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Unevenly worn, corroded brown, black and wine-red, scattered spots of repiling, narrow outer minor stripes rewoven on all four sides
10ft.1in. x 6ft.5in. (306cm. x 196cm.)
Alice de Rothschild (1847–1922)
James de Rothschild (1878–1957)
Thence by descent

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Jason French
Jason French

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Lot Essay

Technical Analysis

Warps: cotton, off-white, Z4S
Wefts: three weft passes, first and third wefts are cotton, mostly 2Z either off-white or light beige-yellow, second weft mostly 2Z off-white wool, also bands of pale blue cotton or wool and light yellow silk.
Knots: 2Z ranging from very little twist, almost 2U to medium 2Z
knot count per square cm ranges from 20 to 36, most around 25 knots per square cm.
Colours: red, mostly degraded insect red (lac or cochineal), maroon, pink, orange, yellow, white, brown, light golden brown, dark indigo blue, medium blue, light blue, turquoise green, light green, very light green.
Sides: not extant
Ends: not extant

This is the third carpet of ‘Vase'-technique in the Rothschild group which is once again very different in its design from the previous two and for which we can find no direct comparable in the canon of Safavid Kirman ‘Vase’ carpets. The field remains in its original complete form and is framed by a narrow golden floral meander stripe. Its design is set upon a midnight-blue ground and consists of a complex arrangement of sickle leaves, flowers, palmettes, trees, fountains, and the wonderful inclusion of a variety of naturalistic birds as well as a pair of mythical simurghs. The design is symmetrically balanced across the central vertical axis but is not symmetrical across the horizontal axis.

Shorter in length than many Safavid carpets, the same proportions with similar bold scale drawing is also seen on the Sickle-leaf Corcoran carpet (May H. Beattie, Carpets of Central Persia, exhibition catalogue, Sheffield, 1976, pl.6. cat.no.15) that sold in Sotheby’s, New York, 5 June 2013, lot 12. Arthur Upham Pope suggests in his extensive studies on the arts of Persia, that that carpet was possibly intended to be used as a dias cover where upon a throne would be placed at one end, giving the impression that the Shah was is infact seated in the centre of a much longer carpet, (A.U.Pope, Survey of Persian Art, vol.VI, London and New York, 1939, p.2385). This theory continued to be supported by Beattie when, in her 1976 exhibition, she described the carpet as “The Corcoran Throne Rug”, (Beattie, op.cit. pl.6.). Like the Corcoran carpet, the Rothschild ‘Vase’ carpet has elements of its design which can be viewed from either end such as the cypress trees and the two immediate symmetrical palmettes arranged on either side, which could suggest that the Rothschild carpet was woven for the same purpose.

All of the decorative elements within the design are either connected or overlap one another creating a dense network of planes. The highest plane consists of bold polychrome palmettes that form vertical columns within the design and face in either direction and occasionally include elegant Persianate fountains. These are connected by a scrolling flowering vine that is interrupted with small whirling winged cloudbands and which lead to the long curved feathery sickle leaves. Only a few ‘Vase'-technique carpets of sickle leaf design survive of which the most famous are the Clark-Corcoran (Beattie, op.cit. pl.6); the Gulbenkian sickle-leaf carpet in the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, (Richard Ettinghausen, Persian Art: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, 1985, pl.30) and one formerly with Miss E. T. Brown (Arthur Upham Pope, A Survey of Persian Art, London and New York, 1939, pl.1236), sold in these Rooms, 4 October, 2011, lot 201. All three have a similar arrangement of leaves which form paired groups that gracefully encircle each of the horizontally arranged palmettes on either side of the central vertical axis. This formation creates a rotational movement that runs through the carpet. The drawing of each is quite different however, with the Clark-Corcoran carpet appearing the most elegant and elongated, then the Gulbenkian with a more crazed rhythm of squatter leaves; and finally with the Brown ‘Vase’ which is much more static and controlled in its drawing and arrangement. The Rothschild carpet differs from all of these in the way that our leaves curve downwards (as woven) and appear more wing-like, thus forming vertical columns through the field. A common feature on the leaves of all four sickle-leaf carpets are the flowering spines that run longitudinally along each. In the case of the Clark-Corcoran the leaves are but a single colour, however on the Rothschild ‘Vase’ carpet the weavers have introduced, in all but the blue sickle leaves, a secondary contrasting colour. The sickle or lancet leaf is a motif that personified earlier Ottoman art and can be found throughout various art forms such as metal and tile work and of course carpet weaving, as found on the Cairene carpets produced in Egypt after the Ottoman Conquest in 1517. It was also popular in Persia and travelled to India where it was adopted by Mughal artists.

The play of colour, of which there are many in this carpet, is used both in bold contrast as well as in a subtle ton-sur-ton manner as seen in some of the Prunus blossoms which have lighter red petals with darker corroded red centres. There are four varieties of trees in the present carpet which include a leafy tree with an ivory trunk, a flowering Prunus with a blue trunk, a pink-trunked fruiting pomegranate and the green spear-like cypress trees at either end of the field. Together their twisting branches form a further plane within the design. The quality of the drawing in this carpet is exceptional and shows many very close affinities with miniature painting. One of the classic elements is the combination of the cypress and entwined prunus tree which is a prominent feature in both Timurid and Safavid painting, an example of which is depicted in an illustration from the Haft Awrang of Sultan Ibrahim Mirza, (Marianna Shreve Simpson, Sultan Ibrahim Mirza’s Haft Awrang, Washington, 1997, folio 194b, pp.174-5). The combination of the cypress tree together with the large sickle-leaves is uncommon in the ‘Vase’ group and appears on only two fragments from the same, later and much more stylised carpet now split between The Burrell collection, Glasgow and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, (Beattie, op.cit., nos.18 &19, pp.52-53).

