Tim Marlow finds a man converted and one of the world’s richest artistic traditions in his look at the highlights of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exquisite Islamic art collection, with Sotheby’s Edward Gibbs.
LONDON - Something spiritual is in the air. I meet Edward Gibbs, Senior Director and Head of the Middle Eastern and Indian Art Department of Sotheby’s in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s spectacular Jameel Gallery, and find that this was not always his field. In his late-20s, and two years into a postgraduate position in European Ceramics, he had a moment of intense revelation inside Cordoba’s Great Mosque–a real epiphany (and fitting for a temple of such grandeur). After that, his loyalties permanently switched to Middle Eastern Art.
An Egyptian ewer from 1000 AD is carved from just one piece of quartz.
We start off with the secular: in Egypt, around 1000 AD. I am told that the small, beautifully carved, transparent ewer in front of me (incredibly) is made from a single piece of quartz. Most of the few such pieces that still exist have migrated to European churches, Edward tells me, possibly down to pilgrims or crusaders. The creation of something so delicate and complex over one thousand years ago underlines the tradition of exceptional craftsmanship in the Islamic world.
We move on to an object that is more solid–a huge, ornate Minbar, or pulpit. Made for a 15th-century Sultan, it is–to mix religious metaphors–an icon for the abstract beauty of Islamic religious art. Edward illuminates me on the relationship between belief and design here, and I find that even inside a Victorian building in South Kensington, we are looking, to a certain extent, at the sacred heart of Islam.
An 18th century Turkish fireplace.
Finally we come to a monumental 18th-century fireplace, which although undoubtedly three-dimensional, Edward describes as a ‘pattern book’ of classical Ottoman designs. This brings home the point that Islamic art is truly an art of the surface, but in no way superficial.
I am becoming aware not only of the ‘spirit and soul’ that runs through this great ornamental tradition, but also of the astonishing diversity of its decorative threads, with links from Spain to Western China. Its endless possibilities are what entranced Edward, and I am beginning to glimpse them too.
Finally, Edward points out that Islamic art–though voraciously collected by Middle-Eastern institutions now–is still relatively undervalued, and so therefore a market of real opportunity.
Watch a video of Tim Marlow's visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum's Islamic art collection below.
Tim Marlow, an art historian, writer and broadcaster, is exhibitions director at White Cube.
[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]