Feature: The Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia

Publication of this guest blog is for information only and does not indicate an endorsement of this tour by the OATG.

THE LESSER SUNDA ISLANDS OF INDONESIA

OATG member Jenny Spancake recently joined a Textile Tour of the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia on which fellow OATG members David and Sue Richardson were the textile experts. Here she shares her some of her experiences:-

My husband and I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1983. One of our first trips in the region was to Bali where a friend asked if I would buy her a piece of ikat; this was my introduction to this technique. As an embroiderer, I was fascinated with ikat and wanted to learn more about it. Living in a number of locations around the world, including around four years in Thailand and seven in total in Kuala Lumpur, I was able to learn quite a bit about the ikat textiles of Southeast Asia. However living in mainland Southeast Asia meant I focused on weft ikat, mostly done on silk, and these are the type of ikats we began to collect. With travels to India, Central and South America and Central Asia, I broadened the base of that knowledge. What was needed to close the circle of study was a trip to the islands of Indonesia.

The perfect opportunity came in May 2019 with a trip to the Lesser Sunda Islands with David and Sue Richardson. As these islands we visited are part of the province of Indonesia known as Nusa Tenggara Timur I will refer to them as NTT. Traveling with the Richardsons was a good choice for us as they are very willing to share the knowledge of Indonesia and its textiles that they have gained over many years. The Richardsons focus on the textile techniques and visit only villages that still do natural dyeing.   As my husband’s undergraduate degree is in Chemical Engineering, he was eager to travel with someone as interested in the chemistry of natural dyes as David Richardson is.   The islands of NTT were perfect – a gorgeous landscape with fascinating textiles still woven in the traditional way with natural dyes.

Cotton threads which were bound with strips of a palm leaf and then dyed indigo.

At each village we visited we were welcomed by villagers dressed in their traditional costume, dancing their traditional dances and perhaps the most unexpected joy, playing their traditional music. Videos truly are the only way to capture the magic of these moments. The music is not heard looking at pictures in books and the music is the way the spirit of the village is actually captured. We were entertained in one village by a man playing the hoe as the main performer. In still another village, it was obvious that when they had done the planned program, they continued to play and sing for the sheer joy of the music. These are the moments that only visiting in person can provide.

This man was having such fun and creating great sounds just by hitting his hoe with a stone!

A visit to the village of Lamalera was of twofold interest – of course, we saw textiles. But we also talked to the villagers about their traditional livelihood of whaling and saw a demonstration of how they actually practice it. It is very easy for us in the West to see whaling as only the large scale enterprise that has a negative impact on the existence of whales. We forget that traditionally villages existed in harmony with the environment and depended and still depend on the whales for food and products. Risking their lives to harpoon a whale is a different way of life. The number of whales taken by a village is also a small fraction of that worldwide. [Editor’s note: this is the village where OATG founder Ruth Barnes did much of her research].

A demonstration of traditional whaling from a small boat at Lamalera.

In every village we saw demonstrations of the entire process of creating a textile from picking the cotton, processing it, spinning, dyeing, tying, and then the weaving process. In NTT textiles are produced in cotton in the warp ikat technique. As stated above, one of the things that most appealed to us about this tour was its emphasis on natural dyeing. Natural dyes are making a comeback in some parts of the world, but it is in fact an uphill battle. It is more expensive to use natural dyes because it takes more time to create the desired color. Synthetic dyes are much quicker, so cheaper in the long run when the final price of the piece is considered. In today’s market it is difficult for a weaver to charge a price that reflects the extra time spent in using natural dyes. Also part of the price must reflect the time it takes to produce a multi-colored complex design in ikat. Therefore, what tourists generally see are textiles produced with synthetic colors and a very simple ikat design – which exactly describes my first purchase. But as I learned more about ikat and dyes, I began to desire the more complex, naturally dyed examples. Steve and I have always tried to buy the most well produced pieces as we travel to encourage women to keep weaving at a high quality. Weavers must be able to earn a fair wage so that traditional textiles can continue to be made.

Patterns showing naga, which is very traditional in many parts of Southeast Asia.

I plan to describe just a few interesting experiences from the trip. First, natural dyeing involves a complicated chemical process. Dyers in the villages use both inherited knowledge plus trial and error today to create a wide range of colors.   In NTT the two major colors are indigo (blue) and morinda (red). It is very interesting to see that each village had its own variation on using these dyes.   Indigo is perhaps one of the most common dyes used around the world. Morinda is less well known and I will concentrate on this dye.

