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Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq - Book Review

By Edited Feb 9, 2016 2 4

The Courtauld Gallery, in association with Paul Holberton Publishing, released Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from northern Iraq to accompany a major exhibition, of the same name, at The Courtauld Gallery, London. Edited by independent scholar Rachel Ward, the publication examines one of The Courtauld Gallery's most treasured possessions, a richly decorated brass bag or container, luxuriously inlaid with gold and silver.

Court and Craft A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq
Credit: © The Courtauld Gallery, London

The bag is presented together with carefully selected contemporary items such as illustrated manuscripts, ceramics, textiles, drawings and metalwork. Images of Mongols with female consorts, hunting scenes, musicians and revellers, offer an valuable insight into life in the Mongol court. Court and Craft provides a unique opportunity to explore the tradition of inlaid brass work in Mosul, following the Mongol Conquest.  

One of a Kind

Acknowledged as one of the finest examples of Arabic inlaid metalwork, surprisingly little is known about the bag. Rachel Ward's research sheds new light on this priceless item. Probably made in Mosul in northern Iraq, the container was originally thought to be a wallet, document carrier, or even a work box. However, new evidence suggests it is a shoulder bag used by a high-ranking woman of the Il-Khanid court.

As far we know the Courtauld bag is unique, and no other of its kind survives elsewhere. Constructed from brass sheets, either soldered or hinged together, the entire bag is decorated all over with courtly figures and an intricately detailed banqueting scene. The whole surface is inlaid with silver, gold and a black material, possibly conifer resin or bitumen. The lid of the bag is decorated with a court scene which is framed by an rhyming inscription in Arabic.  

The Lid with Courtly Scene and Rhyming Inscription

Bag: detail of lid showing court scene with a couple and their retinue
Credit: © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Court and Craft - Layout of the Publication

Set out in two main sections, the first section features fascinating essays by Rachel Ward, Charles Melville, Robert Hillenbrand, Julian Raby, Anna Contadini, Judith Pfeiffer, James Allan and Teresa Fitzherbert. Putting the bag in its historical and cultural context, the authors explore various themes relating to the bag and its historical context: 

  • The Courtauld Bag: What's in a Name? – Rachel Ward

  • Northern Iraq: Historical and political context – Charles Melville

  • ″Not every head that wears a crown deserves to rule″: Women in Il-Khanid political life and court culture

  • The hunt – Teresa Fitzherbert

  • Wine in Islamic art and society – Robert Hillenbrand

  • Picturing music in Islamic art – Anna Contadini

  • Chinese silks and Mosul metalwork – James Allen

  • Mosul metalworkers after the Mongols – Julian Raby

  • Il-Khanid Mosul: More craft than court – Rachel Ward

The second half of the publication features the catalogue, which forms an enduring record of the exhibition at The Courtauld Gallery.


Rachel Ward: The Courtauld Bag

Rachel Ward spoke exclusively to Infobarrel: 

Infobarrel: Court and Craft is a very single-minded publication focusing specifically on the Courtauld bag - where did the idea for this project come from? 

Rachel Ward: The Courtauld Gallery has established a reputation for exhibitions which are tightly focused on a single object or painting. This format was ideally suited to an exhibition on the bag. 

Infobarrel: The Courtauld bag is acknowledged as one of the finest examples of Arabic inlaid metalwork, yet so little is known about it. Why do you think that is? 

Rachel Ward: Uncertainty about the function, date and provenance of the bag has deterred scholars from including it in general books on Islamic art. It needed a proper study and this exhibition and accompanying catalogue provided an opportunity to explore its context in detail. 

Infobarrel: What were the criteria for including some items and excluding others? 

Rachel Ward: Because the exhibition is small and tightly focused, the objects were selected to fit within the themes of the exhibition. We included objects depicted within the court scene on the bag, depictions of similar bags to show how they were used, metalwork of the Mosul school which relates to the bag and other items known to have been produced in or around Mosul after the Mongol conquest. 

Infobarrel: The book’s detailed and scholarly texts are the result of a long programme of research. During that research did anything come as a complete surprise, or did anything contradict something you had previously regarded as fact? 

Rachel Ward: It has been assumed that the famous metal workshops of Mosul were destroyed during the Mongol conquest and sack of the city in 1262. However there is no direct evidence that the workshops were destroyed and research by Julian Raby (in his essay in the catalogue) and myself strongly suggests that Mosul continued to produce fine inlaid metalwork into the 14th century along with jewellery, textiles, illuminated and illustrated manuscripts

Infobarrel: Other than the bag itself, do you have a particular fondness for any of the items featured in the book, and why? 

Rachel Ward: The objects in the exhibition are all of superb quality... colleagues in lending institutions have been incredibly generous. It is hard to single out one item, but perhaps the tiny pen box from the Walters Art Gallery because it is almost unknown (last published in black and white in 1938) and is such a close comparison in style and quality to the Courtauld bag. The scene on the lid, with the horsemen chasing a deer into the arched top of the penbox, and the crouching hare hiding within the arch the other end, is inventive and charming. 

Infobarrel: Now that the publication, and the exhibition it accompanies, has come to fruition, what is your next project? 

Rachel Ward: I am finishing a catalogue of the Arab metalwork in the British Museum and also working with Irina Koshoridze, Chief Curator of the Islamic collections in the Georgian National Museum, on an exhibition and book on Islamic metalwork in Georgian collections.


Buy the Book?

Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq can be purchased from The Courtauld Gallery and all good bookstores. The exhibition is open until 18th May 2014, and tickets and further information are available from The Courtauld Gallery.   

Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq
Amazon Price: $45.00 $18.20 Buy Now
(price as of Feb 9, 2016)

Other Books You Might Enjoy

Frances Spiegel has reviewed other books for Infobarrel including the following:

Court and Craft: A Masterpiece from Northern Iraq Fran5050 2014-02-25 4.5 0 5


Mar 23, 2014 12:35pm
This is one of the areas in which the average Westerner has no idea what Islam is about--its art and architecture. By having certain prohibitions in place about what can and cannot be put into a work of art Muslim artisans, craftspeople, and builders were forced to rethink how they might go about their work. The results can be sublime and staggering in one fell swoop. A big thumb!
Mar 23, 2014 1:02pm
vicdillinger - thanks for reading.
Mar 25, 2014 1:21am
I am familiar with amazing Islamic art inscriptions on large-scale artifacts - buildings, etc but it's interesting to see such detailed craftsmanship on a handbag, showing such items were valued. The direct audience with Infobarrel by Rachel Ward on this is noteworthy too. Nice article!
Mar 25, 2014 2:16am
nazrahim - thank you for reading. Glad you enjoyed the article.
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