Feature: Summer Travels with May Beattie, Fifty Years On

Now that the summer holidays have definitely drawn to a close, I’m happy to publish the third installment in our Beattie Archive mini-series from Katherine Clough, all about May Beattie’s summer adventures hunting carpets through Europe and Turkey. Through photographs and excerpts from her diary entries, we can experience some of May’s summer holidays vicariously, and get an insight into how the Beattie Archive was compiled.

For many the summer months are a time for adventures, relaxation and travelling abroad, with September signalling a return to working life. This blog post considers one of May Hamilton Beattie’s own summer excursions – in pursuit of carpets – in the summer of 1965, fifty years ago. Beattie travelled extensively in Europe, Central Asia and North America, visiting and recording carpets she encountered photographically, with analysis sheets and by recording her thoughts in detailed diary entries. In 1965 May and Colin Beattie left their Sheffield home by car to travel on a circuit through Europe to western Turkey and back again, driving through many countries, and stopping to visit rugs en route.

Map roughly showing the Beatties’ route by car in Summer 1965, as deducted from her diary notes in MBA Ref 63.

Map roughly showing the Beatties’ route by car in Summer 1965, as deducted from her diary notes in MBA Ref 63.

The opening paragraph of May’s diary shows how their journey did not always go to plan, but once at their destination she launched straight into intensive work on a rug collection:

July 1965

We left Sheffield on Sunday the 18th, crossed as usual to Ostende, after suffering two punctures and discovering a weak-walled tyre on the way down and non-acting brake lights. Hardly a cheerful beginning! We were off the boat by 4.20 a.m. and in Düsseldorf by 10.30. There were more rugs there than I was aware of and some interesting fragments. I worked at top speed and still did not finish everything by 4.30 when we had arranged to meet outside. Col. had missed his way back to the car so I foraged in the lunch basket and sat in the sun outside the Museum and ate brown bread and butter and bananas, having had no lunch.

Car problems would hit several times that summer, with May writing about how she veered the car into a ditch on 26th August, on the road out from Konya in Turkey. Fortunately, neither Colin nor May were hurt and ‘there was not much apparent damage to the car apart from the fact that the gear lever came away in the hand’ on impact (MBA Ref 63, f.669). After a couple of days’ delay waiting for the repair work, they were soon travelling again.

A photograph from another journey to Konya, Turkey, in 1973 captures Beattie’s recording of carpets en route with the carpet photographed while held out in front of a car (MBA Imag 24, f.46).

A photograph from another journey to Konya, Turkey, in 1973 captures Beattie’s recording of carpets en route with the carpet photographed while held out in front of a car (MBA Imag 24, f.46).

At the front of her 1965 diary May filed correspondence with museums and collectors that she hoped to visit, sent in advance of their journey. Her diary notes list her encounters with museums, religious buildings and members of the community as well as detailed descriptions of rugs inspected, offering insight into particular carpets, but also into her life as a researcher in the 1960s. For example, a local doctor is very helpful following a visit to a bishop’s house in Romania in early August (MBA Ref 63, f.609):

Pure gold was forthcoming – an official list of the numbers of rugs and fragments at present in the Evangelical churches. This was more than I hoped for, and luckily the typewriter was in the car so that I got to work in the office and copied the list and such correspondence as was relevant.

The thoughtful doctor also provided ‘a letter to look at church rugs, which will allay the fears of the good ladies with the keys, who naturally think it odd that anyone should want to spend a day making notes on rugs’ and the nearby museum allowed her ‘to take small pieces of rug’ (MBA Ref 63, f.609). Textile fragments from another part of the archive are labelled with the same town names as on her 1965 trip – these notes could potentially provide provenance and further contextualization to the material. Beattie built up an extensive collection of such carpet samples, creating a useful resource for today’s researchers, especially as non-destructive methods of analysis are preferred these days for museum artefacts with restrictions on destructive sampling.

This box holds over seven hundred individually-labelled envelopes containing tufts and threads of carpets collected by May Beattie from carpets in museums and field sites on her travels across Europe. A similar box contains a further four hundred samples from rugs in Central Asia, the United States and the Middle East. Both are in the process of being rehoused.

This box holds over seven hundred individually-labelled envelopes containing tufts and threads of carpets collected by May Beattie from carpets in museums and field sites on her travels across Europe. A similar box contains a further four hundred samples from rugs in Central Asia, the United States and the Middle East. Both are in the process of being rehoused.

