The Ardabil Carpet

1539-1540 (made)


Width: 530 cm non-inscription end, Width: 529.5 cm middle, Width: 535.5 cm inscription end, Length: 1032.5 cm left side looking from inscription end, Length: 1044 cm middle, Length: 1031 cm right side looking from inscription end

272-1893 MES

Medallion carpet known as the 'Ardabil Carpet', wool pile on silk foundation, design of central medallion with two hanging lamps, Safavid Iran, dated 946H, 1539-1540

The Ardabil Carpet, medallion carpet, wool knotted pile on silk foundation, Safavid Iran, dated 946H, 1539-40. Warp: white silk; Z2S; depressed; 126 threads per dm (32 per in) Weft: white silk; unable to ascertain spin, ply, twist; 3 shoots of paired threads after each row of knots; 78 knots per dm (19 per in) Pile: wool; 10 colours: dark red, red, light red, yellow, green, dark blue, blue, light blue, black, white; asymmetrical knot open to the left; 5300 knots per sq. dm (340 per sq. in) Side and End Finishes: missing Design: Field: dark blue ground with yellow central medallion with 16 satellite ovals. Above and below are suspended red lamps, one larger than the other. Each corner has one quarter of a medallion; the rest of the field has a rich scattering of blossoms. Main border: blue ground with red cartouches separated by large green rosettes. Inner border: cream ground with floral meander. Outer border: red ground with double meander.

The Ardabil carpet is one of the largest and finest Islamic carpets in existence. It is also of great historical importance. It was commissioned as one of a pair by the ruler of Iran, Shah Tahmasp, for the shrine of his ancestor, Shaykh Safi al-Din, in the town of Ardabil in north-west Iran. In a small panel at one end, the date of completion is given as the year 946 in the Muslim calendar, equivalent to 1539-40. The text includes the name of the man in charge of its production, Maqsud Kashani. The carpet is remarkable for the beauty of its design and execution. It has a white silk warp and weft and the pile is knotted in wool in ten colours. The single huge composition that covers most of its surface is clearly defined against the dark-blue ground, and the details of the ornament - the complex blossoms and delicate tendrils - are rendered with great precision. This was due above all to the density of the knotting - there are an average of 5300 knots in every 10 square centimetres (340 knots per square inch).

Purchased in 1893 from Messrs. Vincent Robinson & Co. Ltd., 34 Wigmore Street, London. Robinson's in turn had purchased the carpet from Ziegler's of Manchester, a trading firm with offices in both Tabriz and Sultanabad (modern Arak) in Iran: Ziegler's bought the carpet in 1888 from the shrine of Shaykh Safi in Ardabil, repairing it heavily. In 1889-90, the shrine authorities completed new restoration works on the earthquake-damaged buildings of the complex: arguably, the carpet was originally sold in order to fund this renovation. By 1892, the Ardabil Carpet was on display in Vincent Robinson's showroom. The Museum first learned of the Ardabil Carpet from John Edward Taylor, a wealthy private collector (and sole owner of the Manchester Guardian), who brought it to the Director's attention over the summer of 1892. In January 1893, the institution offered to pay £1,500 to acquire the carpet. Further funds were still needed to reach an offer acceptable to Edward Stebbing, the managing director at Vincent Robinson's, however, and Taylor volunteered to raise the required sum through a group of private donors. By March of 1893, there were still insufficient funds, and after some consultation with art referees William Morris and Frederic Lord Leighton, the Museum decided to increase the initial proposed spend to £1,750 for the Ardabil Carpet. This was accepted by Vincent Robinson's, and the sale went ahead, with further payments expected from Taylor (who had guaranteed £250) and others. The private donors recorded in the Museum's documentation include Taylor, Morris (who offered to contribute £20), A.W. Frank, E. Steinkopff, "and other gentlemen" (V&A accession register). At the time of its purchase by the South Kensington Museum, the Ardabil Carpet was discussed with enthusiasm as a unique object. However it was woven as a pair, both of which were sourced from the Ardabil shrine, and in 1892 Vincent Robinson sold the twin abroad to the American tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes for $80,000, apparently on condition that the carpet should not return to Britain. From the Yerkes collection, this second Ardabil Carpet was sold on to Joseph Raphael De Lamar, then to the art dealer Joseph Duveen, and finally in 1938 to John Paul Getty, who donated it in 1953 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art where it remains today (museum number 53.50.2).

Location: Islamic Middle East, room 42, case 21

View this object on the V&A website