by Baronessa Lucrezia-Isabella di Freccia
Last Thursday, TRH Nasr ibn Isa & Eleanor Isabeau d’Autun, HE Robert of Canterbury and myself sojourned to the Courtauld Gallery for ‘Court and Craft‘, a small but intense exhibition based around one particular artefact – a small, early C.14th bag made of brass, inlaid with gold and silver, and finely engraved with a court scene, and roundels depicting musicians and hunters.
The bag was made in the city of Mosul (now northern Iraq), for a lady in the courtly circles of the Mongol Ilkhanid dynasty, and is a masterwork of metalsmithing. Acquired in the nineteenth century, it is still the only extant artefact of its kind known, and was originally thought to be a unique, one-off item. However research from manuscripts and other metalwork revealed that such bags were always carried by court lady’s attendants of the time, although their contents are unknown. Presumably they contained necessities – cosmetics, combs, mirrors, etc – in essence not changing much in purpose from the lady’s handbags of today.
The exhibition displayed several manuscripts – pages filled with colourful illuminations and exquisite calligraphy from the period, which provided pictorial evidence of similar bags being used, some of which were the same shape as the artefact (a saddlebag-like form, with rings for a shoulder strap and a double-hinged lid for easy opening when held close to the body).
The luxury crafts that were the trappings of courtly life, such as were shown in the bag’s court scene, were also presented – vibrant ceramics, beautifully raised & chased silver bowls and jugs, bags of leather with charming hunting scenes and traceries moulded into them, a delicately enamelled and gilded drinking glass similar in form and style to the Luck of Edenhall, fine cloth of gold fabric woven with names and patterns, and more.
Most splendid of all (to me at least) was a display of gold and silver inlaid brass dishes, bowls, a candle stick and incense holders. The artistry and workmanship of the tiny patterns and pictures displayed on each was amazing. HE Robert and I were particularly taken by a round incense holder – the burning incense being held in a dish in a gyroscope inside the ball, so that the holder could be rolled along the floor like an exquisite medieval hamster ball, trailing fragrant smoke behind it. A mixture of beauty, science and practicality that was hilarious and wonderful at the same time.
The exhibition’s items also told of a pivot point in the city’s history – their conquering by Mongol invaders from the neighbouring Khanate. The differences of the metalwork’s design and materials between pre- and post-invasion showed the influence of the new Mongol overlords and their tastes, and a short video presentation outlined these. There was also an audio of the blessings inscribed on the bag being read out loud.
Sadly we only caught the tail end of Keramat Fathinia’s calligraphy demonstration, but as we moved around the exhibition we were serenaded by the strains of Persian & Iraqi music being played on the Oud by Francesco Iannuzzellias and the Double Bass by Lucile Belliveau. Samples of oils, herb & spice mixtures (including my favourite, Sumac), and delicious sweets were tasted in the gallery shop, alongside the rather nice book of the exhibition. I thought the multimedia and late night program were both very well done.
All told, it was a thoughtfully curated, first rate exhibition. A turn off the beaten path for most Scadians in terms of geographic applicability, but highly recommended and a rewarding glimpse through a window into a colourful and vibrant slice of the past.
A quick mention that the gallery also has a couple of other exhibitions on which can be viewed – a display of some truly ugly early C.20th modernist/expressionist paintings (YMMV), and ‘A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany‘, most of which I found quite lovely.
Our pitstop afterwards was The Coal Hole, a little further down The Strand. The decor is quite appealing, looking rather like a cross between a Tudor frame house, a German bier hall and an Arts & Crafts Movement pub. It was quite packed, but offered good beer, decently portioned & edible (though tourist-priced) food, a pleasant atmosphere, and polite staff.
The Courtauld Gallery is in Somerset House on The Strand, the nearest Tube station being Temple, a mere 4 minute walk away.
ETA: The exhibition closed on 18th May 2014.