In another research stop-off, Beattie found a Dr Ditroi ‘quite charming’ in facilitating her research: ‘I spent an hour on the floor of his office looking at rugs – a perfectly good but coarse Lotto, kileem style, and a ‘Tintoretto’ type – very odd’ (MBA Ref 63, f. 598). She also recorded her frustrations and the effects of her perseverance in attempting to access some museum stores: one custodian ‘klinked his keys’ and ‘bristled with indignation’ at her persistent determination to visit Turcoman rugs (MBA Ref 63, f. 596). Walking round museums Beattie also noted paintings depicting carpets – an ongoing activity that would build up into her ‘Rugs in Pictures’ image index that makes up seven out of the seventy-five boxes of the total IMAG archive material and over 1,300 folios.

All of May’s diary entries were typed out on the move after long days of viewing carpets, with accommodation often little more than a tent, making the detail included even more remarkable. May did take a short break from research, over two-thirds of the way into their trip – it seems mainly at Colin’s request – to enjoy the scenery of Kuşadası Bird Island, near Ephesus, for a couple of days. They then set off again driving north round to Greece, and on to museum visits in Florence and Milan in Italy. Finally, the last sentence of her travel diary on 9th September 1965, writing from Milan, records her hunting for a different kind of textile: ‘To-morrow we must search out woollen clothes for we are back to northern Europe and its rain and cold’ (MBA Ref 63, f.703).

Katherine Clough
Beattie Archive Assistant
Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

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

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Feature: Floating Carpets, Rugs with Feet and Cultural Context – Some Reflections on the Challenges of Capturing Carpets with Cameras, as Seen in the Beattie Archive

I’m pleased to present the second installment of our Beattie Archive mini-series from Katherine Clough, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, all about the difficulties (and the interesting advantages) of photographing rugs. If  you’ve never encountered rugs with feet before, read on!

The art of capturing carpets in pictorial records has a long history, with artworks depicting carpets, such as Persian miniatures and European paintings, offering invaluable clues to long-lost textiles.1 Carpets occur as decorative domestic floor and furniture coverings, as backdrops demarcating sacred spaces and as prestige items in portraiture, within a range of painted arts across cultures. However, the advent of photography in the late nineteenth century provided a new method of visualising woven textiles, and, with the camera’s ‘scientific eye’, carpets soon began to be photographed as subjects in themselves, for promotion in sales catalogues, museum publications and in the interests of research in carpet studies. A certain type of carpet photography has become a ubiquitous standard in publications: a high quality image, with the carpet flat, evenly lit and floating in negative space, isolated from its context to emphasise its visual qualities. However, photographs taken ‘in the field’, or those that happen to feature carpets, also provide additional contextual information, such as clues to location, suggestions of how carpets were used, and the inclusion of people and further material culture, which can be just as important for carpet research.

May Beattie valued the potential of photography in carpet research, taking photographs of carpets she visited and requesting and collecting images of carpets from museums, sales catalogues and other reproductions such as postcards, publications and newspapers. It is this type of material that makes up roughly one-third of the May Beattie Archive held at the Ashmolean Museum, constituting a formidable collection of carpet imagery, organised and filed into defined categories.

Two postcards collected by Beattie (MBA Imag 33 Fols 61, 63), show the different domestic uses of rugs in a reconstructed eighteenth-century Turkish Ottoman setting (left) and a European stately home (right).

Two postcards collected by Beattie (MBA Imag 33 Fols 61, 63), show the different domestic uses of rugs in a reconstructed eighteenth-century Turkish Ottoman setting (left) and a European stately home (right).

However, carpets are not necessarily easy to capture on camera. The image that featured in a previous blog post on the Armenian orphan rug is a great example of a photograph that shows the challenges of photographing large rugs in situ, and the potential benefit of added context: here the holders drape the carpet from the roof of a building in order to display it for the camera, with the whole scene providing an immediate sense of scale, a specific location, and their potentially recognisable faces, all of which add visual significance to the story of this particular rug. The difficulty of representing carpets photographically for use in research, both in the studio and in the field, is two-fold: firstly, the physical problems of photographing flexible, flat surfaces, especially with larger carpets, and secondly, limitations in capturing material detail to reveal production techniques rather than just visual design.

The challenges surrounding capturing carpets on camera are well represented in the Beattie Archive. Many of May Beattie’s own photographs held in the archive are ‘field’ images – carpets photographed in situ on her travels, held up by stretched arms, with glimpses of the holders and surrounding location framing the edges of the carpet. In many images fingers are barely visible, limited to the tips at the borders. Often what results is a series of almost surreal images with rugs shown as if autonomously standing, with feet and legs poking out underneath.

Rugs with feet: many of the photographs in the archive show Beattie’s attempt to capture clear images of the rugs with the holders’ bodies hidden except for their feet. Other photographs reveal the photographer’s own feet, such as the central image of a carpet detail taken from above  (L–R: MBA Imag 11 Fols 140, 141; MBA Imag 24 Fol. 27).

