A Detective Story at Salisbury House
December 2, 2015 Leave a comment
One of the intriguing aspects of the collections at Salisbury House is the opportunity they present for research about the many interesting objects in the house. A case in point is a very unusual prayer rug displayed in the first floor west hallway, outside the Dining Room.
The rug is a “saf” or “saph”, which is a family prayer rug – in this case, with six niches for a man and his five sons or other male family members. In use, the points of the arches would be pointed toward Mecca. Safs are fairly uncommon, and this layout of side-by-side niches is only one of the possible arrangements of the niches.
The rug has been hanging in this location since at least 1928. It is listed in a 1928 appraisal inventory as 16th Century with “thousand knots gold field,” but with no location of origin specified On the other hand, the standard object inventory for the house lists it as from Hamadan in western Iran, but dating from 1880. That is almost 3 centuries difference – which is correct?
In addition to the design, I originally became interested in the rug when I noticed that the construction is extremely unusual. Nearly all Persian rugs are constructed over the entire surface with the so-called Persian knot with the ends of each knot forming the rug surface (Turkish rugs generally use a different knot).
There are generally warp threads between the knots that help hold the rug together, but they are usually not visible from the front. The construction of this rug is different in that only the figural design elements are knotted pile of this type, while the background is woven with a herringbone pattern of flat weave.
In the image below, the raised pile design is in blue, faded red, and a line of light brown, while the woven background is clearly different. Some of the lighter specks in the background are traces of metallic gold thread. The rug clearly belonged to a wealthy man!
While on a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I noticed a so-called “polonaise” carpet which had many features in common with the rug in Salisbury House. The palette was similar, the age was given as circa 1600 (nearly the same as one description of the Salisbury House rug), and the construction combined woven and pile elements.
There were differences, of course – the Victoria and Albert rug is not a prayer rug, it is silk rather than wool, and the background is a brocade rather than a weave. Nonetheless, the similarities led me to contact the Victoria and Albert to see if they could clarify the background of the Salisbury House rug.
My email was very promptly answered by Dr. Moya Carey, Iran Heritage Foundation Curator for the Iranian Collections at the Victoria and Albert. This was something of a surprise, in that Dr. Carey, a distinguished scholar of Iranian art, almost certainly experiences many demands on her time. After sending her some images of the Salisbury House rug, she sent me images of a 1986 museum catalog from the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria. This museum is known for its collection of oriental rugs. The rug on the cover of this catalog is very nearly identical to the one in Salisbury House, as shown in the following image. The Salisbury House rug is on the left.
Based on the catalog description of the Vienna rug, the flat woven background is not in a herringbone pattern, but the rug has the same combination of woven and pile techniques. Clearly, the palette and design are nearly identical.As far as the dating discrepancy, the Vienna rug is a late 19th Century carpet from Khotan, which is in what might once have been called Eastern Turkestan on the Silk Road, in what is now western China.
The two rugs are so similar that there is little doubt that the Salisbury House rug is also from 19th Century Khotan.Thus, the 1928 appraisal was incorrect. Even the experts can be wrong! But the object inventory is also wrong about where it was made, although the date is roughly correct, if a bit too specific.
In all, it makes a fascinating detective story! Salisbury House is fortunate to have such an interesting and unusual rug.The rug on the Vienna catalog cover also has an interesting history, which can be found here.
I would like to again thank Dr. Moya Carey for providing the definitive research that solved this particular Salisbury House detective story.