A new collector’s guide to İznik pottery
With their bold colours and strong lines, these wares produced chiefly between the 15th and 17th centuries have been collectable almost since the day they were first produced, says our specialist Sara Plumbly
Yes. Iznik is in fact the name of a town previously known as Nicaea which lies some 90 kilometres southeast of Istanbul, and was the site of the potteries of the Ottoman Empire. A group of Iznik ceramics, purchased between 1865 and 1878 on the Greek Island of Rhodes by the Cluny Museum in Paris, led to a lasting misattribution of these wares to the island. Indeed, some of the earliest examples of Iznik sold at Christie's in the 19th century and early 20th century were catalogued ‘Rhodian’!
Excavations of the kilns at Iznik have since righted this misattribution, but many older publications will still refer to Rhodian ceramics.
Iznik vessels of all shapes and sizes were produced — for eating and serving food, and for functions relating to religious worship. Of these, dishes, followed by jugs, are the most commonly found. Other forms occasionally come up for auction, but are rarer.
Tiles were also produced in great quantities — particularly in the second half of the 16th century, as decoration for the walls of the monumental structures being commissioned by the Sultans of the era. The tiles we see coming to market are likely to have been the surplus of this large-scale production.
Iznik can be dated quite precisely, largely on the basis of the colours and designs of specific works. Sixteenth-century pieces are generally more coveted than those made in the 17th century.
1480-1520: This early phase in Iznik production saw impressive vessels, usually painted in a bold cobalt-blue and white, and often with patterns reserved in white on the blue ground. The decoration is heavily informed by that of other media, such as manuscript illumination, although many designs are also borrowed from the Chinese porcelains that were prized at the Ottoman court.
1520-1540: Turquoise blue is introduced, and decoration is largely painted on a white ground. Designs become simpler, but still frequently take Chinese motifs for inspiration. One rare group, which developed in this period, uses delicate spiralling scrolls with tiny leaves and flowers — known as ‘Golden Horn ware’, because of where it was first found. The period also saw the production of ‘Potter’s Style’ pieces, whose designs tended to feature central compositions, containing realistic representations of flowers in vases, or jugs on small tables.
End of the 1530s: Manganese purple and olive-green are added to the palette of blue and turquoise. Iznik of this period is often referred to as ‘Damascus ware’ because of the similarity that the colours bear to wares produced in Syria. Often large, round motifs with scale-like patterning are used in the decoration, which sometimes represents pomegranates or artichokes. Increasingly, one sees the naturalistic design that comes to dominate production.
1560-1600: This is the phase under which Iznik reaches its highest point. Artists combine a rich repertoire of often naturalistic motifs. The Ottoman Empire is at its height and enormous quantities of Iznik are commissioned, including large numbers of tiles destined to cover the walls of the buildings built by the chief court architect, Sinan. A strong turquoise, emerald-green, black and deep-red are added to the spectrum of colours, and outlines are often drawn in black.
The 17th century: Due largely to economic difficulties, there was a decrease in demand for Iznik in the early years of the 17th century, and quality began to fall. Coarser versions of the productions of the previous century were produced, the colours of works deteriorated — with red often appearing slightly brown — and decoration became less detailed, more obviously executed freehand.
During this period, the quality of the paste and glaze also deteriorates, with the glaze taking on a bluish tone and becoming more prone to craquelure. Designs did, however, become freer, with the artist’s imagination often conjuring up unusual designs — sometimes with quirky figural representations.
Because Iznik was produced in relatively large quantities, condition plays a big part in value. Intact pieces can make significantly more than similar examples with repaired breaks. If a piece is repaired, the less loss of the original body, the better. Often you will find small holes in the foot of a dish, drilled so that it could be hung. Don’t worry about these, they won’t affect the value.
Good Iznik has strong colours well-contained within their outlines and a very clean, clear white. The red colour, made with Armenian bole (an earthy clay) should be thick and proud of the surface. Beware! Photographs can often misrepresent colours, particularly the white which is so crucial — ask for further images which may be taken in different light or, ideally, go and see a piece in person.
Ask questions about a piece’s history before you buy. A known or old collection can add to the attraction of a piece. Stickers or numbers on the underside of a piece often hold clues to the history. The old stickers on the back of the dish pictured above meant that we could trace its history all the way back to an auction held in Paris in March 1919.
Look out for 19th-century European interpretations of Iznik. In the 19th century a trend for collecting Islamic works of art developed which in turn also became a source of inspiration for European craftsmen. Iznik pottery was one of the types that was most frequently ‘copied’ by makers such as Samson, Theodore Deck and Cantagalli.
Look at pieces closely: most of these makers signed the base of their works — Cantagalli usually with a small cockerel, Deck with a THˑDECK and Samson with a playful variety of takes on the letter ‘s’ or it’s equivalent in Arabic.
Also highly collectable is Kutahya pottery, which was produced from the 15th century in a town close to Iznik. Production peaked when Iznik declined, and it is still produced today. Its wares are characteristically decorated in bright colours, including yellows and browns not familiar in Iznik. Kutahya had a large Armenian community, so the pottery produced there often incorporates Christian motifs.
Because Iznik has been so widely admired and collected almost since the time of its conception, examples can be found in museums the world over. In London the British Museum hosts what is perhaps one of the best collections outside Turkey, with many examples that have really formed our understanding of the group.
If you are lucky enough to travel to Istanbul, the Çinili Köşk (literally tiled kiosk) in the Topkapi Museum is well worth a visit. So too are the Sadberk Hanim Museum and my personal favourite, the Mosque of Rüstem Pasha, where a magnificent array of different tile designs beautifully demonstrate the mastery of the Ottoman potters.