Threads dyed with morinda at a workshop on Timor.

Please note that I have used the website of David and Sue Richardson, Asian Textile Studies, as my source for the information detailed here. A great deal more information is included on that website than I will present here. On this trip we saw very detailed demonstrations of how red and brown colors are achieved by using this dye.   This can take a huge amount of root to complete the process to achieve the color desired for the finished textile. Once the bark is collected and prepared to begin to dye, a complex process begins.   Cotton that is to be dyed with morinda must be pretreated and a mordant must be used to fix the color. In NTT the most frequently used mordant is the leaf or bark of the tree belonging to the genus Symplocos. I was intrigued to learn that what made this possible was that the tree draws aluminium from the soil and accumulates it in the leaves and bark. Once processed these produce aluminium salts that then act as a mordant.

However, this process does not work unless the cotton is prepared before the dye made from morinda is applied. The first part of this preparatory process is cleaning the cotton. This is done by washing the yarn in water filtered through wood ash, thus creating an alkaline solution.   Then the cotton must be soaked in oil made from the candlenut tree, widely known as kemiri. Oil is produced from the candlenuts themselves. I have just described in a very simplistic way how cotton is dyed with morinda; for those interested in more detail and the chemistry of this process, please consult the morinda page of the Richardson’s website. The final process of any dyeing sequence is to rinse the cotton in water and here was the insight that interested me most.   I had of course read about the dramatic difference credited to the water of certain production areas when oriental rugs are woven and then washed after their completion. But for some reason I never carried that thought on to natural dyes and cotton and silk textiles.   It was one of those ideas that floats around in your mind but then one day you suddenly say, “Of course, the water is the final important piece of the dyeing puzzle.”   Water is a localized issue; each source of water has its own particular chemical makeup and the minerals present are the final creator of the color produced by the natural dye in question. Pointed out by the Richardsons on this trip, I finally saw the obvious.

Adding alkaline ash water to the morinda dye bath.

Although the main colors that we saw produced were blue and red from indigo and morinda, on one particular island we saw an astonishing array of different colors – all from natural dyes. This was on the tiny island of Ternate where we saw how they made dyes from a huge variety of plants as well as sea sponges and, most fascinating of all, a gastropod called a sea hare. We were told they had dived at 5am to get these creatures, which release purple ink as a defense mechanism. The innards are also used to make a pale green color and finally the sea hare is cooked and eaten so nothing is wasted.

An amazing demonstration of dyeing on Ternate.

Another highlight was our visit to the workshop of Freddy Hambuwali on Sumba. Modern hinggi, a man’s cloth with a long history, are created with a very high standard of warp ikat and finishing.   We were able to see all of these steps, beginning with the drawing of the pattern on the warps. I was particularly interested in the beautiful shade of indigo blue produced here. The ikat threads are dyed with indigo and morinda but a different method is used in Sumba to add a yellow dye – it is painted on after the weaving of the hinggi.   Another Sumbanese method is used to finish the hinggi; the hinggi is turned and the warp threads become the weft as a band called a kabakil is woven on to the bottom to create a finished end to stop the threads from unraveling.

The hinggi produced here are very detailed and are made in a wide variety of designs. We also learned about the computation of bundles of threads to facilitate the process of tying and dyeing. I myself was most attracted to the hinggi that are so obviously based on the patterns of Indian patola cloths. These patola have been a high status cloth in Indonesia for hundreds of years and are preserved as heirlooms in many households in the islands.   The layout of many Indonesian textiles can be seen to originate in the design of patola. Involving complex ikat, these hinggi were for me personally the most interesting ones.

I have oversimplified all of the aspects of weaving and dyeing just briefly mentioned here and have omitted so much, especially the supplementary warp weaving techniques we encountered.

Supplementary warp weaving on Sumba. Here we are being shown how the pattern is kept on sticks.

And I have not even begun to describe all of the villages visited, the many rewarding encounters with villagers and all that I learned. I relaxed on the beautiful Ombak Putih with its attentive crew, delicious food and comfortable cabins, learned so many new things about textiles, experienced new cultures in majestic landscapes and made new friends. I doubt one can ask for more in life.

