­peals, you need to con­sider the size and how it will be used. If it is for a collection or to hang on a wall, con­di­tion may not be an is­sue, but for ev­ery­day use en­sure that the car­pet can with­stand wear. Re­mem­ber, never judge a car­pet’s age on the ba­sis of con­di­tion alone. When look­ing for a car­pet there are a num­ber of key points to look for: age, de­sign, colour, ma­te­ri­als and fi­nesse.

Un­til the lat­er19th century, all dyes were nat­u­ral. Plants such as mad­der, in­digo (im­ported from In­dia) and lark­spur were used to cre­ate vivid shades of the pri­mary colours from which other colours were mixed. In most an­tique car­pets, whether tribal or work­shop, there are six to twelve colours. Af­ter 1860, syn­thetic dyes were in­tro­duced, chang­ing tra­di­tional dy­ing pro­cesses, in­tro­duc­ing new, some­times harsh, colours. Some ex­per­i­men­tal dyes have not stood the test of time, ap­pear­ing faded or ag­gres­sively bright so, when choos­ing a car­pet, look for lu­mi­nous, bright, clean colours. An­other el­e­ment to note is that be­cause car­pets are wo­ven in hor­i­zon­tal lines, pro­gress­ing slowly from end to end, mis­takes can­not be cor­rected. Im­per­fec­tions are part of the charm of hand-wo­ven car­pets, and while they are usu­ally not a ‘good’ thing in work­shop weav­ings, they can be ma­jor pos­i­tive con­trib­u­tors to the aes­thet­ics of tribal weav­ings, as in the lack of pre­cise sym­me­try in the star Kazak rug.

Car­pets are mostly wool, but pre­cious threads of silk and metals can also be used. The Koum Kapi car­pet com­bines silk with sil­ver and gold-plated threads in a va­ri­ety of tech­niques, which is one of the rea­sons it is prized. Wool qual­ity is de­ter­mined by the breed of sheep. It should feel soft and have a glossy lus­tre. Each car­pet has a “light” and a “dark” side, depend­ing on whether you look into or along the pile. The colour in­ten­sity seen from one end of the car­pet may be vastly dif­fer­ent from what you see from the op­po­site end. This is most ob­vi­ous in silk rugs and car­pets such as the Yarkand due to the lu­mi­nos­ity of the ma­te­rial. Fi­nesse is mea­sured by the num­ber of knots, counted from the re­verse of the car­pet. The back of the car­pet is like a sig­na­ture—dif­fer­ent warps, coloured wefts and how the car­pet is wo­ven are the best in­di­ca­tors of where a car­pet is wo­ven. An aver­age an­tique Per­sian car­pet has a knot count of ap­prox­i­mately 6-9 knots per cm, mea­sured in each di­rec­tion. Once the knot count is above 10 knots per cm. a car­pet is con­sid­ered finely wo­ven. When a car­pet is par­tic­u­larly fine or from a renowned work­shop there may well be a sig­na­ture, which is un­doubt­edly some­thing to look for in a fine work­shop ex­am­ple. The Amoghli Meshed is a good ex­am­ple; he was the favourite weaver who worked for the for­mer Shah of Iran and his fa­ther, Reza Shah Pahlavi.

LUCINDA WIL­LAN JU­NIOR SPECIALIST, CAR­PETS

CHRISTIE’S

WIL­LIAM ROBIN­SON IN­TER­NA­TIONAL HEAD OF

CAR­PETS, CHRISTIE’S

THE GREAT ROOMS AT CHRISTIE’S, KING’S STREET, LON­DON ( BE­LOW)

A SOUTH CAU­CASIAN DRAGON CAR­PET ( ABOVE LEFT); A SILK AND METAL THREAD KOUM KAPI CAR­PET ( ABOVE RIGHT)

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