Ask The Expert – Melanie Gibson

Ask The Expert – Melanie Gibson

08 September 2021

Dr Melanie Gibson is the Senior Editor of the Gingko Library Art Series and convenor for the Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art at SOAS, London University. Her research focuses on the ceramics and glass of the Islamic world and in the reception and use of Islamic pattern in 19th century British design. She is currently a Trustee of the Leighton House Museum, London, and is working on a book about the Arab Hall at this historic building.

1. How did you become interested in Islamic art, and how did you end up gravitating towards publishing and editorial?

I became interested in Islamic art when I was an undergraduate studying Arabic at Oxford University. Seeking a break from difficult medieval texts I found myself in the Islamic gallery of the Ashmolean Museum which was connected by a bridge to the Oriental Institute. Intrigued and delighted by the displays of ceramics and tiles, I found that two great scholars, Julian Raby and James Allan, were lecturing on Islamic art and architecture at the Institute and in my final year I was able to study early and medieval ceramics for my special subject. I have been very lucky with mentors and supporters: some years after studying Mughal art with Heather Elgood for my MA at SOAS she gave me my first job, lecturing on ceramics for the Islamic module of the Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art at SOAS; she eventually appointed me to run the module even before I had completed my PhD. After ten years I moved to the newly-founded New College of the Humanities to run the Art History Faculty. There I met Barbara Schwepcke, founder of Gingko, a multi-faceted charity that runs a range of public programmes with the aim of increasing understanding of the MENA region. Its activities include academic publishing in history, art history and inter faith-studies. After many years of teaching, I was ready for a new challenge and was happy to join the charity as an executive trustee and ultimately to become editor of the art history series. I launched my new publishing career with a volume of essays dedicated to my PhD supervisor, Professor Doris Behrens-Abouseif, entitled Art, Trade and Culture in the Islamic World and Beyond. From the Fatimids to the Mughals.

2. What are currently the biggest challenges for publishing houses?

Gingko is not an ordinary publishing house as it forms part of the charity ‒ the challenges we face are somewhat different from those of a mainstream publisher.  With the support of the Gingko founder Barbara Schwepcke, I started the Art History Series with the intention of publishing well-produced and beautiful academic books. We started slowly with four books on subjects ranging from the architecture of Yemen, trade and exchange in the 17th and 18th centuries and the controversy surrounding the use of images in Islamic and other religious cultures.  2021 has been a stellar year for our fledgling operation – we have published our first monograph on the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus and three more books will be out before the end of the year. More Gingko books are published in our History and Inter-Faith series’ and in collaboration with academic societies such as the Royal Asiatic Society and British Institute of Persian Studies in London.

At this moment, the greatest challenge is the supply chain and the cost of materials. Paper is harder to come by and more expensive, shipping times and the cost of transport have increased and, by most accounts, will continue to do so. This makes a material difference to a business with traditionally low margins. In the longer term, the challenge – and I am thinking here specifically of our Art History series – is how we handle the transition to digital publishing. Increasingly, libraries are opting for digital over print. A trend expedited by the pandemic. For an unillustrated monograph, where print-on-demand and short-runs have long been the norm, that’s more an opportunity than a threat. But art books are necessarily illustrated, usually in colour, so how we manage to continue to publish beautifully-illustrated and produced academic art books will be the real challenge of the coming years.


3. Dear Melanie, I wondered about your interest in ceramics. Why ceramics over any other medium? What can we learn from the social and cultural life of people through ceramics? Do you think ceramic work continues being a trend, or is it becoming a niche art?

While I was an undergraduate studying Arabic at Oxford University, I was given the chance to study the early and medieval ceramics of the Islamic world as a ‘special subject’ with Prof James Allan. Week by week he took me through pieces in the study collection of the Ashmolean, and taught me to understand them not by showing me images on a screen, but by handing me individual pieces so that I could feel their shape and weight and minutely examine the body and glaze, even before looking at the decoration. This extraordinary opportunity inspired in me an enduring passion for ceramics.

Ceramics survive in a way that most other materials do not – they cannot be melted down and do not perish or rot, so in many cases our knowledge of the artistic tastes of a region or period is dependent on its pottery. For my PhD thesis I chose to research a group of ceramics which gave me new insights into a fascinating period in which the Saljuq dynasty was pre-eminent. I looked at a group of glazed ceramic sculptures made in Kashan in central Iran and Raqqa in Syria from the mid-12th to mid-13th centuries. This was a period in which ceramic production achieved technical and aesthetic excellence with a wide output of shapes and designs. My interest was piqued by an entirely new type of object: three-dimensional figurines modelled in human, animal and bird forms. These included familiar courtly themes such as musicians and hunters but also a much more domestic and unfamiliar subject ‒ women feeding a child from a naked breast.

One of the remarkable features of ceramics of this period is the scale of production indicated by the number of surviving examples. The potters’ increased reliance on moulds allowed them to produce near identical objects in larger numbers. There are many instances of production runs of the same model; although finished with different glazes, the basic form and proportions are sufficiently close to suggest they were cast from the same mould. In their raw state, these objects could be produced for approximately the same cost, and it was the quality of the surface decoration that determined their eventual value. The main difference is often of scale, with the same subjects made in a range of sizes and glazes, and these qualitative variations suggest that the sculptures were intended to appeal to a cross-section of society with varying financial resources. Much of the subject matter of the figures reinforces this idea. Although the activities of the ruling elite were represented, so too were other more domestic and popular activities (such as breastfeeding a child), that were less closely linked with court life.

