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Reflecting the Natural World: Respite and Shelter in Rug Design

The endless fecundity — and beauty — of the natural world is a constant theme in antique rugs, and that is especially true of the selection for our Fall 2020 Sale. The importance of the idea of “the Garden” is an often-noted feature of Islamic Art in general, and Persian Art in particular. A garden, of course, has echoes of the original Paradise, Eden, as well as the Paradise to come. But beyond all notions of the life-to-come, a garden, no matter how small, represents respite and shelter in a region where much of the landscape is arid and unforgiving.

Lot 1048: Serapi Carpet, northwestern Iran, c. 1890

Serapi Carpet, northwestern Iran, c. 1890. Lot 1048, Estimate: $8,000-10,000

Here in this lovely Serapi carpet, for example, we have a provincial weaver’s version of a classic walled garden: a central pool of water, surrounded by various stylized renderings of plants and (quite unusually, and wonderfully) large heraldic birds. 

Despite the fact that the design vocabulary in this carpet, as with most Persian rugs, is floral in origin, there is nothing flowery going on here.  Or curvy, for that matter. Instead, in classic Northwest Persian fashion, the branches, leaves, and blossoms are rendered with a highly stylized angularity that is both childlike and controlled. Another appealing aspect of this lovely carpet is the weaver’s use of space. A musician friend tells me that when he’s playing at his best, it’s like there’s an envelope of silence around every note. Similarly, in this carpet, there’s an envelope of space around every element, so we can really see, and feel, what’s going on in the garden at our feet.

Lot 1140: Marasali Rug, Caucasus, dated 1852 (1269)

Marasali Rug, Caucasus, dated 1852 (1269). Lot 1140, Estimate: $3,000-3,500

This relatively early Marasali Prayer rug is exemplary: a dark blue field with staggered rows of boteh-shaped flowers surrounded by an ivory grape-vine border. And clearly made for a special client — a local potentate, perhaps — suggested by a fine weave and the numerous silk highlights.  But beyond those things that make it a splendid example of type, however, there’s that “something” that raises certain rugs to the level of real art. That “something”, obviously, is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it:  the range of  colors, the harmonious wedding of technical finesse with playfulness, the way the interiors of the botehs are wonderfully varied, both elegant and psychedelic.

Lot 1103: Ningxia Runner, western China, 18th century

Ningxia Runner, western China, 18th century. Lot 1103, Estimate: $1,000-1,200

One of the wonders that early rugs from Western China sometimes achieve, as in this sweet little Ningxia, is a seamless mix of austerity and whimsy.   We see a darkened sky, maybe a half-hour after sunset, with cloud-bands and bats.  But these bats are not the stiff, stylized doodles of auspicious presence that we’re used to seeing in Chinese rugs. These bats are real creatures, on the hunt, swooping in and out of the roiling clouds.

Lot 1101: Victorian Chair Upholstered with Ningxia Mats, western China, c. 1890

Victorian Chair Upholstered with Ningxia Mats, western China, c. 1890.
Lot 1101, Estimate: $800-1,000

To the late Victorian sensibility, any rug — no matter what significance it may have held in the culture that made it — was fair game as a furnishing object. Every textile was potential upholstery. And when you had covered your floors and your stairs and your table-tops and your walls with rugs, you could chop them up and cover an armchair with them. As we have here, where pieces from a number of Ningxia mats and rugs have been artfully arranged for seating. Plus, it’s comfortable — just the place to curl up with a snifter of brandy & a book of Tang Dynasty poetry.

Lot 1119: Ukrainian Carpet, c. 1800

Ukrainian Carpet, c. 1800. Lot 1119, Estimate: $6,000-8,000

The first thing that strikes one about this beautiful carpet is its quality, the fine weave and delicate drawing, the soft sumptuous wool, the generous use of space. The ivory field, with its wreaths of acanthus leaves surrounding floral bouquets, is pure “Age of Reason”. The expansive terracotta border, on the other hand, with its huge, blobby flowerheads, represents barely contained wildness. Made almost certainly for the Francophile Russian market, one can imagine this rug on the floor of Count Rostov’s house in St. Petersburg, 10 years before Napoleon — that upstart — decided to invade.

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