What I really wanted to express to readers is the great joy that I experienced throughout this trip, which is extremely well designed and lends itself to a constant learning experience.  We’ve been on many textile tours, quite a few led by textile experts, but none of these leaders have ever been so generous with their knowledge as David and Sue – they love Indonesian culture so much it’s infectious and inspires you to want to learn more We’re always looking for trips that focus on textiles and this one exceeded our expectations.

For full details of this tour visit the Tour page of Asian Textile Studies or email David and Sue directly.

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Feature: The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, Köln

“It is only through knowledge of other cultures and other ways of life that mutual understanding, respect and tolerance between people in their immediate vicinity can be promoted.” RJM catalogue.

The exterior of the museum

Last autumn OATG members David and Sue Richardson spent time at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum – Cultures of the World in Köln, Germany at the invitation of Sonja Mohr, the curator for Insular Southeast Asia, and give their impressions of it below.

The first thing that hits you as you enter the huge reception area of this museum in central Köln is the rice barn from Kesu’ region, Tana Toraja which the museum acquired in 1984. Fortunately they have the provenance of this structure and know that it was decorated in around 1935 by the master carver Ne’Kambane. It must have been an enormous task to dismantle this and reconstruct it the museum.

The rice barn which dominates the entrance to the museum. © David Richardson

© Sue Richardson

The bones of the collection came from that of Wilhelm Joest. He was a great traveller and collector and when he died of fever in the South Seas his collection went to his sister Adele, who was married to Eugen Rautenstrauch. When her husband died just a few years later, Adele financed the construction in 1901 of a museum to house this collection, which opened in 1906 in South Köln.

Joest in his Berlin apartment. © Rauchenstrauch-Joest Museum

Damage sustained by the building during the war, plus the risk of flooding from the Rhine, meant a new location was required and the current museum opened in the city centre in 2010. It is spread over several levels, with a gallery for temporary exhibitions on the ground floor and the main permanent exhibition above.

The main exhibition is grouped around several themes, based on cultural comparisons, under the banner People in their Worlds.  As we entered the exhibition we were faced with a large screen with a video showing numerous people of different ethnic origins saying welcome in a variety of languages. “This comparative cultural approach emphasises the equality and validity of all cultures and provides impulses for thought and stimulating dialogue.” RJM catalogue.

The next area was used for the performance of gamelan music and wayang shadow plays.

One of the areas we found fascinating was the recreation of the homes of several major collectors. The walls were covered with a facsimile of the interiors, and items that could be seen on those images were also exhibited in the room. This gave us a greater understanding of context.

Max Oppenheim’s apartment c 1920 decorated with items from his collection of Orientalia. © David Richardson.

After considering the role of the collector we entered an area which looks at The Distorted View, examining our prejudices about other people. It looks at historical views of people seen as “other”, as well as current ones.

Following this we entered the section which examines the portrayal of the human figure by peoples with different artistic traditions. One of the stand-out pieces for us was this altar from Leti, Eastern Indonesia, acquired there in 1912 by Wilhelm Müller who unfortunately died of typhoid on Java just 4 years later.

An altar for offerings to Hu-rainna Hu-tualinna, the founding ancestress of a particular kinship group.© David Richardson

Next we entered the area looking at Living Spaces. This contained many examples of dwellings including a tipee from the Blackfoot of the northern Plains, a Tuareg tent , and a large section of a men’s house from the Asmat people. This was of particular interest to us as we have visited several Asmat villages over the years. This particular example was abandoned in 1993. In complete contrast to this was the reception room of a house from Kayseri in Cappadocia (Turkey). This dates to the beginning of the 19th century and the interior decoration is a combination of Islamic and European styles.

© Martin Classen and Arno Janson

Our favourite part was next – The Body as a Stage: Clothes and Adornment. One section looked at how regional forms of clothing and decoration have evolved and how some fabrics have come to represent a people – as in the case of batik.

Sarong (cut open and rolled) from Lasem on the north coast of Java c. 1880. This is a masterpiece of batik with lots of different animal motifs.

© Sue Richardson

The next section looked at how clothing differs by gender in many societies and we were delighted to see cloths from Tanimbar Island in Indonesia used to convey this.

Tanimbar sarong. C. 1900. The black and white stripes in the middle show that this belonged to someone of high rank. © David Richardson

Tanimbar loincloth, dyed with indigo and decorated with shells. This section would have hung down at the front. © Sue Richardson.

