HALI's History of Textiles
Words and images by HALI Publications Ltd.
The humble Tulip is a powerful symbol in textiles around the world, from Ottoman prayer rugs to European carpets and Indian bedspreads. HALI Magazine explores.
Flowers have decorated textiles around the world for thousands of years. Some are abstract or generic in form, others are immediately recognisable. Along with the rose and a few others, one of the most iconic is the tulip. To the Ottomans it was a signifier of strength, a motif so popular it could almost be regarded as an imperial emblem. The symbolism and form of the tulip has varied as it appears in textiles from around the world, sometimes full and sensuous, sometimes skeletal and abstracted, but always demonstrating exceedingly good taste.
This silk fragment (above left) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art exemplified the Ottoman interpretation of the motif. Full, bulbous tulips swell between sinous leaves, the stalks of each plant forming an ogival lattice – a design conceit typical of this type of textile. The name tulip derived from the Turkish word for turban, tülbend, which itself derives from the Persian term for the same, dulband.
A quite different approach to tulips is found in this Konya rug (above right), which dates from the 16th-18th centuries and is currently in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Catalogued as a kilim-style rug, this striking piece features symmetrical formations of tricolor tulips in the rich rusty reds, yellows and strong greens typically found in Konya rugs. Matching çintamani - another favoured Ottoman motif - occupy the spaces between the cartouches. The way the unusual pattern stands out from the field recalls designs on Iznik ceramics.
Tulips were so beloved in the Ottoman empire that they even appear in a religious context. A careful look at this Kula prayer rug (above left) reveals a neat row of tulips blossoming above the mihrab. Tulips often appear in Ottoman textiles along with pomegranates and carnations, as seen in this embroidered quilt (above right). Here, both flowers and fruit are recognisable but highly stylised, becoming elements of the overall pattern whilst retaining their form. In this less luxurious but still charming textile, we find the same design conceit used in the first example (1); the tulips are used to cleverly fill the space and draw the design together into a lattice.
Testament to the versatility of the motif, having seen the tulip in use on imperial silks, prayer rugs and bed embroideries, here we find it on a floor spread (sofra, pictured above), which would have been used for eating. The radial design uses sprays of tulips and pomegranates within circles, each silhouette standing out vividly against the plain background.
The tulip was also well thought of in Mughal India - a tulip from Kashmir was among Emperor Jahangir’s 100 favourite flowers painted by Ustad Mansur circa 1610.
In the 17th century, the flower became wildly popular in Europe and beyond, and this was reflected in the textiles produced in India for export. This chintz (above), acquired in Japan and likely used there for tea ceremonies, demonstrates the far reach of the tulip motif at the height of its popularity. Given the great demand for this type of textile from Dutch and English merchants, it is perhaps unsurprising that the internationally favoured flower of the moment appeared in these commercially driven designs.
One of the enormous blossoms growing from the typical rocky mound on this Indian chintz for export is a captivating, skilfully executed, hand-drawn tulip. The detailed depiction is evocative of botanical illustrations, while abundant use of the aubergine tone seen in the delicate shading is one of the most striking elements of the overall design. One of three stamps on the reverse is that of the United East India Company, the official title of the Dutch company—believed to be the largest in recorded history— which existed between 1603 and 1799.