Rugs with feet: many of the photographs in the archive show Beattie’s attempt to capture clear images of the rugs with the holders’ bodies hidden except for their feet. Other photographs reveal the photographer’s own feet, such as the central image of a carpet detail taken from above. (L–R: MBA Imag 11 Fols 140, 141; MBA Imag 24 Fol. 27)

Edited versions of her photographs show how she later used correction fluid and cropping to alter some of these images to isolate the carpet and achieve the publication-quality standard image of a flat, floating carpet instead.

Beattie annotated some of her photographs for editing to use in publications,  like this one (MBA Imag 33 Fols 155–156), which includes instructions for the removal of traces  of the carpet holder and background.

Beattie annotated some of her photographs for editing to use in publications, like this one (MBA Imag 33 Fols 155–156), which includes instructions for the removal of traces of the carpet holder and background.

But, like the Armenian rug example mentioned above, unedited versions and wider location shots can also offer carpet researchers further information about the carpet, its context, and even the photographer. Friends and associates often appear incidentally in the archive: Colin Beattie, May’s husband, features in many of the photographs, assisting in the holding of rugs and standing in the background. Additionally, there is always the potential for taking copies of photographs to the depicted locations to see if faces and specific sites can be identified. Returning photographs in anthropological research (my own academic background) has proved a fruitful method for adding layers of knowledge to existing photographs, but also potentially for benefitting the communities featured in the images by gifting copies, supporting interest in local heritage and family histories, themes significantly associated with making carpets in many societies.2

Family portrait? Several generations of women appear with the rug in this photograph  (MBA Imag 3 Fol. 46) found in the Beattie Archive.

Family portrait? Several generations of women appear with the rug in this photograph
(MBA Imag 3 Fol. 46) found in the Beattie Archive.

Beattie’s correspondence also details the challenges of using photography in carpet research and the importance of good-quality images. In response to a letter from a collector in autumn 1976, who had written to ask for Beattie’s opinion on a rug (MBA Ref 18. Fols. 55–62), she affirms the importance of examining carpets in person, writing:

‘I cannot of course express any opinion on your carpet without seeing it.’

‘The difficulty about trying to assess a carpet from photos is that one does not know the technique and there are so many forgeries about that one is always reluctant to say much.’

Through the chain of correspondence she finally receives an ‘excellent photo’ of the said carpet via the Metropolitan Museum, and expresses her wish to use the image in her own lectures. The collector even describes the complications the Met had in achieving this image with the carpet described as being ‘too large to be photographed in its entirety in their studio’, instead being ‘done from the wall’, causing a delay in the provision of the image.

Similar complications in photographing textiles continue to face museums today. Current methods of photographing large textiles, such as carpets, at the Ashmolean require the participation of textile conservators and the photography studio. Prepared lengths of fuzzy Velcro, stitched to wide cotton tape, are temporarily fixed to the short end of a carpet, which is then carefully attached to a wooden baton prepared with hooked Velcro. The baton can then be suspended from the rigging in the photographic studio, with the weight of the carpet more evenly supported than using fingers, and where it can be evenly lit and photographed at the correct angle. Textile conservator, Sue Stanton, further confirmed it as a time-consuming process, only undertaken with planning and preparation. Photographs are increasingly being seen as important records of museum objects, entered onto museum databases and used on digital display platforms, in addition to printed publications.

Screenshot of the digital online record of a Baluchi prayer rug (EA1998.101) bequeathed by May Beattie on the Ashmolean’s Eastern Art Online website.

Screenshot of the digital online record of a Baluchi prayer rug (EA1998.101) bequeathed by May Beattie on the Ashmolean’s Eastern Art Online website.

The vast range and amount of photographic and other visual material in the Beattie Archive constitutes a fantastic resource for a variety of subjects within, and related to, the field of carpet studies. The current work on recording and providing support for the material demands of these images continues.

Katherine Clough
Beattie Archive Assistant
Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

All images © Ashmolean Museum and original copyright holders of the two postcards featured above.

Notes
1. For early examples of texts exploring pictorial records of carpets, see: John Mill’s National Gallery text Carpets in Pictures (1975), revised as Carpets in Paintings (1983) or his Hali articles (1978, 1/3 pp. 234–243; 1978, 1/4 pp. 326–334; 1981, 4/1, pp. 53–55; 1981, 3/4 pp. 278–289); and the first section of Kurt Erdmann’s Seven Hundred Years of Carpets, of which May Beattie co-edited the 1970 English translation.

2. For examples of returning photographs in visual anthropological research, see: Joshua Bell’s chapter in Laura Peers and Alison Brown’s Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader (2003, London: Routledge Press, pp. 111–121); and J. Dudding’s ‘Visual Repatriation and Photo-elicitation: Recommendations on Principles and Practices for the Museum Worker’ in Journal of Museum Ethnography (2005, 17, pp. 218–231).

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.