Exhibitions and events
The art of imitation - 19th century Islamic revivalism

During the 19th century the art movement of Orientalism reached its height in Europe and North America, particularly influencing the subject matter of paintings by many Western artists. But this artistic movement spread far beyond the confines of the canvas to influence ceramics, glassmaking, architecture and literature, to name but a few disciplines.

An interest in design and technique defined the production of revivalist art. Craftsmen studied Islamic art in museum collections and publications, and strove to create imitations or variations of the originals. European and North American craftsmen saw these intricate designs and sophisticated techniques as superior to those in the industrialised West, where objects were becoming more and more mass produced.

Due to an increase in travel, trade, diplomatic encounters and colonial expansion, objects and works of art exchanged hands more readily. Exhibitions and world fairs, such as London’s 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, and subsequent fairs in London, Paris and Vienna, among others, also offered the public the chance to see objects and materials from around the world.

The influence of ceramics from Islamic lands

19th-century Islamic revivalist art is particularly apparent in glass and ceramics, especially dishes and tiles. Beautiful examples of these imitations are featured in Inspired by the east, some alongside their originals. One common source of inspiration for craftsmen was Iznik ceramics from Turkey. Named after the town of Iznik, southeast of Istanbul, these ceramics were produced from the late 15th century to the end of the 17th century. Iznik ceramics were originally inspired by Chinese blue-and-white porcelains, but gradually developed into their own style through the addition of further colours and local designs. They were a clear source of inspiration to the French 19th-century ceramicist Théodore Deck, for his near-identical version of a 16th-century Iznik dish is on display in the exhibition next to the original. 

Tiles were another significant source of inspiration to European and North American craftsmen. Many buildings such as mosques, shrines and palaces across the Middle East and North Africa are exquisitely decorated with colourful tiles bearing geometric, floral and sometimes figural designs. As with the dishes above, some tiles were copied almost exactly by Western artists, while others were adapted to fit within a particular European or North American design vocabulary. Within the Ottoman Empire, the town of Iznik produced great quantities of tiles, but other towns and cities such as Damascus were also important production sites. Similarities can be seen in the example shown here of a Damascus tile alongside a late 19th-century Dutch variation.

Artist unknown. Impression taken from RMS Titanic’s brochure, depicting the cooling room of the Turkish baths, c. 1908. Courtesy of Henry Aldridge and Son.

In Europe and North America, wall tiles became more regularly used from the 1850s onwards. Developments in sanitation and healthcare meant they were valued as easily cleaned surfaces, and advancements in industry allowed for mass-production. As such, wealthy patrons with an interest in the ‘Orient’ could commission rooms filled with tiles, either copying or referencing designs and colours from the Middle East and North Africa.

The Islamic interior

The Arab Hall in Leighton House, Holland Park, London, is an excellent example of a room decorated and filled with tiles to evoke the ‘Orient’. 19th-century artist Frederic, Lord Leighton was a keen traveller and collector of objects from the Middle East and North Africa and, as a result, commissioned an ‘Arab Hall’ for his home in 1877. He employed architect George Aitchison to create this room based on a hall from a 12th-century castle in Sicily. Alongside Aitchison, designer Walter Crane worked on one of the friezes in the room and ceramicist William De Morgan produced some of the tiles. The result is a vibrant, splendid mixture of Islamic tiles and architectural references alongside European tiles and design elements.

Recent photograph of the Arab Hall, Leighton House Museum. ©Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

While the tiles in Leighton House come from different parts of the Islamic world, the majority were brought back from Damascus by Leighton himself or his friends and contacts. Where there were gaps in the tile panels, Leighton employed De Morgan to create replicas of the 16–17th century originals. Additionally, De Morgan produced undecorated tiles of a striking turquoise colour to cover the walls in the entrance of the house, and further embellish the space.   

The influence of glass from the Islamic world

Gilded and enamelled glass mosque lamp, Cairo, c.1330.

Enamelling and gilding glass was a highly established art form in Egypt and Syria during the 13th and 14th centuries. Vessels of various forms were produced, but particularly spectacular and intricate were the lamps that hung from the ceilings of mosques and shrines. Designed to hold water, oil and a floating wick, these illuminated lamps were often embellished with enamelled calligraphy bearing verses from the Qur‘an or dedicatory inscriptions. These mosque lamps were technically difficult to make as the glass first had to be free-blown to create the desired shape, and then decorated with the coloured enamels and gilt. 

Philippe-Joseph Brocard (1831–1896), gilded and enamelled glass mosque lamp. France, c.1877. @ Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

Enamelled and gilded glass objects were not only made for local patrons but also for export to Europe. These works greatly influenced glass production in the West due to the high level of craftsmanship they demonstrated. Examples ended up in the homes of private collectors, museums, and were also displayed in world fairs. French glassmaker Philippe-Joseph Brocard studied the designs on – and techniques evident in – mosque lamps from Egypt and Syria in the collection of the Musée de Cluny in Paris. He then began to collect examples and taught himself the technique. He was one of the first Westerners to revive the technique of Islamic enamelling and his works include near-identical copies and variations of the originals.

New colour schemes and materials

While many European and North American craftsmen working in the revivalist style reproduced Islamic objects in keeping with their original materials and techniques, some chose different mediums. French artist Théodore Deck did both, as evidenced by his Iznik-inspired dish, and this ceramic basin and bowl which reference Islamic metalware. Both ceramic pieces follow the form of the 14th-century inlaid metalwork (the basin was made in Egypt or Syria), yet Deck has taken artistic liberties in his use of coloured glazes. The turquoise-blue used on the bowl – known as ‘bleu Deck’ – was developed by Deck and can be found on many of his ceramic pieces. Between 1861 and 1873 his work was shown at a number of the international exhibitions, including Paris, London and Vienna.

Towards the end of the 19th century, craftsmen began to stray from their original sources. While the designs, techniques and colours, informed by the arts of the Islamic world, remained a clear source of inspiration, they became diluted as craftsmen began to feed them into the vocabulary of the Arts and Crafts movement emerging in Europe and North America.

See these beautiful examples of 19th century revivalist artworks alongside impressive original works in Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art open until 26 January 2020. Find out more and book tickets.

Supported by Jack Ryan

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