I woke up this morning missing my life as a potter, missing the clay, missing its feel and textures for there is a difference to the touch between porcelain and stoneware and between earthenware and stoneware, clays out of which pots are shaped. My fingers ached to centre the clay ball on the wheel before raising and lifting it, forming the walls of the pot while the wheel is turning. My fingers groped for the invisible half formed pot in order to firm its walls before deciding whether it was going to be a plate, a bowl, or an elegant tall vase. Clay smells of the earth and is as ageless, so holding it in one’s hands is like holding time and squeezing. It is easy to let your imagination turn as the wheel turns and push your way through geological sediments and formations. Clay minerals are typically formed over long periods of time by the gradual chemical weathering of rocks. The weathering of rocks needs vast spans of time. Isn’t it wonderful? Making pots is like playing with geology and reading the history of the world in a pot?
I had my own philosophy about pots and I thought of them as time travellers because some of them are still with us after almost ten thousand years. I called my self then an archaeological ceramist because in my pots I tried to be something like Dr. Who, a time lord, travelling backward and forward in time. It was great fun to journey in one’s pots in order to register the history of ceramic art in the Middle East, especially Syria. Believe me I am quite sane while I am saying all this.
Then it came to pass that the Syrian Revolution against tyranny and despotism broke out. Something happened to me too. I was transported and transformed. Geographically I had to return to Britain after a spell in Syria. In the process, I got separated from my studio, my clays, my wheel and my kiln. Potting became something I had practiced in another world and another life. I had started my creative career by writing, then gradually art took me over. But as art claimed me, my reliance on verbal expression became lesser and lesser. The image not the word became my language. I was happy with that and I did not feel wanting.
The Revolution changed all this as it penetrated my sensibility and created patterns of thought hitherto unknown to me. The terrible destruction of Syria and the horrific plight of the Syrian people awakened my words and demanded I use them. I was accustomed to the magical fire of the kiln that turns clay into art, but I was not used to the fire that destroys and annihilates civilization. Since fire can only be consumed by fire, a fire rose within me, commanding that I search for a tongue of fire to speak for and on behalf of the people the world has forgotten and left to destruction. Ceramics and wars are not made for each other. Yet I prayed that although my fragility is like that of the pots, I would be given their durability too, for they have a way of surviving destruction, just as Tel Halaf survived.*
Why Leighton House Museum? First: because the Arab Hall in the museum boasts some of the most elegant and superb Syrian ceramic tiles I have ever seen. They were shipped from Damascus in the 19 century to form the collection of a famous Victorian painter. Second: because Leighton House Museum was where I had several successful exhibitions. It was flattering to hear some of the visitors remark that my ceramics looked as if they were part of the collection of the museum.
Leighton House was the former studio- house of the prominent artist, Lord Frederick Leighton (1830-1896). Work started at the house in 1865. But the Arab Hall Extension was started in 1877 and completed in 1881.
The Arab Hall Extension
“Leighton travelled to Turkey in 1867, to Egypt in the following year and to Syria in 1873. On each of these trips he collected textiles, pottery and other objects that were later to be displayed in his house. However, the trip to Damascus in 1873 laid the foundations for the wonderful collection of tiles that line the walls of the Arab Hall extension. Further examples were collected for Leighton by others, including the explorer and diplomat, Sir Richard Burton.
In 1877, Leighton began the construction of the Arab Hall. This was an ambitious and costly undertaking. The model was an interior contained in a 12th-century Sicilio-Norman palace called La Zisa at Palermo in Sicily. Aitchison and Leighton brought together a group of their contemporaries to contribute to the project; the potter William De Morgan, the artworker Walter Crane, the sculptor Edgar Boehm and the artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott were all involved. The mosaics and marbles and skilled craftsmen were all sourced in London, although Crane’s design for the gold mosaic frieze was made up in Venice and shipped to the site in sections.
