From the SSN Bursary Scheme to ‘Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld

It was early January 2019 when I received a very generous bursary from the SSN for Islamic Art and Material Culture enabling me to attend the East Meets West: Objects in Renaissance Paintings study day at The National Gallery. What I didn’t realise at the time was the tremendous impact that day would have on the rest of my 2019, culminating in The Royal Cornwall Museum hosting an exhibition of some of the finest and rarest Islamic metalwork in the world from The Courtauld’s collection.

At the East Meets West study day I was able to meet Dr Alexander Gerstein, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts at The Courtauld and Dr Rebecca Bridgeman, Chair of the SSN for Islamic Art and Material Culture. Together they offered our institution all the help and support we might need to make the exhibition a success.

With the help of the SSN I sent images of a selection of objects from our collections to Dr Mariam Rosser-Owen, Middle East Curator at the V&A who very kindly spent time identifying each object, giving me some idea about which amongst them might benefit most from further research. It was through Dr Rosser-Owen’s help that I managed to select four pieces of 13th and 14th century ceramics for inclusion in the exhibition now named Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld.

The four pieces not only represent the wealth of our own Islamic Art collections but also served to illustrate two of the main interpretive themes of the exhibition; calligraphic decoration and representation of the human figure.

The final way the SSN helped in the research and understanding of The Royal Cornwall Museum’s objects was in the translation of the script that adorns a Silhouette Ware jar I had chosen for display in the exhibition. Dr Rosser-Owen asked a colleague, Dr Manijeh Bayani-Wolpert, if she might look at the script and if possible, translate it.

It is thanks to the SSN that we are not only exhibiting Islamic Art from our own collections alongside star pieces from The Courtauld but we now know far more about them than we ever could have hoped. The translation from the jar, so gratefully received from Dr Bayani-Wolpert, joyously reads ‘Glory and prosperity and wealth and happiness and long life’.

Michael Harris – The Royal Cornwall Museum

A short film giving some background to the Precious and Rare: Islamic Metalwork from The Courtauld can be seen here:


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