Although the study of ceramics was in the doldrums in the late 20th century, in the past decade there has been a steadily growing interest in the work of contemporary potters in in the Middle East and North Africa. The Victoria and Albert Museum curator Mariam Rosser Owen has been acquiring pieces and has brought a selection together in a brilliant exhibition which is currently showing at the museum: Contemporary Ceramic Art from the Middle East.  Some of these artists are reviving old techniques – for instance Abbas Akbari is working with lustre in Kashan and Elif Uras has reinterpreted some traditional Iznik designs. The lustre star tiles made by Akbari appear to copy Ilkhanid designs but incorporate modern machinery – cars, motorbikes, a train, a bull-dozer (V&A ME.43-2020)! The conference entitled Ceramics from Islamic Lands that was held at the same museum in July included a lot of new research on themes ranging from archaeological finds to contemporary practice. It attracted over a huge audience of over 1,000 participants which suggests that ceramic studies are once more on the ascendant.

4. What led to an interest in the designs of the Islamic world in the UK, how widespread was this interest, and what where the ways in which it manifested itself in everyday household items. How long did this interest last?

Visiting the Wallace Collection in London one day I was intrigued to find an alcove below the stairs which was lined with tiles in a classic Iznik trellis pattern with saz leaves and large blossoms. Although the design was familiar it was clear from its colours and the regularity that these were not 16th-century tiles. This led me into a research project looking at various 19th-century British tile manufacturers. I started with Minton, Hollis and Co who supplied the tiles for the smoking room of Hertford House, later the Wallace Collection, and of which only the alcove survives today. I then investigated a Manchester firm, the Pilkington Tile and Pottery Company, which produced Iznik-style tiles as well as lustre vessels inspired by medieval Kashan examples. One of their most famous commissions was for the hammam on the ill-fated Titanic. Incredibly, the tiles have survived and can be seen in a film taken by James Cameron (director of the film Titanic) from a submarine he travelled in to explore the sunken ship. Finally, I looked at the craftsman-designer William De Morgan whose design inspiration initially came from his work with the Syrian and Turkish tiles in the Arab hall at Leighton House.

Glazed wall tiles became very accessible in the second half of the 19th century when the process for their manufacture became industrialised. At the time there was an awareness of the widespread use of tiles in the architecture in the Middle East, so naturally manufacturers started looking for design inspiration in the art of the region. Not only tiles, but vases and other decorative pieces were made by Minton and other firms, often for display in the great commercial exhibitions that started taking place in London and Paris. In the London Exhibition of 1862 Minton showed a range of vessels, some of which were direct copies and others imaginative renditions of Islamic designs. Christopher Dresser who worked at Minton’s in the early 1860’s was deeply indebted to what he described as ‘Persian’ design – in a lecture of 1874 he declared: ‘Much, if not most, of the best surface ornament which the world has seen, can be traced back to a Persian source’.

The fashion for ‘Persian’ tiles, as Iznik-inspired patterns were always described in the 19th century was brief: it peaked in the 1890s, started to decline in the early years of the 20th century, and was over by 1930. The Minton ‘Persian’ tiles that had made the smoking room of Hertford House so fashionable were removed in 1937.


5. How is Leighton House engaging with the modern UK and international audience? What is the main objective and mission of the space, and what can we learn from the history of this place?

Leighton House was formerly the house of the British artist Frederic Leighton (1830–96). With his friend, the architect George Aitchison, he built a space in Holland Park that was his studio, his home and an expression of his aesthetic principles – his ‘private palace of art’. Every visitor to the house is transfixed by the Arab Hall: its gorgeous tiles, wooden lattices, fountain and soaring dome capture the imagination now just as they did in 1881 when the room was first revealed to the public. After Lord Leighton died in 1896 the house was inherited by his sisters who sold the contents but were unable to sell the house. Mrs Emilie Barrington, an enthusiastic friend of the artist, fought to have to have it preserved as the museum it eventually became in 1929.

A major restoration and conservation campaign was begun in 2007 to return the house to as close to its original state as possible; the third and final stage is almost complete, and the house will reopen in 2022. The objective of this most recent conservation phase is to further increase the public’s understanding and enjoyment of the house by adding new displays on the life and work of Leighton, and of some of his contemporaries, the so-called ‘Holland Park Circle’ who lived close by. A new Centre for Drawing has been built to store and display Leighton’s drawings and studies as well as the museum archives. A helical staircase has been constructed and this has given us the opportunity to commission the Iranian artist Shahrzad Ghaffari to create the first contemporary artwork for permanent display at Leighton House. A dedicated learning centre is being created out of the basement which originally housed Leighton’s kitchen, butler’s pantry and larder. These evocative rooms were not previously accessible to the public and by opening them up we will be able to tell stories about the artist’s household.

Like everyone, we have been frustrated by the restrictions forced on us by the Covid pandemic. Determined to continue engaging with audiences and supporters, we initiated an exciting programme of online lectures, classes and events which allowed us to connect with a new, global audience of all ages and interests. The new learning space will enable us to expand our programme for schools, families, adults and the community, to offer new ways of learning such as practical artist-led workshops, and to offer online and in person courses with the modern equipment and facilities at our disposal.

The main objective of Leighton House and the mission of its curators, staff and trustees is to share with a diverse audience a rare example of an artist’s studio house with interiors that have been restored as closely as possible to their original appearance. We aim to explore the aesthetic ideas of one of Britain’s foremost artists and members of Victorian society but also to inspire creativity and to give exciting opportunities for learning. The Arab Hall, in Frederic Leighton’s words: ‘a little addition for the sake of something beautiful to look at once in a while’ tells us something about his fascination with the houses and interiors he saw over twenty years of travelling around the Middle East and North Africa and his desire to recreate some of the sights he experienced in his own house. A visit to Leighton House will encourage an appreciation of Frederic Leighton and his ‘house beautiful’, and more widely of art, design and craftsmanship from around the world.