One of the most outstanding pieces came in the section on Power and Wealth and was this feather cloak from Hawaii. This sort of cloak could only be worn by certain members of the nobility, and hundreds of thousands of feathers went into making this.

Feather cloak ‘ahu’ula from Hawaii. This dates to pre-1823 and originally belonged to King Kamehameha II. © David Richardson

We also loved this extraordinary bull-shaped coffin which was made for the museum in 2006 by the Balinese artist I Ketut Budiana.

© Sue Richardson

The exhibition ends with almost a mirror image of how it began – with a video on a large screen of the same people who said welcome in differnt languages. However there is a twist – this time they all speak in German and say Ich bin ein Kölner/Kölnerin – I am from Köln. We really loved this idea.

We have only been able to provide a snapshot of this excellent museum here – omitting a Peruvian cloth that dated to the 14th century, Gujarati patolu, fabulous Asmat carvings etc, etc. The museum has over 3,500 textiles and a varied selection of them are on display – with yet more in their wonderful storage area. We highly recommend a visit!

 

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Feature: Bronze Drums and their Motifs

© David Richardson

Dong-son drums and the motifs found on them have fascinated several OATG members. Chris Buckley has conducted a phylogenetic analysis of warp-ikat motifs, including a comparison of the geometric figures found on mainland and island Southeast Asia textiles with those found on Dong-son drums. He found little or no overlap. In particular, the hook and rhomb motifs characteristic of Southeast Asian weaving that are often claimed to be Dong-son were not identified on Dong-son bronzes.

For further information on the spurious link to the Dong-son culture see the work of OATG members David and Sue Richardson here. They show the differences between the sophisticated motifs found on the Heger type-1 Dong-son drums found in Eastern Indonesia and the anthropomorphic figures found in local weavings. They have also written on the anthropomorphic figures found on moko drums here.

Being welcomed to a village on Alor by Mama Agus Fanmalai of Suku Marang. The function of this clan is to connect the people with their ancestors. © David Richardson.

Hourglass-shaped bronze drums called mokos are still in use today on the island of Alor in the Indonesian archipelago for ritual celebrations and as part of the marriage exchange. Ownership of certain types of moko conveys social status. The majority of them probably came from north-east Java. In 1916 the government conducted a registration of the mokos on Alor and at that time they numbered over two thousand. This number is probably conservative as many people would have hidden their mokos to avoid registering them.

They are also occasionally found on sale in the local market. These drums come in a variety of different sizes and were probably brought to Alor by Makassarese and Chinese merchants. In the past they were used as  a medium of exchange – just like a currency.

A moko drum for sale on the bazaar. © David Richardson

Indeed the provincial museum in Kalabahi, the capital of Alor is called the Museum of a Thousand Moko – however we have never counted to see if there really are 1000! This museum also has a fine display of textiles, including some made of barkcloth, and weaving equipment. Their collection of baskets is also strong, and ceramics include a VOC plate.  

Leaflet from the excellent Museum of 1000 Moko

On Wednesday 20 February 2019 at 17:15 Anna Karlström, a researcher in heritage studies at the department of art history/conservation, Uppsala University Campus Gotland, will give a seminar on bronze drums at SOAS, London. Below is the information on this seminar, provided by the SOAS website.

“Bronze drums were produced and used within animist traditions, in a pre-Buddhist era almost three thousand years ago. Dong Son culture, bronze age, early civilisation and sophisticated art production are concepts that most scholars within Southeast Asian archaeology and art history immediately think of when bronze drums enter the academic discussion. The drums have been, and still are, examined primarily as prehistoric artefacts or pieces of art and categorised according to established typologies. Archaeologists and art historians are looking into distribution patterns of the drums through which trade, exchange and cultural contacts can be traced, as well as production methods, techniques and iconography. Little attention has been given the fact that these artefacts constitute a living heritage, and that they are still being produced and used in various ways for different purposes all over Southeast Asia. In some contexts the drums are still parts of animist traditions, in others they have been incorporated into Buddhist traditions and religious practices, linked to cultural heritage politics, identity and nationalism. In this presentation, the transformation of bronze drums as heritage is examined through a case study from Vietnam, but also related to other examples from mainland Southeast Asia.”

This event is free, but registration is required.

Location: SOAS Russell Square: College Buildings Room 4429

 

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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

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.