Muhammad Shah’s Royal Persian Tent

Imagine if you will, a wayward traveller crossing unfamiliar landscapes, sun drenched, eyes straining to perceive colour in the harsh noontime sun. Presently a simple round tent appears on the horizon. As he nears, its sun-faded red cotton canopy becomes clear, as does the equally faded diagonally striped valance. Whilst not unattractive, the well used and simple façade appear far more utilitarian than decorative. ‘Shabby chic’ if we were to describe it in the vernacular of our times. He pauses briefly before entering… .

Muhammad Shah's Royal Persian Tent - Cleveland Museum of Art - Overview of Installation | Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art
Muhammad Shah’s Royal Persian Tent – Cleveland Museum of Art – Overview of Installation | Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art

As his eyes adjust to the relative darkness of the interior of the tent they are met with a figurative smorgasbord of colour and pattern. Colour and texture, lustrous silk embroidery shimmering against the matte woollen cloth, all overwhelming his senses as he finds respite from the heat and the banality of preconceived expectations inside the tent of Muhammad Shah Qajar.

Muhammad Shah's Royal Persian Tent - Cleveland Museum of Art - Interior Canopy | Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art
Muhammad Shah’s Royal Persian Tent – Cleveland Museum of Art – Interior Canopy | Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art

And so it was on 15 June 2016 I found myself, much like the aforementioned fictionalized traveler, standing under the canopy of this most impressive Royal Tent. Words to adequately describe the emotions of standing amongst such splendour escape me but the captivation was real and discernible; almost palpable. In short, it was worth the 1,843KM drive from my home to The Cleveland Museum of Art and if you fancy yourself as someone with an appreciation for handwork, it will be worth your trip as well.

'Behold the Captivating Beauty' - The Ruggist viewing Muhammad Shah's Royal Persian Tent at The Cleveland Museum of Art | Image courtesy of Peter Kitchen
‘Behold the Captivating Beauty’ – The Ruggist viewing Muhammad Shah’s Royal Persian Tent at The Cleveland Museum of Art | Image courtesy of Peter Kitchen

But The Ruggist is no pretender to extensive, let alone expert, knowledge of Islamic art. In fact, my knowledge and for matter interest is cursory at best. I much prefer the work of our time, while of course acknowledging everything we do now has been influenced by what has been done before. So, ‘What is it?’ you may ask that inspired me to sojourn  from my summer Holidays in order to see this tent. Three words… .

Contrast. Juxtaposition. Context. So much of what makes for great design and art is based on the relationship betwixt object and space, colour and pattern, form and function, time and place, so on and so forth. It is simply not enough that an objet d’art or an objet de décoration exist, rather it is the pairing of that object within the circumstances of its existence that lends the full mantles of beauty or attraction.

The spectacular royal tent is rare extant example of silk chain-stitch embroidery on fulled-wool piecework made in Rasht sometime during the reign of Mohammad Shah (1834-1848) during the Qajar dynasty. While only seven (7) of the original fourteen (14) panels remain – the disposition of the balance being ‘unknown at this time’ according to recently retired Curator of Textiles and Islamic Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Louise W. Mackie – the tent is no less impressive. In fact, in the context of the exhibition, the missing panels afforded the museum an opportunity to present the tent in a most accessible manner, not dissimilar to the experience of my wayward traveler.

Erected on a raised platform, visitors are able to walk into and under the tent as though they themselves were somehow seeking shelter. In contrast to a bright arid landscape and dim interior however, the tent is lit radiantly against an otherwise dark salon painted in a lush verdant green (Sherwin Williams, SW 6195, Rock Garden for your reference) which as the natural complement to red only serves to accentuate the colour of the tent. The gallery is otherwise empty save for minimal informational signage and a portrait of the tent’s original owner further mimicking the original contrast between the interior and exterior of the tent.

‘The roof exterior fabric, a plain weave red cotton, is original. The dark blue wool on the exterior of the wall panels is a modern replacement; the wall panels would originally also have been lined with the same plain weave red cotton.’ explains Ms. Mackie regarding the condition of the tent. It should be noted however that the replacement lining blends perfectly into the shadows keeping focus in the foreground and on the extant portions of the piece.