The collection of tiles, mostly from Damascus and mostly dating from the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century are as important as any collection of tiles held in the UK.” Leighton House Museum
The first time I visited the Arab Hall at Leighton House I sat by the fountain in the middle of the hall listening to the sound of water, which Syrian fashion had white gardenia and other flowers floating on its surface, I sat spellbound, unable to move my eyes from the gorgeous tiles adorning the walls in different clusters fitted into the architectural space allotted for them under the dome, atop the pillars and windows, under the friezes of calligraphy and mosaics. Where the Syrian ceramic insets could not creep or wander the sapphire blue tiles of William De Morgan, the great Victorian ceramicist kept the enchantment alive and cradled it. I had never before seen such a marvellous collection of Syrian tiles anywhere else and certainly not in Damascus. The charm of the place and the magic of the tiles overwhelmed me. In addition to about 1000 tiles brought from Damascus, beautiful intricate wooden screens and stained glass windows, also brought from Damascus, completed the illusion of an Arab Hall in the middle of London. Richard Francis Burton (1821- 1890) the renowned and accomplished Victorian scholar, explorer, adventurer and traveller, the incomparable linguist who in my opinion was responsible for the most exquisite translation ever into English of the Arabian Nights, helped his friend Lord Leighton in acquiring some of the tiles while he was serving as the English Consul in Damascus where he met Prince Abd al Qader al-Jaziri and became his friend. I must transgress and mention here that among the Victorian giants of adventure, exploration, knowledge and linguistic accomplishments, Richard Burton fascinates me the most. His knowledge of Islam and the Arab world was that of a learned endowed native. Most remarkable are his annotations of the Arabian Nights. They are learned, devastating in their scope and hilarious at the same time.
If the tiles belong to the 15th and 16th centuries, this means they are Mamluk to Ottoman. They certainly display characteristics belonging to both eras. I was not able to collect enough information about where the tiles were before and what buildings they used to adorn in the Old City. Most of them certainly did not come from mosques because they depict semi naturalistic scenes from gardens where birds, fishes, rabbits and cranes frolic. Yes, some of the birds do have their throats symbolically cut in reverence to the religious prohibition of images, but they are far from being dead. Perhaps some dedicated search in the archives of the Museum will reveal more to us about the journey the tiles made from Damascus to London. I understand some of the calligraphic friezes above the tiles came from Iran but whether all the calligraphy is from Iran or not is not clear.
In my own experience and interpretation of ceramics, when I visit museums in particular, I have found that I have to assume the inquisitive mind of Sherlock Holmes but without Dr Watson to assist me. Curators in museums are not potters so sometimes they get it wrong. One cannot really decipher the techniques of old pottery without being a potter. I was amazed, while on a visit to the Tel Halaf room at the British Museum, when one of the researchers there was wondering at a technique which every experienced potter knows by heart in our day and age. For amazingly enough, we haven’t really added that much to the techniques discovered and developed by the ancient potters, among whom the old Syrian potters occupy a place of honour.
The Leighton House tiles are a mix of Mamluk and Ottoman tiles representing the height of the ceramic production in Syria in the 15 and 16 centuries. There has always been a ceramic industry in Syria spanning thousands of years and Damascus was one of the great centres, especially in the Arab Islamic era. After the devastation wrought by the Mongols and the Crusades, the ceramic industry in Syria was revived and the royal workshops began to produce some very fine pottery indeed. Styles and tastes changed and shifted but the skill of the Syrian potters matched all the changes with indigenous ingenuity and creativity. In Mamluk ceramics, specially tiles, the floral and the geometric motifs and patterns reveal the intensity of the artistic struggle for dominance: floral versus geometric or floral flirting with the geometric, or the geometric fighting back for total possession. Then under the Ottomans and as the influence of Iznik pottery began to influence the taste, the struggle was resolved in favour of the floral, most visibly in the lay language of ornament. The tiles began to display paradisaical scenes and idealized gardens brimming with water imagery in the shape of fountains, vessels shaded by cypresses and vines. But make no mistake, the geometry was still there in the stylization, the symmetry and the balance. Things exist where they should be, according to a plan and a hidden notation.
