Tile Panel with Birds


Tile Panel with Birds, c. 17th-19th century, uknown Syrian artist(s) and William De Morgan. Image © Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea

This tile panel is located to the left of the entrance of Leighton’s Arab Hall. It was made in Syria in the sixteenth or seventeenth century and is done in the characteristic “Damascus palette” of blue, turquoise, green, and manganese purple. The panel depicts a pair of sage green parrots with blue wings resting on a basin, flanked by flower-filled vases. The flowers spread out to fill the composition, and are supplemented with plants that grow from the bottom of the panel. In the foliage near the bottom of the panel are a few small rabbits. Two birds of prey perch above the parrots. Because the depiction of living animals is discouraged in Islam, the birds in this panel have a line chiseled through their necks.[1] In the lower corners of the panel are two images of a lion attacking an onager, or Syrian wild ass.

Syrian ceramics in the sixteenth century emulated the style of contemporary Iznik, the center of artistic production in the Ottoman Empire. At first, the most commonly used colors were blue and white, inspired by contemporary Chinese porcelain. However, by the 1540’s, green, turquoise, and purple were added. This color scheme was later abandoned by Iznik in favor of a palette featuring brilliant red and emerald green. The ceramicists in Damascus continued to work in the earlier color scheme, which became known as the Damascus palette.[2]

Several tiles in this panel were broken in transit from Syria, so Leighton commissioned the ceramist William De Morgan (1839-1917) to create facsimiles.[3] Originally a painter, De Morgan turned to pottery in the 1870’s. He was best known for his scientific approach to replicating the glazes and colors used in Islamic pottery.[4] For this panel, De Morgan replaced the parrot on the left, the tile under it, and both the lion onager motifs.[5] Unlike the birds original to the panel, De Morgan’s parrot has no chiseled line through its throat.[6] The lion onager motif can be traced back to the pre-Islamic Middle East and North Africa and is found in mosaics from the Roman period.[7] The subject is not commonly found in Islamic art, and it is possible De Morgan added it of his own accord.

[1] Robin Simon, ed., Lord Leighton 1830-1896 and Leighton House: A century celebration (London: Apollo Magazine, 1996), p. 10.

[2] Venetia Porter, “William De Morgan and the Islamic Tiles of Leighton’s House,” The Journal of Decorative Arts Society 1850- the Present 16 (1992): 77.

[3] The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, “Animal tile panel, circa 17th-19th Century,” https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/lhleightonhouse/housetour/arabhalltour9.asp (Accessed November 14th 2016).

[4] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, s.v. “Morgan, William Fren De,” by Alan Crawford, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32779 (accessed November 14 2016,).

[5] Porter, “William De Morgan,” p. 76.

[6] Sources disagree on which panels were made by De Morgan. While both Porter and Simon attribute both instances of the lion/onager motif to De Morgan, the lions in these tiles have gashes over their throats just as the parrot believed to be original to Damascus does.

[7] Porter, "William de Morgan," p 76. See also Lion Attacking an Onager, Roman Mosaic from Tunisia, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Roman, late 2nd century CE, http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/7069/unknown-maker-mosaic-of-a-lion-attacking-an-onager-roman-late-2nd-century/ (accessed November 15th 2016,). 

The Arab Hall
Tile Panel with Birds