Furniture in Persia
The Persians have from time immemorial been
an artistic people, and their style of Art throughout successive conquests
and generations has varied but little.
Major-General Murdoch Smith, R.E., the
present Director of the branch of the South Kensington Museum in Edinburgh,
who resided for some years in Persia, and had the assistance when there of
M. Richard (a well-known French antiquarian), made a collection of objets
d'art some years ago for the Science and Art Department, which is now in
the Kensington Museum, but it contains comparatively little that can be
actually termed furniture; and it is extremely difficult to meet with
important specimens of ornamental wordwork of native workmanship. Those in
the Museum, and in other collections, are generally small ornamental
articles. The chief reason of this is, doubtless, that little timber is to
be found in Persia, except in the Caspian provinces, where, as Mr. Benjamin
has told us in "Persia and the Persians," wood is abundant; and the Persian
architect, taking advantage of his opportunity, has designed his houses with
wooden piazzas—not found elsewhere—and with "beams, lintels, and eaves
quaintly, sometimes elegantly, carved, and tinted with brilliant hues."
Another feature of the decorative woodwork in this part of Persia is that
produced by the large latticed windows, which are well adapted to the
Door of Carved Sandal Wood, from Travancore.
India Museum, South Kensington. Period: Probably Late XVIII. Century.
In the manufacture of textile
fabrics—notably, their famous carpets of Yezd and Ispahan, and their
embroidered cloths in hammered and engraved metal work, and formerly in
beautiful pottery and porcelain—they have excelled: and examples will be
found in the South Kensington Museum. It is difficult to find a
representative specimen of Persian furniture except a box or a stool; and
the illustration of a brass incense burner is, therefore, given to mark the
method of design, which was adopted in a modified form by the Persians from
their Arab conquerors.
Incense Burner of Engraved Brass. (In the
South Kensington Museum).
This method of design has one or two special
characteristics which are worth noticing. One of these was the teaching of
Mahomet forbidding animal representation in design—a rule which in later
work has been relaxed; another was the introduction of mathematics into
Persia by the Saracens, which led to the adoption of geometrical patterns in
design; and a third, the development of "Caligraphy" into a fine art, which
has resulted in the introduction of a text, or motto, into so many of the
Persian designs of decorative work. The combination of these three
characteristics have given us the "Arabesque" form of ornament, which, in
artistic nomenclature, occurs so frequently.
The general method of decorating woodwork is
similar to that of India, and consists in either inlaying brown wood
(generally teak) with ivory or pearl in geometrical patterns, or in covering
the wooden box, or manuscript case, with a coating of lacquer, somewhat
similar to the Chinese or Japanese preparations. On this groundwork some
good miniature painting was executed, the colours being, as a rule, red,
green, and gold, with black lines to give force to the design.
The author of "Persia and the Persians,"
already quoted, had, during his residence in the country, as American
Minister, great opportunities of observation, and in his chapter entitled "A
Glance at the Arts of Persia," has said a good deal of this mosaic work.
Referring to the scarcity of wood in Persia, he says: "For the above reason
one is astonished at the marvellous ingenuity, skill, and taste developed by
the art of inlaid work, or Mosaic in wood. It would be impossible to exceed
the results achieved by the Persian artizans, especially those of Shiraz, in
this wonderful and difficult art.... Chairs, tables, sofas, boxes, violins,
guitars, canes, picture frames, almost every conceivable object, in fact,
which is made of wood, may be found overlaid with an exquisite casing of
inlaid work, so minute sometimes that thirty-live or forty pieces may be
counted in the space of a square eighth of an inch. I have counted four
hundred and twenty-eight distinct pieces on a square inch of a violin, which
is completely covered by this exquisite detail of geometric designs, in
Mr. Benjamin—who, it will be noticed, is
somewhat too enthusiastic over this kind of mechanical decoration—also
observes that, while the details will stand the test of a magnifying glass,
there is a general breadth in the design which renders it harmonious and
pleasing if looked at from a distance.
In the South Kensington Museum there are
several specimens of Persian lacquer work, which have very much the
appearance of papier maché articles that used to be so common in England
some forty years ago, save that the decoration is, of course, of Eastern
Of seventeenth century work, there is also a
fine coffer, richly inlaid with ivory, of the best description of Persian
design and workmanship of this period, which was about the zenith of Persian
Art during the reign of Shah Abbas. The numerous small articles of what is
termed Persian marqueterie, are inlaid with tin wire and stained ivory, on a
ground of cedar wood, very similar to the same kind of ornamental work
already described in the Indian section of this chapter. These were
purchased at the Paris Exhibition in 1867.
Persian Art of the present day may be said to
be in a state of transition, owing to the introduction and assimilation of