Objects of Desire
This month at Art Historical London, I shall be presenting the start of a mini-series of online lectures focusing on craft industries of the medieval Islamic world that filtered into Western Europe – a perfect lock-down diversion for anybody wanting some mental and visual stimulation! They run on Tuesdays, 16th – 30th June from 1.00 – 2.00 pm, organized and hosted by art historian Mariska Beekenkamp-Vladimiroff
To start with, I shall be tracing the history of Lustreware Ceramics – a technique that was invented in Iraq way back in the 9th century under the ‘Abbassid Caliphs. These rare treasures are held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin, and the British Museum, London – archaeological finds from the ancient ghost city of Samarra that sunk into the sands by the Tigris river more than a thousand years ago.
This was the origin of centuries of fascination with this gleaming, iridescent pottery glaze, described by a 14th century Persian potter as being “Like the Light of the Sun”, and later adopted by 19th century ceramicist William de Morgan, one of the pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain.
The V&A museum in London houses a huge archive of William de Morgan’s pottery and drawings, and it was my pleasure to spend hours of research on the museum’s online database enraptured by his creativity. De Morgan drew his inspiration from the Islamic world, and his archive contains hundreds of drawings that he made from Iznik and Damascus pottery, as well as the distinctive Manises lustreware of Southern Spain – another chapter in the story of how lustreware came to Europe.
The telling of this story and the others in my series, illustrated with sumptuous images of desirable objects from the Museum collections, arose from my research for new courses for the Art History faculty at the City Literary Institute in London, where I have been teaching since 2017.
One of the pleasures of teaching Art History at the City Lit is that I get the freedom to design my own courses. As many of my students want to return term after term, I am constantly thinking up new topics to add to my core subjects on medieval and early modern Islamic art and design. This presents a constant challenge, but a very inspiring one. And I find a great deal of my inspiration comes from trawling the Leviathan online collections databases of the great museums.
My favourite haunts are the databases of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum (both in London), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), and The David Collection (Copenhagen)*. The first three are truly monumental, each with around a million images and object descriptions, and it takes a while before you understand the best Keywords to enter for a search. Then you might get anything up to 5,000 entries – so be prepared for a long session!
Some of the object descriptions include helpful essays by the curators, and in the case of the Metropolitan Museum, there is a whole section devoted to related essays in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Taken together, museums databases present some of the most powerful online learning and research tools for those inclined to spend the time.
Lustreware is out of this world. A former potter, I am mortified that I did not know the technique originated in Iraq such a long time ago.
Thank you for elaborating about the ins and out of museum online navigation, any clarification is very much appreciated.
Thankyou for your comment. and please do sign onto the lecture on the 16th June (1.00 – 2.00 pm) if you have the time – there will also be handouts available from the Art Historical London website.
I am fascinated that you are a potter – did you work with lustre glazes?
Salut, Anita! I was a potter in NYC during the 1970s, so a long time ago. The owner of the studio did at times use lustre glazes as accents in her work which often incorporated insect shapes. My focus was on carved porcelain & celadon glazes though my passion for all things ceramic originated with a paternal aunt who kept a Brooklyn shop in the 1940s-50s where she handpainted with lustre ware that was already fired, glazed, and produced by someone else. As a small child I would wander into her walk-in kiln as she was loading it up mostly with dinner sets destined for wedding gifts. She did a dinner plate to celebrate my birthday; my name and the stars around it was done in gold which I no longer have but will never forget. In another NYC studio, a similar metallic effect was achieved by sprinkling dry metallic oxides on stoneware bisque pieces covered with liquid glazes which were then fired. Mottled glints of bronze and silver would result.
I will put your lecture on my calendar!
What a fascinating history Michelle! Thankyou so much for sharing. William de morgan actually used pre-manufactured and glazed pottery on which he painted his lustre glazes for a second firing, so I guess that division of labour was common. I look forward to your presence (though I may not be able to see you) – Mariska (see above) will guide us through all the logistics of the online lecture!