Drawing the Arabesque, Tracing the Palmette: Sketching the British Museum and V&A Islamic Collections

Participants’ sketchbooks at the V&A drawing session

This month I started something that has been in my mind to do for a while – organizing small group sessions in which people can understand and reflect upon objects in the Islamic galleries of the V&A and the British Museum through drawing. I was most gratified by the interest, and I really enjoyed the interaction with our small and vibrant groups of people with a passionate interest in Islamic design. Several serious artists attended, but the sessions are also for those who have rarely thought of lifting a pencil to paper, because the primary motivation of the drawing is to use it as a tool for personal reflection and ‘Me-Time’.

The appeal of Islamic art extends not only to the many participants of Muslim heritage, but also to a much wider audience. It’s unique, diverse, eclectic clarity and beauty resonates on a universal scale, and as such belongs to all. The museum galleries are so well curated, that one can trace the myriad influences that have woven into this synergy, understand key chapters in the great story, study and discover two of the finest public collections of Islamic art.

I shall be continuing regular drawing sessions in London locations like the museums, so if you would like to be involved, please do get in touch with me, or sign up to my Mailchimp Newsletter for notifications.

Sketch of the pomegranate tree – rapid drawing method using a hard pencil overlaid with soft rendering – the hard lines come through as white lines.

The focus of the sessions was to trace the development of a key component of Islamic design – the Arabesque, also known as Islimi, Rumi or Biomorphic design. Its key component is the Palmette, an ancient abstacted vegetal element based variously on the palm leaf, acanthus, vine leaf – even the Egyptian papyrus and lotus if you go back far enough through its history. We searched for different stages in the assimilation and evolution of this important design element within the canon of Islamic art, making connections between different objects and sketching anything that felt interesting.

We discussed and shared ideas, and everyone soon lost any inhibition they might initially have felt about sketching. Professional artists cast off the rigorous constraints of their craft, and those new to drawing cast off their fear of mark-making. You only really get that dynamic freedom when you are face-to-face with a real subject, your hand a conduit for the impressions you are absorbing. Like language and music, visual expression is our collective birthright, and the pencil is a powerful tool that belongs to us all.

I have put together some collages of the objects we viewed and discussed, together with some of our sketches of them:

Collage Board 1 – Objects from The British Museum

The collage board above has images of objects in The British Museum Islamic Galleries showing Persian and Eastern Roman sources assimilated into early Islamic visual culture.

Top: A 9th century bowl made in Iraq or Syria under the ‘Abbassid caliphate, BM museum no. 1965,0730.1. This is early Lustre-ware, and the design is reminiscent of the ‘Wing’ motifs and ‘Crowns’ of Sassanian (Persian) design, It references the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda, or the flames of the ‘Eternal Fire’.

Right: Palm-filial on the gold Surah Heading of a 9th century ‘Abbassid Qu’ran with palmettes inspired by Sassanian ‘Wings’. This Qur’an folio is from the collection of the Islamic Art Museum of Malaysia, museum no. IAMM 2018.3.1, part of a temporary exhibition about Arabesque design in the Islamic galleries.

Left: Delicate fragment of a 12th century gold-painted ‘Sandwich Glass’ vessel from Mosul, Iraq, British Museum no. 1906,0719.1. This is a Hellenistic/Roman style of luxury glass – notice the Wings of the falcons, and the Pomegranate Trees that look like Qur’anic palmette finials.

Collage Board 2 – Archaeological finds from Lost Cities.

This Collage Board shows some archaelogical remains from the 9th century cities of Samarra in Iraq, and Siraf in Iran.

Right: Another elegant gilded vessel from the 9th century, with Hellenistic/Alexandrian style palmette and lotus motifs.

British Museum – Teak panel from Samarra, Iraq.

Left and Top Right: We were fascinated by examples of early Islamic ‘Bevelled Style’ designs in the cases dedicated to archaelogical finds from  the lost cities of Samarra and Siraf.  The Teak Door has some Greek-style Palmettes and other mysterious elements in its design. The section of Stucco Relief Frieze from Siraf features an early iteration of scrolling palmettes – with a little imagination, one can see how these shapes gradually evolved into the refined split-palmettes we see in the illuminated borders of 15th and 16th century Persian manuscripts .

Another teak panel carved in Bevelled Style excited some discussion – some people thought the design looks like a row of baboon’s faces! The S-curves are very elegant; the design pre-empts the general tendency towards abstraction and refinement in Islamic design.

Collage Board 3 – Ceramic panels from the tomb of Sultan Buyanquli at the V&A, with sketches by Nick Bartlett

This Collage Board features Architectural Ceramics from a 14th century Il Khanid tomb for Sultan Buyanquli in Bukhara, installed in the V&A Islamic gallery.

These large plaques and architectural features were moulded and carved from strong Fritware ceramic paste, fired and then glazed with copper/tin compounds to give these beatiful turquoise shades. Islamic design, geometry and calligraphy had reached a high level of refinement by this period. I really loved the rapid, expressive drawings made by artist Nick Bartlett in response to these objects, included in the collage board above. It would be interesting to see how he develops these impressions!

I would also like to share an example of how another wonderfully dedicated artist, Margi Lake, has interpreted her experience of this very installation in her practice.















Picture Credits: The object images come from the museums’ Collections Databases: V&A Search the Collections and  British Museum Collections Online. Where possible I have provided the museum numbers of the objects to facilitate searching. They are both Leviathan databases with well over 1,000 000 objects in each! Images are downloadable for personal use.

Margi Lake’s pictures are obtained with her permission, and you can see more of her work if you follow the links to her website and facebook feed.

Pictures of our gallery sketches were taken by me, Anita Chowdry.