Muhammad Shah's Royal Persian Tent - Cleveland Museum of Art - Interior Panel showing prominent vase motif. | Image by The Ruggist
Muhammad Shah’s Royal Persian Tent – Cleveland Museum of Art – Interior Panel showing prominent vase motif. | Image by The Ruggist

To say the panels are impressive is an understatement not only for the casual observer but also for anyone with extensive knowledge of handwork. In examining the all but identical panels minor variances are of course apparent, but are no more the difference than is typically found in any handwork made under manufactory conditions. ‘The embroidery would have been done by many, however, each would have been a specialist.’ Ms. Mackie again explains, referring to the various skills necessary to complete a work of this scale. For example, wherever ‘Lustrous silk thread in chain-stitch embroidery conceals the junctures of richly dyed pieces of wool cloth.’ to quote the description of the tent in Ms. Mackie’s tome ‘Symbols of Power‘ could have been the work of one such specialist. Upon further examination the ‘two beautifully inscribed cartouches’ incorporated into each of two (2) wall panels draw the eye.

Muhammad Shah's Royal Persian Tent - Cleveland Museum of Art - Detail of Interior Panel | Image by The Ruggist Inscription: 'Muhammad shah sultan-e ghazi' translates to 'Muhammad Shah, Warrior Sultan' - Muhammad Shah is described with the traditional epithet 'warrior sultan,' denoting a ruler who campaigns against infidel forces in support of Islam. - Inscription notes from 'Symbols of Power'
Muhammad Shah’s Royal Persian Tent – Cleveland Museum of Art – Detail of Interior Panel | Image by The Ruggist
Inscription: ‘Muhammad shah sultan-e ghazi’ translates to ‘Muhammad Shah, Warrior Sultan’ – Muhammad Shah is described with the traditional epithet ‘warrior sultan,’ denoting a ruler who campaigns against infidel forces in support of Islam. – Inscription notes from ‘Symbols of Power’
Muhammad Shah's Royal Persian Tent - Cleveland Museum of Art - Detail of Interior Panel | Image by The Ruggist Inscription: 'Kamtarin bandeh-ye dargah fath 'ali'' translates to 'The lowliest slave of the court, Fath 'Ali'' - Fath 'Ali, presumably the master court artist for the tent, is humbly identified in the traditional manner as the 'lowliest slave.' - Inscription notes from 'Symbols of Power'
Muhammad Shah’s Royal Persian Tent – Cleveland Museum of Art – Detail of Interior Panel | Image by The Ruggist
Inscription: ‘Kamtarin bandeh-ye dargah fath ‘ali” translates to ‘The lowliest slave of the court, Fath ‘Ali” – Fath ‘Ali, presumably the master court artist for the tent, is humbly identified in the traditional manner as the ‘lowliest slave.’ – Inscription notes from ‘Symbols of Power’

As an ardent supporter of branded wares, copyright attribution, and in general an openness about the origin of things, I find artifacts such as these inscriptions most fascinating. I would like to imagine Mohammad Shah holding court inside this tent, discussing its recent acquisition, asking his guests’ opinions. Do they discuss the maker whose name is relatively prominently displayed? If so, is he an embroider of renown or is the Shah a patron of an up-and-coming craftsman about to be welcomed into the realm of society as it were? Much the same can be asked of any modern era overtly (and potentially overly) branded objet de luxe. Is the buyer lending credibility to the maker because of the former’s superior taste, or is the caché of ownership elevating the buyer’s status amongst his friends?

Portrait of Muhammad Shah - The Cleveland Museum of Art | Image by The Ruggist
Portrait of Muhammad Shah – The Cleveland Museum of Art | Image by The Ruggist

Without regard to modern day social climbing however the tent remains ‘a rare, spectacular’ example of Rasht embroidery. A Technicolor visual delight, it is unusual to find luxury of our own era as equally capable of carefully blending utility and function with extravagance and decadence in such a way that downplays the ostentatious. Whomever Fath ‘Ali may have been he was fortunate to have Mohammad Shah as a patron, and the Shah – for what it’s worth – benefited equally from this remarkable tent; for it is truly exemplary.

Muhammad Shah’s Royal Persian Tent is currently on display at The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, United States. Admission is free and open to the public. Originally set to close on 26 June 2016, the exhibition has been extended until 21 August 2016 due to popular demand of ‘awestruck’ visitors, thus allowing even more ‘to admire and experience its transformative beauty’ while basking in its ‘lavishly decorated’ interior according to Ms. Mackie.

The Ruggist wishes to thank The Cleveland Museum of Art for their hospitality and accommodation of my tight travel schedule. A note of thanks to Kelley Notaro of the museum’s Communications and Marketing Department for the guided tour as well as extra special thanks to Louise W. Mackie who took time from her first week of ‘retirement’ to answer questions.