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A Persian Carpet in the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery


The Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery at the University of Victoria recently acquired a Persian rug, accession number U995.16.6, a gift of Dr. Bruce and Dorothy Brown.

The Maltwood catalogues the rug as an "Antique Kirman Rug, Prayer type". The donors purchased the rug in 1939 at the public auction at Hatley Park, in Victoria, which was held following the death of the owner, Mrs. L. M. Dunsmuir, widow of James Dunsmuir.



The rug is woven in a knotted-pile technique and conforms to the design customary for prayer rugs.[1] It has a border within which is an arched design representing a niche, the mihrab. In a mosque this niche, located on the prayer wall, indicates the direction in which the Muslim should pray. The border is comprised of three stripes, a principal border stripe and a guard stripe on either side. The principal border stripe measures 13 cm on all sides; the guard stripes measure 5.7 cm on all sides with the exception of the top of the rug where the outer guard stripe measures 4.5 cm. The border stripes are outlined in bands of black measuring 0.3 cm. Both guard stripes have a floral design on a tan ground; groups of three flower heads in a triangular arrangement are interspersed with leaves and leafed twigs. The principal border stripe has an ivory ground and is decorated with alternating triangular motifs of a tree with red blossoms and a shrub with blue. At the lower end (farthest from the arch) the ground appears to be of a lighter shade than that at the top; this may be due to fading as the back of the rug seems not to show any colour change.



The niche contains a tree-of-life pattern on an ivory ground.? Interlocking branches sweep up in sinuous curves from the base; around these branches is a profusion of flowers and greenery: very little of the ground is visible. The branches come together just underneath the head of the arch, and flow up creating a fountain effect of leaves and flowers. The blooms and foliage are naturalistic, and the great range of colours used creates the effect of shading. At the lower edge of the niche blues predominate; under the arch red is used for a pyramidal arrangement of seven blossoms and the radiating spray of flowers. The head of the arch has nine lobes; it then curves inward before terminating at the border: it is delineated by a triple line of red, ivory and black; half way along the curve a lancet leaf, in black, curls into the niche area; this serrated line then continues along the inner edge of the arch until the arch meets the border. The spandrels have flowers and leaves on a black ground; as with the area under the arch, very little of the ground is visible.

Vegetal and geometric motifs are considered to be "some of the salient characteristics of early Islamic ornament".[2] In this rug we see vegetal motifs - flowers, leaves, bunches of grapes etc. - in the border, under the arch and in the spandrels. The rug is framed in a geometric border which has been woven with great accuracy. We also see the horror vacui "by which Islamic decoration has so often been defined".[3] Vegetal motifs within a border are frequently found in Persian carpets, both antique and modern (for example, in the seventeenth century Kirman "Shrub rug" in the Philadelphia Museum of Art[4]).

On the back of the rug there are four loops at the top (arch end) and two labels at the bottom; both labels have been stitched onto the rug by hand. One label is hessian and on it is printed in black Waring & Gillow Ltd. / By special appointment to His Majesty The King. / Carpet Specialists / London. W. / Make_______ No._______. neither the make nor number have any information in the space provided. The second label is white fabric, and on it, hand-written in what appears to be laundry ink, is Antique Kirman Rug Prayer type / excellent quality and condition / sold at auction 1939 at the sale by Dunsmuirs at Hatley Park Victoria B.C. / formerly in front of the fireplace in the main lounge at Hatley Park now known as "Royal Roads" / Hatley Park was completed in 1908. This label is upside down with respect to the first one, and neither the donor nor the Persian carpet dealer who affixed the loops at the top know who wrote and attached it.

At some time after purchasing the rug, Dr. and Mrs. Brown lent it to the Military College at Royal Roads where it was hung in the secretary's office. When the College closed in 1994, the carpet was returned to the owners who then donated it to the Maltwood. It seems likely that the second label was made and attached by someone connected with the College. Its orientation would thus have made it readable by turning up the end of the carpet while it was hanging on the wall. The dealer, Mr. Fred Khorrami, who prepared the carpet for hanging at Royal Roads, categorises the carpet as a Kirman, and he may have given this information to the person who made the label.

