Feature: Human Feeling and Hard Facts about Carpets – An Update from the Beattie Archive

Today I’m excited to introduce full-length features as a brand new category of blog post on the OATG blog, and launching our new category is a fascinating feature from Katherine Clough, who is working as the Beattie Archive Assistant at the Ashmolean Museum. Kathy has agreed to write a series of updates about her work with the Beattie Archive over the next few months, and we hope to publish six in total. This first update will also appear in Asian Textiles magazine, but the remainder will be published only on the blog, so keep checking back for future installments!

One of the things that I find most exciting while working with the archive of renowned carpet specialist May Hamilton Beattie (gifted to the Ashmolean Museum in 2000) is that moment of anticipation just before opening a box to discover its contents. Some expectations are generated before opening: clues found in the layered labels stuck to the lid and through the lists provided in the nine-month-long mapping project by museum volunteer Suriyah Bi in 2013. However, I continually find myself in awe at the revelation of the vast amounts of photographs, paperwork, notes and articles on a comprehensive range of subjects, and textile fragments collected for analysis, all collated by this singular researcher. This current project of foliating and rehousing over 150 boxes to archival standards is the latest in a string of activities to provide better long-term care and improved access to Beattie’s material legacy. In the pursuit of facilitating future research, these ongoing tasks build on the work of previous Beattie Fellow, Jon Thompson, of Pirjetta Mildh with the digitization of Beattie’s carpet analysis sheets and slide collection, and on work completed by museum volunteers, as publicized by Ashmolean curator Francesca Leoni in the 2013 winter edition of Hali (Issue 178, p.37).

Photograph of May Beattie attached to a travel document held in the archive

Photograph of May Beattie attached to a travel document held in the archive.

The quantity and arrangement of the material in the archive represents a lifetime of specialized hard work. It is therefore perhaps surprising that Beattie only began the serious study of carpets in her forties, stimulated by a conversation at a cocktail party, and encouraged by her scientist husband, Colin, to publish her research or remain ‘a typical dilettante’ (Mackie 1987, p.10). Over forty published articles and catalogues of various private collections from around the world appear in the bibliography of her works compiled by Louise W. Mackie for the 1987 edition of Hali’s Oriental Carpet & Textile Studies (Vol. III, Part One)*. The supporting original research material for Beattie’s publications resides in the archives now held at the Ashmolean, along with vast amounts of unpublished notes, travel diaries, samples, correspondence and collated material.

As found in the archive: tufts of carpet collected for analysis stapled to a letter. One of the challenges of this particular archive is caring for the wide range of materials to archival standards for the best long-term care, without losing the connections and contextual relationships between small fragments, photographs and Beattie’s paper-based work.

As found in the archive: tufts of carpet collected for analysis stapled to a letter.
One of the challenges of this particular archive is caring for the wide range of materials to archival standards for the best long-term care, without losing the connections and contextual relationships between small fragments, photographs and Beattie’s paper-based work.

A bacteriologist by training with a PhD from Edinburgh, Beattie is widely recognized for the scientific approach she brought to the study of carpets reflected in her use of analysis sheets. This is also reflected in the overall organizational structure of her archive into text-based reference material and image strands that cross over and correlate with each other. The full extent of this organization has only recently come to light (see Suriyah Bi’s article in OATG’s Asian Textiles, No. 56, 2013) as many of the connections are not explicitly labelled on the individual boxes but would have been stored in Beattie’s own memory. One of the challenges of working with the archive today is to try and retain and restore these connections in the process of documenting and rehousing the folios.

The archive also contains Beattie’s library collection of well over 1,000 books and pamphlets, of which the books were recently catalogued into the Oxford University library search system, increasing their visibility for reference use in the Museum’s Eastern Art Study Room. Amongst the shelves a humble looking edition of Delabère May’s How to Identify Persian Rugs (London, 1920) was the first and only book on carpets that Beattie owned while living in Baghdad for ten years before her full enthusiasm for rug studies erupted (Mackie 1987, p.7). This ninety-five-year-old book includes chapters on examining rugs closely – particularly their knots and weaves – in addition to design characteristics, an approach Beattie took to greater depths with her later scientific analyses of rug composition.

The first book about carpets that May Beattie owned while living in Baghdad.  Her whole collection of books is now available to search on the University of Oxford’s online library catalogue.

The first book about carpets that May Beattie owned while living in Baghdad.
Her whole collection of books is now available to search on the University of Oxford’s online library catalogue.

Her drive for continual advancement of her own knowledge, and the wider field of carpet studies, can be seen in the fact that Beattie supplemented her own publications held in the Beattie Library with reviews and criticisms of the work stapled to the inside covers, along with her own annotated corrections on the pages themselves. These personal touches, in addition to the more obviously intimate records of her diaries and correspondence also in the archive, offer tangible insights into the personality of a remarkable researcher, fieldworker and woman with a good sense of humour mixed in with scientific rigour. While reporting on her mapping project, Suriyah Bi commented on her own sense of getting to know Beattie through the process of surveying her material. Beattie herself acknowledged an appreciation of putting the ‘human feeling as well as hard fact into a subject’ when commenting on Cecil Edward’s 1953 publication, The Persian Carpet (Beattie, 1963, p.150; Mackie, 1987, p.9).

MBH first book open

Delabère May’s How to Identify Persian Rugs (London, 1920) was the first and only book on carpets that Beattie owned while living in Baghdad for ten years before her full enthusiasm for rug studies erupted.

We are six weeks into our six-month schedule and so far over 13,000 folios have been numbered, recorded and rehoused under the guidance of Bodleian Library Archivist, Gillian Grant. Forty boxes have been worked on; there are quite a few boxes to go. The process could be a fairly monotonous exercise; however, the ‘human feeling’ of May Beattie’s life is very evident in the archive during these practical tasks. It is hoped that completion of the project will allow Beattie’s personal passion and expertise to go on continuing the advancement of carpet studies as a sustainable and accessible archive resource.

Katherine Clough
Beattie Archive Assistant
Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

*This edition was dedicated to May Beattie on the approach of her 80th birthday, in recognition of her contribution to the field of carpet studies.

All images taken by author © Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

References
Beattie, M.H. (1963) ‘Background to the Turkish Rug’ in Oriental Art, IX:3, p.150
Bi, S. (2013) ‘Unlocking the Beattie Archive’ in Asian Textiles, Autumn, No. 56, Oxford: Oxford Asian Textiles Group, pp.5–10
Edward, C. (1953) The Persian Carpet, London: Theodor Brun
Leoni, F. (2013) ‘A Perfectionist’s Passion for Provenance’ in Hali, Winter, Issue 178, p.37
Mackie, L. (1987) ‘May Hamilton Beattie’ in Oriental Carpet & Textile Studies, Vol. III, Part One, pp.6–13
May, D. (1920) How to Identify Persian Rugs, London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd.

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