Artist, designer and researcher Sara Choudhrey on the Islamic Collection at Emery Walker’s House
The Moroccan ceramics in the conservatory of Emery Walker’s House are probably one of the more unique aspects of the collection, because we’ve got so many and it’s quite a variety; we’ve got jars, bowls, dishes and flasks and they’re all in pretty decent condition.
They all date from the late 1800s to early 1900s, which was a time of the ‘great exhibitions’ with their international pavilions that brought artworks into the UK from across the world – and popularised them.
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Emery Walker first visited Morocco in 1907 and later returned there with his wife Mary and daughter Dorothy on a trip to Mogadir, now called Essaouria. The Walkers went to Morocco quite a few times and would collect things locally. If they came across a shop or a bazaar they would just buy whatever they fancied. Then they were given things by friends, so they ended up with all this mishmash of stuff.
I’m intrigued by how they brought back things that might not necessarily be hugely valuable, but which were just pretty or had a certain level of craftsmanship. In Morocco they’ve retained their relationship with the tradition of craftsmanship, and if you go there now you can still get things that look very much like the things that we have in the house.
But there’s a strong unifying link in terms of the locations these objects are from and the visual elements you find in those places. Many of the ceramics came from Fez and have a striking geometric pattern in blue, yellow and green.
What’s interesting for me is this sense that the family were interested in actually learning about the culture. For example we know they learned Arabic and how to really use the language and looking at the objects they collected and reading their letters and diaries I get this sense that they really appreciated the culture rather than trying to profit from it. And it’s not like they were creating collections for show. It wasn’t a museum so they weren’t curators or collectors in that sense, it seems like it was more of a natural activity.
Emery Walker’s great friend, William Morris, was very interested in arts and crafts from Persia and Turkey and he would go out of his way to investigate how things were made. He had a very close relationship with the V&A and would go into their store rooms and just rifle through things, look at the back of a carpet, take things apart (which he wasn’t really supposed to do) so that he could then learn from the process and recreate something himself .
In the Islamic art tradition they tended to use natural pigments and natural materials, which was something William Morris was trying to do in his work. Over the centuries as Islamic art developed into a stylistic thing that could be recognised, they began adhering to certain forms. They didn’t use figurative imagery and that relates back to the religious rulings on not imitating what God has created.
What I find really interesting is how Islamic art has been an influence on British arts and crafts. That influence can be more than we realise because the objects are there as evidence of the time in which they were actively engaging with these materials. Emery Walker and Morris would see each other every day, so he would have been very familiar with Emery Walker’s souvenirs of his travels.
It’s evident that the Walkers really enjoyed travelling to these places and bringing back these items, but for us, as well as still having the objects themselves, what we have now is this record of a strong visual language and a snapshot of how Islamic art influenced the art of the time.
There are many things in the collection with an Islamic connection but one of the nicest is the miniature Qur’an. Measuring just 2.5cm, it’s called a David Bryce after the chap who made these miniature books – often bibles and religious books – using the latest print methods so that it was easier to distribute and carry them.
T. E. Lawrence mentioned a book like this in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and his description of it matches the description of this one. He writes about a friend who carried one of these into battle who believed it had saved his life many times. So there is this kind of talismanic reason for wearing it. It’s actually purposely made in a case so that it can be carried around and they were sometimes issued to Muslim troops during the First World War.
It wouldn’t have been very practical, but it is a full Qur’an, it has a magnifier at the front to enable you to read it.
Dorothy Walker collected a lot of jewellery over the years; the house contained dozens of jewellery boxes just filled with bits and bobs. In one of them we found these earrings made from coins, which have some calligraphy on them.
North African cultures – Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria – all used coins within their traditional jewellery. Moroccans usually have silver jewellery whereas these are gilt, so there is a possibility that these are from Tunisia or Algeria. The interesting thing here is that these have the Tugra, which is the calligraphic emblem used by the Ottoman rulers. Mimicking coins that are more historical and using them in jewellery is something that the Berba community would do. If they had a coin that was actually valuable they would add it to their jewellery.
I am an artist and a researcher with a PhD in digital Islamic art, working in what I call a ‘hybrid space’ combining traditional with contemporary methods. But you have to have an understanding of the art history and the traditional methods of creating.
What I like doing is looking at patterns and then analysing how they’re produced, taking them apart, drawing out the grid and looking at the mathematical divisions and what the craftsmen would have had to do in order to produce that design. This one actually has a lot going on. When you start analysing it you can see there’s actually even more going on in the background. Essentially it’s the underlying grid that would have been used in order to produce the pattern.
It’s actually a belt buckle that’s been cut off. Dorothy used to wear belts over her jackets and we’ve got photos of her wearing them. When they became worn out or broken she just cut off the buckle and kept them. She kept everything, even gas bills and their envelopes. She was a bit of a hoarder.
Coffee and spice grinder
This is something you can get in the Mediterranean region and definitely in Turkey because they love their coffee. Some people call it a coffee grinder or you can also use it for herbs and spices; this one has still got peppercorns inside it.
The Walkers would have bought this in the bazaar – and you can still buy these. In fact if you go down Shepherd’s Bush, the Turkish sweet shops and nut shops still sell them, and people still use them.
It’s a simple thing, but it has great craftsmanship that has endured for centuries. The principle of the Muslim artisan is that not only do you do something to the best of your ability; if you’re religious you have this perspective that in some way it relates back to your religion. You’re trying to make your work a form of worship and some people believe that they’re making a spiritual connection through their work and through the process of making it.
Sara Choudhrey was speaking to Richard Moss
Emery Walker's House
London, Greater London
No 7 Hammersmith Terrace is a tall terraced house on the River Thames at Hammersmith in west London. Its sober Georgian exterior hides a secret – the decoration and furnishings preserved as they were in the lifetime of the printer Emery Walker (1851-1933), a great friend and mentor to William…