The history of the rug before the 1939 auction has not been determined. The firm of Waring & Gillow is no longer trading, having been bought out by Maples. It has not been possible to ascertain whether any business records, which might reveal the source of the rug, are still in existence. Mr. and Mrs. James Dunsmuir, for whom Hatley Park was built, are known to have travelled to England around the time of its completion, and again in 1911 when they spent the spring and summer there. It seems reasonable to suppose that there they purchased items of interior furnishing for their new home.[5]

The Dunsmuir family was prominent in Victoria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. James became premier and later, lieutenant governor of the province of British Columbia. His wife, Laura, took great pleasure in his position as it allowed her to "rub shoulders with royalty". In 1901 she entertained the Duchess of York, later Queen Mary, at their home in Victoria. In 1902 she persuaded James not to resign from the office of premier until after the coronation of King Edward VII so that they would be able to participate in the coronation social season.This they did with some success; a society paper reported that they were "the most honoured of all the colonials".[6] Despite this place in the history of Victoria, Vancouver Island, and the province, the family seem to have been unaware of, or else uninterested in, their role and they kept no archive of family papers.7] It has, therefore, not been possible to determine when the Dunsmuirs purchased the rug or how it was described at that time.

The label of a London retailer must indicate that the rug was purchased there. The London market catered for the British and European taste for smaller, finely woven rugs: in New York large rugs for the large American home were preferred. The American practice of subjecting new carpets to a harsh lime wash, in order to achieve the mellow appearance of antique rugs, was detrimental to fine rugs with short pile. Furthermore, most European countries charged duty by weight, not by cost as they did in the United States, and this could have influenced the European taste for thinner rugs.[8] The label, the British taste in oriental rugs, and Laura Dunsmuir's fascination with British nobility combine to suggest that the family purchased the rug in London where they would have seen an oriental rug in front of virtually every fireplace.

Persian carpets are usually described by the name of the town or area in which they are made; connoisseurship and commercial considerations are significant factors in the attribution. Mr. Khorrami, who is both a Persian carpet weaver and dealer, identifies this carpet as a Kirman-Ravar; the auction catalogue for the sale at Hatley Park in 1939 identifies two carpets in the Drawing Room either of which may be this one. Lots 237 and 258 are both described as "Persian Kermanshah Rug, 6 ft. 10 in. x 4 ft. 4 in.". Kermanshah is a town and province in north west Persia, some nine hundred miles from the town of Kirman (Kerman) which is in south east Persia. Carpet weaving thrived in the villages of the town and province of Kermanshah, but it declined toward the end of the nineteenth century and by the twentieth century had virtually disappeared.[9] However, the consensus is that the attribution "Kermanshah" was used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by American dealers to describe Kirmans, a practice that may have arisen because Kermanshah was a wool market.[10] The style of the arch of the prayer niche on this rug is described as Kermanshah by Hawley writing in 1913.[11]

The classification of this carpet as a Kirman-Ravar seems to be supported by comparison with a similar rug published by Erich Aschenbrenner.[12] This prayer rug measures 1.35 m. x 2.15 m. and has a three stripe border within which is a tree-of-life design. The border stripes and the prayer niche are richly and densely patterned with flowers and foliage. However, in contrast to the subject rug, there are doves in the principal border stripe, sheep grazing at the base of the tree and birds nesting in it. The Aschenbrenner rug, for which no location or owner is given, is dated as twentieth century. Mr. Khorrami dates the Maltwood rug to 1920; he also maintains that it was woven for domestic use, not export. Its presence in Victoria since shortly after it was made would seem to question that assertion.

The knotted-pile technique is thought to have originated in areas where floor and wall coverings were needed for warmth and there was an insufficient supply of animal pelts. The earliest known example was found in a frozen tomb in Pazyryk in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia; it dates from about 500 B.C.E. and is of such sophisticated design as to indicate a long tradition of manufacture.[13] The textile is essentially a simple one and is made with simple equipment.

A woven textile is one in which two sets of threads, the warp and the weft, intersect at right-angles. The threads that run the length of the fabric, the warp, are held under tension by the loom, thus enabling the weaver to manipulate the threads and make a shed, or path, for the threads that pass from side to side, the weft. Plain weave is the simplest, where the weft passes over and under alternate warp threads; this is the base weave of knotted pile textiles in which a row of knots is worked across the width of the rug, alternating with a number of wefts of plain weave. In Persian carpets the sehna knot is usually used.


