Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A catalogue of Newberry's block-printed textiles by Ruth Barnes (published Oxford, 1997).

Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


The particular value of the Newberry Collection is its unusual size: based on this it has been possible to come to some quite specific conclusions on the nature of the Indian block-printed textiles traded to Egypt, in particular during the Mamluk period. In general the results of this study have not contradicted the major earlier research on the Indo-Egyptian block-printed textiles, but they have certainly made it possible to test hypothetical statements. I have also attempted to give a definition of the material that is based as much as possible on factual information, mostly provided by the textiles themselves. An accurate description of the technical composition of the textiles also had to include a reassessment of the terminology commonly used. As tedious a topic as this is for a reader who is not primarily interested in the technical aspects of textile production, it nevertheless has been essential to include it, in an attempt to reach a more concise definition of resist- and mordant-printing.

The essential points made by Pfister, regarding the origin of the textiles and their approximate dates, are confirmed by this collection. This is certainly to the credit of his scholarship; he had a relatively small amount of material on which to base his judgement. I see no reason to doubt that most of the fragments were made in north-western India, and were exported through the Gujarati ports. His own dating of the material has proven to be surprisingly close to the results reached through the radiocarbon testing on some of the Newberry fragments. In addition, however, we have been able to push back the beginning of trade to the eleventh century, about a century earlier than the date assumed by Pfister.

Three ways of looking at the material could be explored here in considerably more detail than has previously been possible. The first is that of date. Prior to the results of recent archaeological excavations, in particular at Quseir al-Qadim and, to a lesser degree, Gebel Adda and Fustat-C, we had no context for our textiles other than the stylistic one used by Pfister and others after him. The excavations, however, for the first time presented textile fragments of immediate relevance to the unprovenanced Indo-Egyptian fabrics in public and private collections, and provided an interpretation of dates that was supposedly based on modern archaeological methods. The published results therefore provided an anchor for material that has up to now been rather free-floating. They could also be used as background and support for choosing some of our textiles for C-14 dating. The combined results now allow, for the first time, quite a degree of confidence for assigning a time of production, and presumably transfer, for certain of the textiles. Only a very small proportion of the collection is dated in this way, either through the C-14 analysis or a similarity in design to archaeological finds. Nevertheless, the results are significant for any future research into Indian and Islamic historical textiles.

The second issue addressed concerns the geographical expansion of the discussion. Again it is thanks to relatively recent discoveries of Indian textiles, in this instance in Indonesia, and their publication by scholars with an interest in both the art history and the historical documents relating to the early textile trade. At present there is possibly no region in Asia that is being historically reinterpreted as dramatically as South-East Asia. From being seen as primarily a recipient culture area which produced raw materials that were internationally in demand, but developed politically and artistically only in response to the influence of India and China, South-East Asia is now recognized as technologically and culturally active in its own right. Issues of state formation, trade contacts, and indigenous responses to outside influences have long been the preoccupying themes for the region’s historians, but current interpretations can take into account new archaeological, linguistic, and anthropological work that gives a much richer picture. Quite a new facet is added by evidence coming from the textile trade, and this is where comparison with the Newberry Collection becomes valuable. Southern Arabia with its ancient trade links to Egypt and India is also potentially a region where new archaeological research may bring results that would call for a shift of emphasis in Islamic art history, or at least an expanded view.

As one can make direct connections between material traded to opposite parts of the globe, it becomes possible to find links of similarity, but also quite important differences. It is the beginning of an understanding of the Indian Ocean textile trade that is no longer dependent primarily on historical documents, but can complement these with the actual items moved. It is hoped that the Newberry textiles will continue to be used as the major source of reference for the relevant contact between India and Egypt.

Finally, the third aspect that could be developed here is that of design, already taken up as a topic by Pfister and all subsequent writers on similar collections. But the number of textiles brought together by Newberry has made it possible to present quite a different sort of survey. With the publication of the entire collection it is possible to show the repertoire of design that was available to the Indian craftsmen. By comparing it to the printed textiles that were produced for the trade to South-East Asia, it has also been possible to show which designs would be chosen for the market of Mamluk (and to some degree Fatimid and Ottoman) Egypt. This topic is discussed and described in the relevant chapter, but much more aptly it is presented through the material itself.

Percy Newberry brought together a remarkable collection. It took fifty years for the material to be finally catalogued and presented to a wider audience. However, it may have been of benefit to the collection and its interpretation to have waited all these years. In the meantime, important new evidence has been brought together, and in the light of this the catalogue of his textiles can be presented in a far more substantial form than would have been possible even a decade ago. The aim of this publication is to provide a tool for further detailed and comparative work. It is hoped that the richness of the collection, the variety of design, and the distinctive technical peculiarities will provide the inspiration for future research.


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