Objects of Desire

Metropolitan Museum of Art 9th century Ewer excavated at Samarra. Accession no. 54.71.1

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.

V&A Museum Vase by William de Morgan, Fulham 1895. Museum no. C.417-1919

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.

* Each database is slightly different in the way it works and what you get, largely depending on when it was last overhauled. The oldest used to be that of the British museum, but they have just launched a new online database, and they are currently in the process of transferring material to the new interface – a monumental task of human labour! The old system was slow and clunky, often unpredictable… but peversely, I am sorry to see it retired.  It  was a bit like exploring a chaotic antiques market at Portobello Road. The sweetest in its organization and usability is the David Collection in Copenhagen – compact and beautifully presented in themed sections.
Picture Credits:
Featured Image: ©Victoria and Albert Museum London: Plate by William de Morgan, Fulham 1898, museum no. C421-1919
Top: Open Access, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 9th century Ewer excavated at Samarra. Accession no. 54.71.1
Lower: ©Victoria and Albert Museum London: Vase by William de Morgan, Fulham 1895. Museum no. C.417-1919