A 'hunting' carpet, Vellore, South India
Rugs & Carpets

Discoveries: An Indian Jail Carpet

By Mark Stephen

T his fine Indian carpet was consigned to Sotheby's using our online request an estimate service. The consignor can trace the carpet back to her great-grandfather Major-General William Burney Bannerman, a highly decorated surgeon-general in the Indian medical service, and excitingly, actually has the purchase documents to show it was commissioned from Vellore jail in 1914.

A 'hunting' carpet, Vellore, South India
A 'hunting' carpet, Vellore, South India. Estimate £15,000-25,000.

Most Indian carpets from this period are believed to be from Agra, Amritsar or Lahore in the north, but we know this came from Vellore in the South where Bannerman was stationed. Indian prisoners have been making carpets in jails ever since the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar introduced Persian skilled carpet weavers to teach the prisoners a trade and keep them occupied. Thus, there is a long tradition and years of skill and knowledge found in the prisons, and they are still making carpets today, but there is little in the physical weave, the colour, or the design to help us differentiate between carpets from different jails, so the family documents have added to our knowledge.

The carpet is large, the main factor why the family decided to sell, as although perfect for the old family home in Scotland, it was too large at almost 17 feet long for the family to house. Like many Indian carpets, it is heavy with thick pile, so hard-wearing and robust. The blue medallion with its varied tone called abrash is a beautiful and unusual colour contrasting with the typical plum coloured field and inky dark border. For this reason Indian carpets have always been popular with decorators and collectors alike, consistently being amongst the most valuable carpets at auction in every decade. The design of this example is inspired by sixteenth century Persian classical hunting carpets with its pairs of fighting animals and exotic birds which is unusual as most other jail carpets are known for an all-over repeat pattern of small palmettes and vines.

William Burney Bannerman entered the Indian Medical Service in 1883, with an initial posting in Bombay. In his early career he was involved in the prevention of the spread of cholera, and in later years played an active part in the studying and combat of plague. He worked on the production and improvement of plague vaccines, and was a tireless advocate for the importance of inoculation. In 1903, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and was appointed Superintendent of the King Institute of Preventive Medicine in Madras. The following year he was placed in charge of the Plague Research Laboratory in Parel, where he developed improved methods of bottling the plague vaccine, and developed a system which allowed the inoculations to be carried out by relatively unskilled medics. He was also deeply concerned about the health and welfare of prisoners. The family ordered several carpets from Vellore Jail, including this carpet. It was ordered for the family home in Edinburgh, where it remained for sixty years and has been in London a further forty years.

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