The looms used in Persia for knotted-pile rugs are vertical.The essential components are two beams, connected by sturdy uprights, around which the warp is secured. For a short rug the warp is only as long as the distance between the beams, while for longer rugs a warp as long as the required length of the rug, plus fringes, is wound around the upper beam. As weaving progresses the work is wound onto the lower beam thus bringing more warp to the weaver's level. The length of the beams dictates the maximum width of rug that can be woven.

The weavers sit, kneel, or squat in front of the loom and work the knots from a ball of yarn, not a cut length. After tying the knot, the weaver cuts the yarn with a downward swipe of a knife. The action is so speedy that the next knot is started "before the spectator has realised what has been done".[14] When a row of knots is completed a number of wefts are inserted, they bind the warp threads and create a stable textile. According to a report of a British consul (Preece) "in Kerman, one weaver was stationed at every 21 inches of the width of the carpet".[15] Yet another consul (Wood) reporting on the province of Azarbijan, said that the weavers followed the design and colours from a diagram for the first two or three feet and then did the remainder from memory. When a particularly complex part was reached, the foreman would chant the colours and the number of knots.[16]

According to travellers' accounts, rugs have been woven at Kirman and in surrounding towns and villages since at least the sixteenth century. Ravar is one of these towns; all of which produce carpets described as "Kerman".[17] Carpet weaving declined after the seventeenth century and many of the weavers turned to shawl production; however, by the late nineteenth century the demands of the British and American consumer generated a return to carpet production specifically for the export market. The carpets and shawls of Kerman were considered particularly fine and in 1905 the British dispatched a trade mission to encourage trade in the area.[18]

The demands of the consumer, particularly in the United States, have resulted in the use of colours and designs which are not found in the older Kirman rugs. Pastel shades have replaced the strong reds and blues, and animal, hunting and pictorial themes have been added to the traditional floral repertoire. The warp and weft are usually cotton; three picks of plain weave between each row of knots are typical. The older rugs used natural dyes -- they were the only ones available -- for the wool pile; some authorities suggest that, for most colours, these dyes are still used. The Persian sehna knot is almost exclusively used and knot densities of up to 5,000 knots per sq. dm. (320 per sq. inch) have been found.[19]

The rugs produced in the town of Ravar are similar to those of Kerman, but the "thousand flower" design, worked over the entire field, is preferred; as as are images of vases and trees. The weavers of Ravar reputedly came originally from the city of Kirman; they brought some of the traditions of Kirman weaving and began to weave the high-quality product for which they are now famed. Particularly characteristic is the pile which is very dense and very short. Kerman-Ravar carpets are sometimes known as Kerman-Laver; the explanation seems to be that western traders misheard the name and began to use the term "Laver" which then went into the trade vocabulary.[20]

The practical and cultural circumstances of the production of this particular rug cannot be precisely known; the situation of the Persian carpet weaving industry during the nineteenth century is, however, recorded. The production of carpets increased significantly during the latter part of the century in response to the European and American demand for luxury items. Iran, in desperate need of foreign capital with which to pay for imports of textiles and sugar, encouraged carpet production and permitted European and American traders to influence production.[21] Prior to this expansion, carpets had been woven in the home or in small workshops; however, in a number of towns, amongst them Kerman, large workshops - which were run like factories - came into existence. These workshops employed much of the labour, to the detriment of home-based weaving, and accelerated production by means of division of labour.[22]

Reports from American missionaries and from British consuls indicate that the conditions in the workshops and factories were extremely harsh. Much of the weaving was done by children. In 1923 Dr. Funk, an American missionary reported that he "observed several [cases of paralysis] in Soltanabad, which might have been due to the narrowness and the height of the seat-boards of the weavers".[23] Another observer reported that children were set to weaving as soon as they were old enough to tie a knot, they worked from sunrise to sunset, and "had to be carried from the places where they sat at the looms because they could not walk themselves".[24]

The types of carpets produced were dictated by the traders and factory owners who were mostly foreigners.[25] The Messers Ziegler and Company were reported to provide steady employment to their weavers, but on the condition that they did not "give rein to their individual taste, but like machines ... continually reproduce the designs which are found to meet the prevailing fashion in Europe".[26] The influence of the newly introduced production techniques on the traditional designs also extended to the traditional methods. Both British and Russian observers commented that the weavers were not allowed to use yarn they had dyed themselves but were forced to use yarn that had been dyed in the factory owners' workshops.[27]

The lack of information about this carpet's manufacture and its whereabouts prior to 1939 do not detract from its beauty. It is a valuable addition to the collection of the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery.


