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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

The Lamb of the Baskervilles

by Jerry Silverman

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes solves a mystery by noting the absence of barking. Such absences are rarely noted. That’s the thing about absences: one’s senses are focussed on the immediacy of the presence of things, overlooking absences. Which brings me to the point of this Salon.

Where are the sheep?

From the very first known rug, the Pazyryk, animals have featured prominently. The Pazyryk shows well-drawn stags and horses. But it is woven from wool, sheep’s wool.

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A magnificent late 16th century-early 17th century Kashan kilim features both real and mythic animals. The central roundel has a gorgeous dragon and phoenix along with a deer and a wolf. The field has realistic birds, the border has cartouches with lions, leopards, and deer, and the spandrels have some sort of ravening feline. Again, no sheep, but then this piece is silk.

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McMullan included an extraordinary example of an animal-filled fragment of a Mughal rug. Birds, a fox, snake, rabbit, and several fantastic beasts are present.

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What does a dragon look like? I’ve never seen one, but Joe McMullan’s Caucasian verneh might prove a pretty good guide. And what’s the deal with the human-faced, winged figure in the upper left margin? Could it be an angel, representing a person who had the misfortune of meeting one of the dragons in life?

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The Chinese have Foo dogs as in this ancient saddle from the McMullan collection.

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No less an authority than A. Cecil Edwards writes in his seminal tome, The Persian Carpet, that Persian weaving was not “symbolic” as “The term is used to describe the practice of introducing motives or figures in a carpet to represent an idea or some form of life or being.” He continues, “For the Persians are an artistic people who regard design as an end in itself. For them a tree design, if well and truly drawn, is important and, in itself, sufficient. To call it a Tree of Life design is - for them - to give it a bogus significance. The motives in Persian design are traceable either to concrete models - as a tree, a leaf, a flower or cluster of flowers, a bird, an animal, a vase, etc. - or to models which have been appropriated from foreign sources, mainly Chinese or Arab.” He ends in a particularly un-p.c. way, “A tribal weaver, as she crouches over her horizontal loom, is more likely, I think, to seek
inspiration from what she sees than from what she thinks - if, indeed, she thinks at all.”

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Well, if Edwards is right, where in the world did the Luri and Qashqa’i weavers see these lions as shown in James Opie’s Tribal Rugs? Okay, they were drawing on a tradition of using a “lion” motif, but what about Edwards’ contention? Wouldn’t it have been more likely that as they cast their gaze about they’d have seen sheep? These people were shepherds, fercryinoutloud! Admittedly, sheep aren’t nearly as heroic as lions, but they were the basis of the material wealth of these tribal people. Why are they so totally ignored?

Not to attach too much significance to it, but in the English House of Lords the Lord Chancellor sits as Speaker of the House upon the “Woolsack,” a red cushion of wool whose presence is a constant reminder that from medieval times much of the grandeur of England derived from the woolen textile industry. Thus do they give wool its due.

As you are all well aware, I could show thousands of other rugs with animal images ranging from the meticulously drawn to the highly abstract. In the interest of allowing this page to load in seconds rather than weeks, I spare you.

And leave you with the challenge, paraphrasing an old fast food commercial: Where’s the sheep?