“Iznik today is a sleepy little town…a hundred kilometers or so southeast of Istanbul” in Turkey, John Carswell tells readers (pg. 10). Yet about 600 years ago, Iznik stood out as a vibrant manufacturer of Islamic ceramics in the Ottoman Empire. Carswell’s book, Iznik Pottery, traces the origins of this industry, which often combined elements of Chinese porcelain with Turkish styles.
This book uses detailed language to explain the Iznik style in depth, from the silver-gilt to the “flowers springing from a leafy tuft on the lower margin of the cavetto” (pg. 82). As these examples illustrate, Carswell gives vivid descriptions of Iznik hanging lamps, pen boxes, plates, and tiles. He often uses metaphors, such as describing the transparent red color on the tiles of the Rustem Pasha mosque “like a drop of blood splashing into a bathroom sink” (pg.75). The author’s fine use of language results in a lively book.
Iznik Pottery also reveals the author’s enthusiasm towards the subject of Islamic ceramics, thereby engaging readers. For instance, the book’s introduction tells about two mysterious pieces of pottery, which Arthur Lane of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum had said originated from Kutahya, another Turkish town. But Carswell thought the pieces were from Iznik, a mystery that he solves later in the book.
Carswell uses an easy-to-follow chronological order, beginning with a look at ceramics from other Turkish towns that appeared before Iznik ceramics. He describes how these towns influenced Iznik wares. Carswell continues with the appearance and growth of Iznik pottery and ends with this industry’s decline, giving readers possible reasons for this fate. Therefore, readers get a complete historical view of Iznik ceramics.
Adding to the readers’ interest are 83 color and 25 black-and-white photos. At times, the author encourages readers to compare an Iznik piece to the Chinese blue-and-white that was the source of inspiration by placing photos of both pieces next to each other, thereby involving readers. Carswell also includes a map of the region, helping readers understand the relative locations of Iznik to other Turkish towns. Another useful component of the book is an extensive list of additional reading materials, which will be helpful to readers that wish to find more information.
One problem with the book involves the Arabic inscriptions on some of the Iznik pottery that the book features. While the author shows readers these inscriptions, which are generally verses from the Quran, he does not provide translations. Knowing the translations of the inscriptions can help readers to better analyze and understand the ceramics.
On the other hand, the author does a fine job of using Arabic or Turkish terminology, along with definitions, throughout the book. For example, readers learn that nakkashane are the “court designers.” Such a method gives readers a sense of authenticity.
After finishing this book, readers will have a better understanding of Iznik pottery and tiles, not just as an ancient art form, but also as link to the revival of Iznik ceramics in the contemporary world.
John Carswell graduated from London’s Royal College of Art and worked for more than 20 years as Department Chairman of Fine Arts at the American University of Beirut. He was also curator at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum and director of the Museum of Fine Arts. Carswell has now retired from his long-time position as Director of the Islamic Department at Sotheby’s in London. He has written The Kutahya Tiles and Pottery in the Armenian Cathedral and Blue-and-White: Chinese Porcelain Around the World , as well as co-authored Islamic Bindings and Bookmaking . He has also published numerous articles on Islamic art and architecture.