Technical Analysis

  • Size (pile-woven area): 1.37 m. x 2.10 m.

  • Warp: Cotton, ivory, 10 ply

  • Weft: Cotton, ivory (number of picks cannot be determined - either 2 or 3)

  • Pile: Wool, sehna knots; approximately 4,000 per square dm. clipped to 2.5 mm.

  • Ends: 6 picks of 5-fold cotton in place at top; unravelling at bottom: fringes cut

  • Sides: overcast in red wool

  • Condition: excellent, wear on overcast edges exposing warp, possible fading at lower end.



  • 1 Charles Grant Ellis, Oriental Carpets in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, (Philadelphia 1988) 290. Return to text

  • 2 Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art, (New Haven 1973) 191. Return to text

  • 3 ibid., 187. Return to text

  • 4 Charles Grant Ellis, 202. Return to text

  • 5 Terry Reksten, The Dunsmuir Saga, (Vancouver 1991), 225. Return to text

  • 6 Reksten, 215 - 223 passim. Return to text

  • 7 Personal communication from Terry Reksten. Return to text

  • 8 Charles W. Jacobsen, Oriental Rugs: A Complete Guide, (Rutland, Vermont 1962) 129-130. Return to text

  • 9 Encyclopaedia of Islam. Vol V 167 ff. Return to text

  • 10 Jacobsen, 242. Return to text

  • 11 Hawley, Walter A. Oriental Rugs: Antique and Modern. New York, Dover Publications Inc., 1970 (reprint of original published 1913 by John Land Company) diagram on p 61. Return to text

  • 12 Aschenbrenner, Erich. Oriental Rugs: Volume 2 Persian. (Munich 1981),232. Return to text

  • 13 Peter Collingwood, The Techniques of Rug Weaving, (London 1968), 224. Return to text

  • 14 Wood, C. G., Consular Report 'Azarbijan', 1900, in Parliamentary Accounts and Papers 1901 xxxiv., quoted in Seyf, Ahmed, "'Carpet Manufactures of Iran in the Nineteenth Century", Middle Eastern Studies vol. 26 no. 2 (1990), 210. Return to text

  • 15 Preece J. R., "Report of a Journey made to Yazd, Kerman, and Shiraz, and on the Trade, ..., of the Consular District of Isfahan", in Parliamentary Accounts and Papers 1894 lxxxvii, 61, quoted in Seyf, "Carpet Manufactures of Iran in the Nineteenth Century", 209. Return to text

  • 16 Seyf, "Carpet Manufactures of Iran in the Nineteenth Century", 210. Return to text

  • 17 Aschenbrenner, 226. Return to text

  • 18 Encyclaedia of Islam. Vol V 151 ff. Return to text

  • 19 Aschenbrenner 226. Return to text

  • 20 Aschenbrenner, 232. Return to text

  • 21 Seyf, "Carpet Manufactures of Iran in the Nineteenth Century", 204 & 211. Return to text

  • 22 Seyf, "Carpet Manufactures of Iran in the Nineteenth Century", 206. Return to text

  • 23 Seyf, Ahmed. "Carpet and shawl weavers in nineteenth century Iran" Middle Eastern Studies, 29 iv (1993) 687. Return to text

  • 24 De Vries, "Persian Carpet Weaving", in Journal of the Society of Arts, 24 July 1891, 733, quoted in Seyf, Ahmed. "Carpet and shawl weavers in nineteenth century Iran" Middle Eastern Studies, 29 iv (1993) 687. Return to text

  • 25 Seyf, "Carpet Manufactures of Iran in the Nineteenth Century", 208. Return to text

  • 26 Benjamin, S.G.W., Persia and the Persians, (London 1887), 423 quoted in Seyf, "Carpet Manufactures of Iran in the Nineteenth Century", 207. Return to text

  • 27 Quoted in Issawi, C., The Economic History of Iran, 1800-1906, (Chicago 1971), 97, quoted in Seyf, "Carpet Manufactures of Iran in the Nineteenth Century", 209. Return to text

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