In April 2015 the V&A will open a small display in the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art about the 18th-century interior from Damascus that we used to have in our collection. Used to have you might say? This is quite a complicated story, which I am gradually uncovering.
In the 18th century, the principal reception rooms in upper class Syrian houses started to be richly decorated with wooden panelling covered with bright pigments, gilding and relief decoration made with plaster – a technique known as ‘ajami in Syrian Arabic. As Syria’s major cities started to modernise in the late 19th century, wealthy families moved out of the historic centres to new suburbs, and the old houses started to fall into disrepair. Many of the old decorative interiors were removed and sold off to European collectors who were fascinated by the styles and taste of the Middle East.
The V&A – or South Kensington Museum as it was then – was the first western collection to acquire a ‘Damascus Room’, when it bought its first room in 1880 from the London-based dealer, Vincent Robinson & Co. Robinson sold the room (object number 411-1880) with “its appropriate and original fittings”, referring to the fifty or so objects that were acquired along with it, and which continued to ‘dress’ it while it was displayed in the V&A. Unfortunately Robinson did not say which house it came from, and all attempts so far to identify its original location have been unsuccessful. Just three years later the V&A bought another room (object number 504-1883). Eventually these two separate rooms were merged into a composite, which was eventually displayed on the upper floor of the Bethnal Green Museum, when it operated as a “branch” of the Museum in South Kensington – today it is the Museum of Childhood.
I haven’t yet had the chance to look more closely into where the room was physically installed in Bethnal Green or exactly when it moved there, but these installation photographs were registered in 1932. The objects that can be seen in the room are for the most part the same objects that were acquired along with 411-1880 from Vincent Robinson.
For reasons I will explain, these photographs are now our main documentary and visual record of the V&A’s Damascus rooms. So one important thing I have been spending my time doing recently is trying to identify the objects shown within, and decide which of them would work well together in an attractive display. It has been easiest to do this on paper, which has involved lots of different coloured post-its and old fashioned equipment such as scissors and blutack!
Not all the objects have photographs already in our database so we have had to seek them out in stores and galleries, photograph and match them to the historic images. It became clear that this installation included other objects that were not part of the original acquisition: the unglazed ceramics were among items transferred from the Museum of Practical Geology on Jermyn Street, when it closed in 1901, and the dark metallic looking objects with strange shapes – seen especially on the shelves in the lower of the two photos above – are burnished ceramics made in Asyut in Upper Egypt, acquired in a batch in 1885.
And not all of the objects are in the V&A’s collection any more – quite a few items were transferred to the Horniman Museum in the 1960s and 1970s. These included most of the cushions and flatweave textiles (which in fact we transferred back to the V&A last year). The Horniman also has the hookah, or water-pipe, which you can see on the floor in the lower image; the flower vase on the top centre of the shelved niche at the back; and the cups and cup-holders on the table in the upper image. I went to see these objects in the Horniman stores last week, and we are now thinking of borrowing them back to include in our display.
So what happened to the V&A’s Damascus Rooms that means we have to reconstruct their history from such fragments? To answer this I have also been working my way through the files in the V&A Archive. On 22 August 1944, during the Second World War, a flying bomb dropped opposite the west end of the Bethnal Green Museum and “badly blasted” the building. The Damascus Room was among the objects effected – it was reported that its “interior structure was damaged and loose generally”; some of the ceramics displayed within it were damaged beyond repair. The resources were not available in the post-war years to undertake the level of restoration that the room required, and it was rather neglected over the next decade. In 1957, the panelling was found to be so badly infested with woodworm that it constituted a “dangerous source of infection” to other objects in the collection. A committee was convened to dispose of the room, giving the reason as “damage due to enemy action, worm and decay”. Five panels were retained “for record purposes”: these include one of the window grilles, the two cupboard doors (visible at the left of the lower of the two photographs above), the small inscribed panel with the date (visible in the photo above the niche next to the cupboard doors), and the tall vertical panel from between the next two niches. These still have ‘Wanted’ written on them in chalk.
So what are our plans for the display? We will take these surviving panels and a selection of the objects that were acquired with the first room in 1880 – which include carpets, flatweave cushions and throws, and objects in ceramic, metalwork and wood – and creatively configure them to suggest the original appearance of the Museum’s Damascus Room as it was installed in Bethnal Green. The objects’ origins will highlight themes of luxury, hospitality and trade, focusing on the historical importance of Damascus as a hub for art and culture, at the crossroads of major international trade routes, which made its residents wealthy and able to afford to live in such luxurious surroundings.
We have been looking at the panels with the world expert on the conservation of this technique, Dr Anke Scharrahs from the Dresden Museum, who visited us in November.
Objects are now starting to go to V&A conservation studios for assessment, and treatments will start in the New Year. The varnish that was painted over our panels probably just before the rooms were acquired has darkened over time, masking the originally bright colours of the pigments underneath. We are looking into how far we might be able to go in removing this to expose their original colourful appearance. We are also planning various events for all types of audiences – the display will probably be up until December so there is plenty of scope for a whole range of different activities. We will be picking all of this up again in the New Year, so check back here in January for updates and more information on our plans.