The carpet that you see on view here, on loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario, came into our collection in 1945. It was a gift of F.P. Wood—Frank P. Wood—who was actually a really important collector at that time. Other objects that he donated to the gallery include the Rembrandt, the Hals, the Van Dyke, and the Gainsborough—so all really important paintings at the centre of our collection.
This carpet was, then, an unusual gift from F.P. Wood, not something that he gave us several of. A number of other Oriental carpets came from the Bicknells, so a totally different collection. It’s likely that Frank P. Wood bought this carpet in 1925—well, we know he bought it in 1925—at the American Art Association sale in New York of the V. & L. Benguiat Private Collection of Rare Old Rugs. So he bought it in 1925, gave it to us in 1945, and therefore possessed it for 20 years.
We can’t be sure what happened in those 20 years, but it’s likely that he actually used it as a rug in his home, and we see an outline of some piece of furniture on the rug itself, with fading around what must have been a piece of furniture that was placed on top of it. Whether that comes from the Wood household or from the collection before that we can’t know because the 1925 catalogue doesn’t show us photographs, but it’s interesting to consider how something we think of as a work of art actually functioned in somebody’s home for some time as something that they lived with: a functional piece of furniture or decoration.
What makes this rug really remarkable, or this carpet remarkable, is that it dates from sometime between 1475 and 1525—likely 1500ish is what all the scholars say. And there have been many scholars who have cast their ballot in terms of the dating of this carpet because it’s likely the oldest carpet in Canada and also one of the very few intact, surviving Mamluk carpets. The Mamluk Dynasty ruled from 1250 to 1517 and had a very large presence, of course, in Egypt and in Cairo, and that’s where scholars tend to think these carpets were woven. What makes this a really quintessentially Mamluk rug is the use of a very limited palate—three colours: red, green, and a sort-of turquoise blue. And those colours are very rich where they’re not faded on the carpet, and you can see they’re reminiscent of rare and expensive gems: rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. And that’s what we know Mamluk rugs for: their incredible rich and saturated colours, their complex geometric designs. You see an octagon at the centre surrounded by cartouches and two oblong panels on either end of the carpet, and they have alternating date palms and cypress trees—an interesting thing that can allow us to kind of evoke the climate and the geography from which the carpet reigns.
It’s an incredibly luxurious carpet; the wool still has a remarkable luster to it, which makes it very special, and many people over the years have come to see this carpet because of its historical significance.
It hasn’t been on view in spite of its importance. For a very, very long time it’s been on loan to the Musée des beaux-arts in Montreal, and it actually hasn’t been on view here at the Art Gallery in our lifetime, at the very least, and it’s unclear whether it ever did go on view here at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s actually unlikely. We’ve pondered lending it to the ROM for a long-term loan and to other museums, but I believe that its time here at the Textile Museum will be its first showing, perhaps ever, in Toronto in a public institution.
Interviewer: Natalia Nekrassova, Curator
Others present: Anna Richard, Curatorial Assistant
Date and time of interview: Thursday, August 21, 2014, 1–1:10 p.m.
Location of interview: Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto