The University of Oxford houses some of the most prestigious collections of Islamic art in the world. Accumulated over the centuries through acquisitions and bequests from academics, alumni and collectors, these are now housed in four different museums, reflecting their wide-ranging nature and the disciplinary focuses of their repositories. These include the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, containing over 5000 objects, substantial Islamic archaeological material and several important archives; the Bodleian Library, housing superb collections of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Indian and Southeast Asian manuscripts; the History of Science Museum, containing one of the most extensive collections of Islamic scientific instruments in Europe; and the Pitt Rivers Museum, which is home to rich collections of ethnographic material, including arms and armour and modern textiles.
Therefore, although allocated to various institutions on the basis of classifications and system of knowledge that were possibly more relevant in the past than today, Oxford’s combined holdings still account for the third largest Islamic art collection in the United Kingdom after the national collections in London. Accessible both through temporary and permanent exhibitions across campus and via dedicated study rooms, these collections are at the heart of university teaching and offer inexhaustible opportunities for research and public engagement.
Islamic art in the Ashmolean Museum
The Islamic art collection at the Ashmolean museum is the richest and more diverse in Oxford with links both to the British Empire and early British collecting of oriental art and antiquities. The core of the collection, in fact, was transferred from the Indian Institute to the Ashmolean after the former’s closure in 1961 and reflects the interests and undertakings of members of the East India Company and colonial officers active in the subcontinent during the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Often appropriated in ways and circumstances that would be ethically untenable today, in terms of curatorial responsibility these objects are now split between Islamic Middle East and India.
Transfers of archaeological material from 19th century expeditions across the Near East and ceramics collected by the likes of Charles Drury Fortnum (1820-1899) at the turn of the 20th century also went to increase the Islamic holdings following the foundation of the Eastern Art Department in 1962.
Yet three bequests, occurred between 1941 and 1978 transformed the collection, raising its national and international profile. First, in 1941 the Egyptologist Percy Newberry (1868-1949) presented the museum with a collection of over 1000 medieval Islamic embroidered textiles and some 1200 Gujarati printed cottons accumulated during his 40-year teaching and research career in Egypt. These holdings, which include rare tiraz fragments, Ayyubid and Mamluk embroideries, as well as specimens reflecting the breadth of the medieval Indian Ocean textile trade, are the largest in any Western collection.
Between 1956 and 1978, the Ashmolean’s ceramic holdings were dramatically augmented through Sir Alan Barlow and Gerald Reitlinger’s bequests. As collectors of Asian ceramics, both individuals pursued Islamic ceramics in comparative terms. Objects showcasing both technical and visual parallels with the broader Asian production are thus prevalent, with the Persian holdings accounting for their largest portion. Combined with the above-mentioned holdings, these two donations have since enabled the Ashmolean to offer a representative picture of the Islamic ceramic production from Spain to Central Asia from the 7th to the 19th century. The story of this medium is a feature which still dominates its permanent gallery today.
The Ashmolean has distinguished holdings in other media as well, especially ivory, with the lid of a Cordoban pyxis dated AH 393/AD 998-99 being its most famous object; glass, including a mosque lamp bearing a dedication to Sultan Muhammad ibn Qala’un, and metalwork, best exemplified by an enamelled coffee set with astrological decoration designed for the second Qajar ruler Fath ‘Ali Shah.
Although traditionally held in the Bodleian, works on paper are also represented in this collection through a series of outstanding single page items including several Qur’anic folios and a bifolio from the 9th century Qur’an of Amajur; calligraphic samples in nasta‘liq, and drawings and paintings signed by celebrated 16th century artists including Sadiqi Beg Afshar and Basawan.
Archaeology and archives
The archaeological material is a unique strength of the Ashmolean Islamic collection and originates from a number of important 2Oth century archaeological missions that include the sites of al-Hira, Kish and Siraf. A mine of information for scholars of early Islamic architecture and ceramic, these are complemented by further archival documentation and research material from the region, such as Peter Willey’s surveys in Iran and Syria and John Carswell’s architectural research in Iran.
More substantial than these, however, are the photographic collection of Islamic architectural historian K.A.C. Creswell, which features over 8000 digitised images of early Islamic architecture, a vital resource today for the restoration of historic monuments and for the fight against illicit trade of antiquities, and the life-long research archive of carpet scholar May Hamilton Beattie, still the most important of its kind in the world.