A comparison with Iznik tiles is unavoidable. Those who are acquainted with the history of art know that art does not recognize boundaries or historical and geographical divisions and barriers. The arts of the Islamic world display features and characteristics which unite, yet als0 create distinctions and differences in vision and application as to make it possible for the trained eye and the knowledgeable observer to geographically and historically place a work of art or guess the provenance of a ceramic collection. What is remarkable about the Syrian Izniq, as I like to call it, is its liveliness and display of freedom of expression and execution, particularly in the garden paradisiacal scenes. There are no human figures but the drinking vessels and the flower bouquets hint at the presence of sakis ( cup bearers) and the drinking of wine. It is an earthly paradise that we see on display; there is no doubt about it. The Royal tiles of Iznik are more formal and disciplined, more precise and stylized as befits the life at court. However the calligraphic tiles in deep blue and white and the panel depicting a mosque lamp hanging from its chain, belong to the sacred, not to the profane.
As I finish my imaginary tour at Leighton House Museum in the Arab Hall, I would like to point out in conclusion that the Syrian potters as they vied with the Iznik potters to master and polish their craft, developed a distinct palette of their own, adding shades of green like apple green and sage green, in addition to manganese purple and chrome yellow at times, not forgetting the opulent blues and turquoises. They must have had a remarkable knowledge of the chemistry of glazes and underglazes. There is no doubt too that they were very proficient in the use of alkaline glazes which are notoriously runny. William De Morgan knew that only too well as some of his pots at the Museum testify. When a glaze runs while the pot is being fired, it creates pools of colour wherein the patterns are sacrificed to the stern wicked deities of the kiln. The colour red which the Ottoman potters discovered, hitherto unknown in the decoration of pottery throughout the world, is absent from the Syrian palette because it was the monopoly of the royal potters of Iznik.
At Leighton house the sumptuousness of Victorian England and the Syrian splendour of the Arab Hall live happily together in rich harmony. The Museum is a testament to the meeting of civilizations and the triumph of art. So all you who believe in the clash of civilizations, please visit Leighton House Museum in London. For me, a piece of Damascus slumbers there peacefully under the lofty dome, dreaming to the sound of the fountain and recalling where the craftsmen and potters fashioned the tiles, toiled over them, painted and glazed them then carried them, looking undistinguished and dull, to place them on the shelves inside the kilns in order to fire them. But most of all it remembers the morning when they came to take the tiles out of the kiln. What the potters held in their hands and arms shone with soft dazzling colours as if the jinnee of the lamp had jumped out and transformed them overnight. This is the alchemy of the clay.
© Alisar Iram
In the two plates that carry my name, I tried to reproduce the techniques, the glazes and the designs of the Syrian potters. It was a labour of love and a symbolic gesture of returning back to Syria the spirit of the tiles. Artists work in mysterious ways and their way of thinking is always controversial. The tiles carried to me intimations of a lost world which I was reluctant to part with. I wanted to make the tiles part of my sensibility and artistic vision, not by possessing them, but by paying homage to them.
The palette was especially hard to emulate. I did not have the right kind of facilities or a properly equipped studio to try and use the same materials, so I worked hard to find substitutes and equivalents. The whole process became for me a test of my accomplishment as a potter and my skill at unravelling some of the secrets of the superb craftsmanship that went into the making of the tiles. The composition of my plates is original and is mine though based on the tiles which I studied meticulously. All in all, I made 8 pots and plates to reflect in miniature the ceramic beauty that clothes and covers the walls of the Arab Hall at Leighton House. In doing this, I was being true to the name I gave myself: archaeological potter.
© Alisar Iram
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Images: courtesy of the Internet and Google. Some of the images were taken by me at Leighton House with permission from the curator.