Paradise underfoot: a Persian carpet at Nuffield Place

Christo Kefalas, World Cultures Curator Christo Kefalas World Cultures Curator
Detail of a Persian carpet at Nuffield Place, Oxfordshire

Carpets are one of the most familiar and important of the Islamic arts, with carpet weaving forming an essential part of Persian (Iranian) culture for millennia.

At Nuffield Place, Oxfordshire, a Persian carpet adorns the floor of the Drawing Room. Teeming with lush, vibrant images of blossoming vines and perching birds, it presents a dazzling vision of springtime.

As Ramadan – one of the biggest holidays of the religious calendar – falls in Spring this year, Christo Kefalas, World Cultures Curator, takes a closer look at the influence of Islamic decorative arts on Persian carpet design.

Spring has sprung

The Persian carpet at Nuffield Place features a bright composition of flowers springing up from vases, evoking a light feeling of springtime vitality. A slender tree with meandering branches climbs through a central field, with pink, blue, and yellow flowers blossoming into the intervening spaces. Resting birds shelter in the central field. The imagery symbolises the Gardens of Paradise and creates a rich but balanced effect.

The Persian carpet at Nuffield Place depicts a springtime scene, teeming with blossom and birds
Persian carpet at Nuffield Place
The Persian carpet at Nuffield Place depicts a springtime scene, teeming with blossom and birds

There is a profusion of stylised roses. These are probably Rosa ‘Ispahan’, also known as the Damask rose. Rosa 'Ispahan' was discovered in the city of Isfahan in Iran, where roses were a popular feature of city gardens. Today, Isfahan is synonymous with elegant gardens but also with a rich history of carpet weaving and production.

The rise and fall, and rise of the carpet industry in Iran

The classical era of Persian carpet production is generally undestood to have been the Safavid era of carpet weaving, between 1500 – 1700. In 1598, Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I moved the capital of Persia to Isfahan. The city entered a cultural golden age and the carpet industry flourished and boomed.This carpet has been attributed to Isfahan, but also has features linking it to Kerman as a potential place of production.

Following the Afghan Invasion in 1722, Isfahan was dethroned as the capital city and the carpet industry fell dormant for over a century. From the 19th century onwards, Persian carpets were mostly created for Western middle and upper classes to decorate their homes.

The carpet industry re-emerged in the mid-19th century using alternate materials for export to the West – specifically wool and yarns made from both natural and synthetic dyes. 

Patterns with global meaning

Persia, officially known as Iran from 1935, was a crossroads for global migratory populations. Persia was conquered by regimes with various religions and was shaped by wide-ranging artistic influences. When the Ilkhanids (1256–1353) ruled Persia as part of the Mongol Empire, connections to China were absorbed into the Perso-Islamic artistic language. Animals such as dragons and tigers were incorporated into carpet designs, while the architectural forms of Persia also remained.

A long-standing history of cross-cultural exchanges continued to influence carpet design. Elements such as birds and peonies emerged as frequent carpet ornaments. Within the slim yellow bordering bands of the Nuffield carpet, alternating flowers sit next to stylised tulips with a simple chevron shape. Pink and blue fan-shaped carnations also emerge from pink branches in the central field.

On top of the flowering tree, Chinese peonies blossom

Chinese peony, Persian motif

On top of the flowering tree, Chinese peonies blossom against a sumptuous indigo field. The peony motif is highly stylised, blooming on undulating and interlocking vines.

Carnations and tulips were favourite flowers of the nearby Ottoman Empire to the west of Persia

Ottoman influences

Carnations and tulips were favourite flowers of the nearby Ottoman Empire to the west of Persia and were often incorporated into Ottoman Empire court carpet designs.

'Prayer rugs'

This style of carpet is referred to as a 'prayer rug' – the mat or piece of fabric used by Muslims in homes, mosques or elsewhere during prayer. Islamic prayer does not use objects to speak to God; nonetheless, architecture, books and decorative items are connected to worship, often bearing motifs of plants or vegetal ornamentation. 

In the Nuffield Place carpet, the pointed arch at the top of the carpet mirrors a mihrab, or a prayer niche.  

The pointed arch at the top of the carpet mirrors a mihrab, or a prayer niche
Detail of a Persian carpet at Nuffield Place, Oxfordshire
The pointed arch at the top of the carpet mirrors a mihrab, or a prayer niche

Mihrabs are found in the interior of mosques indicating the direction of the holy city Makkah, Saudi Arabia (also known as Mecca). When a prayer rug is used in worship, the mihrab would also be orientated in the direction of Makkah.

The mihrab is the focal point for prayer inside the mosque
The mihrab is the focal point for prayer inside the mosque
The mihrab is the focal point for prayer inside the mosque

Artistic adaptation in Persian carpets

The presence of a mihrab in the Nuffield carpet demonstrates the Islamic influence on Persian design. However, the inclusion of birds firmly places this carpet in the decorative sphere. While the arts of Central and West Asia depicted animate creatures in response to global influences throughout history, the art connected to Muslim practice could not depict living beings. Instead, artists communicated religious significance through calligraphy, geometric forms and vegetal decoration.

Nightingales depicted in a Persian Carpet

Influenced by Islamic design, but not a prayer rug

20th-century Persian carpet designs drew from earlier floral and community patterns, often combining design features based on perceptions of Western taste.

Sparrows depicted in a Persian Carpet

Nightingales and turtle doves

The brown- and cream-hued birds could represent turtle doves or nightingales, which were often found in the elaborate gardens of Isfahan.

Nature, the divine and Ramadan

Spring is the time for one of the biggest holidays in the religious calendar: Ramadan.

Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and takes place over the ninth month in the Muslim calendar, when the Qur’an was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Believers fast from food and liquid during daylight hours, and the physical fast creates a sense of empathy for the suffering of others. Restraint from the desire to eat and drink also becomes a means of accelerating a spiritual connection with the divine through self-awareness.

The calligraphy on this amulet from the collection at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire contains verses from the Qur’an. Over the month of Ramadan the entire Qur’an is recited. For many Muslims, the calligraphy of sacred text from the Qur'an is the highest form of Islamic art.

Gardens of Paradise

In Islamic culture, gardens have long played an important role in daily life. Whether the luxuriant carpet florals refer to the earthly or heavenly gardens of Paradise, these verdant spaces symbolise the promise of well-being and tranquillity. At Nuffield Place, the Persian carpet creates a sense of connection with nature.

The Persian carpets at home with Lord and Lady Nuffield

Westover house rugs

Westover Hall

William Morris and Elizabeth Anstey, later known as Lord and Lady Nuffield, acquired a number of Persian carpets before 1933. Some of these carpets can be seen in this historic photograph of Westover Hall, Lord and Lady Nuffield’s residence from 1930-1932.

Nuffield Place drawing room

Nuffield Place

Lord Nuffield travelled extensively on ocean cruises, but there is no record of him travelling to Iran nor to other countries in West Asia. We assume that the carpets at Nuffield Place, including these in the Drawing Room, were acquired from UK commercial stores or dealers.