One of the most interesting features of this carpet is the wonderful variety of birds that include, peacocks, parrots, birds of prey, ducks, storks and what is possibly a type of song bird. Depicted hanging upside down off branches, craning to reach fruits or blossoms, or perching within the many branches, their animated positions are cleverly entwined within the overall scheme. At times their wings or beaks clip over the curling sickle leaves creating further depth to the design. Similar birds appear on the late 16th century ‘Vase’-technique 'Animal and Medallion' Steiglitz carpet in the Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, (Beattie, op.cit., pl.1a, pp.34-35), and on a carpet formerly in the Maciet collection now in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (Pope, op.cit, vol. V, pl.1214). The Maciet carpet, which is considered to be part of the rare Sanguszko group and which did not appear in Beattie’s 1976 exhibition but as a supplementary plate in the catalogue, depicts various romantic Safavid scenes which include birds of prey and other varieties in the upper section as well as a couple of water birds depicted on a river below. There are two fragments from a further carpet that include birds together with cypress and flowering blossom trees on a deep indigo field which was originally considered by Kurt Erdmann as being from north west Persia, (K. Erdmann, Seven Hundred Years of Oriental Carpets, fig.154, p.128), its typical ‘Vase’-technique structure however encouraged Beattie to re-attribute it to Kirman in her exhibition catalogue (Beattie, op.cit., pl.10 &11, pp.46-47). One of those fragments is now in the Museum für Kunsthandwerk, Frankfurt-am-Main, inv. 4737, and the other, formerly in the Bernheimer collection, sold in these Rooms, The Bernheimer Family Collection, 14 February, 1996, lot 89. The drawing of that carpet is considerably stiffer than the present lot which would suggest that the carpet was woven in the later part of the 17th century. The scale of the birds on the Rothschild carpet is much greater than on any of the aforementioned examples and are decidedly integral to the design. All of Safavid court art during the reign of Shah ‘Abbas experienced a renewed emphasism on naturalism which is seen in tile work, textiles and the art of the illuminated manuscript. An intricate portrayal of a variety of birds is highlighted in one such folio, ‘The Concourse of the birds’, from a Mantiq al-Tayr of Farid al-Din ‘Attar, Isfahan, late 16th/early 17th century, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (Sheila R.Canby, Shah ‘Abbas, The Remaking of Iran, exhibition catalogue, The British Museum, London, 2009, pl.82, pp.170-71).

Amongst its design the Rothschild carpet also includes a pair of perching phoenix, or Persian simurghs, whose tails trail downwards becoming entangled within the flowering vine. These ancient creatures were supposedly able to heal a man with the touch of a single feather and possessed the knowledge of all ages. Both the Steiglitz and the Maciet carpets include bold simurghs in flight whose tails form a spandrel-like corner. The depiction of the simurgh within illuminated manuscripts is well documented as seen in the late 16th century folio of Firdawsi’s Shahnama in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, which depicts a beautiful simurgh carrying Zal, the Albino hero abandoned by his father on Mount Alborz, (A. J. Arberry, et al., The Chester Beatty Library; A Catalogue of the Persian Manuscripts and Miniatures, Dublin, 1962, pl.41, no.277).

There is some debate as to whether or not the ‘Vase’ carpets were woven with narrow or broad borders. Friedrich Spuhler is of the opinion that, “The borders of all Vase carpets are exceptionally narrow, and, as in this fragment, they often lack guard stripes”, when writing about the Sarre fragment in Berlin, (see F. Spuhler, Oriental Carpets in the Museum of Islamic art, Berlin, Berlin, 1987, pl.86,p.227). The golden floral border of the Rothschild carpet however is much narrower than both the Berlin fragment and the Clark-Corcoran carpet which are similar in their width and design. The width, colour and design of the Rothchild border is more frequently found employed as a narrow inner guard stripe on the Sanguszko group of carpets which are depicted with broad decorative borders between narrow minor stripes. This is seen in: The Béhague-Sanguszko carpet in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, (F.Spuhler, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Carpets and Textiles, London, 1998, pl.15, pp.80-83); the Sanguszko carpet in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; that in the Musée Historique des Tissus, Lyons, and one in the Islamic Art Museum Staatliche, Berlin, (see Beattie, op.cit., pls.65, 66, 69). This would support the suggestion that has been made, that this carpet is one of the rarer Sangusko group which use an almost identical technique to the larger ‘Vase’ group.

The dynamic composition of this carpet is without comparison. Through the complex design and skilful play of colour it transports us to a garden of Paradise in which we are viewing a private enclosure that joins the realms of heaven and earth. May Beattie suggests that it is not only finely drawn examples that are considered to be early in the canon of ‘Vase’-technique carpets but also those with particularly complex designs which would have required an excellent draughtsman who would likely have been working under court patronage. Our carpet has both of these qualities, as well as a wide variety of colours with little use of red which, according to Beattie, is another early attribute, (Beattie, op.cit., pp.17-18). The exquisite drawing, the graceful paired birds, the richly ornamented foliage and wide palette of the Rothschild carpet are consistent with a date from the early reign of Shah ‘Abbas I, who ascended the throne in 1588 and reflect the explosion of artistic energy associated with his reign.

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