Mughal Red Ground Grotesque fragments

What Are They? Where Were They Made? When Were They Made?

When I look at the Mughal Red Ground Grotesque fragments three questions come to mind. What Are They? Where Were They Made? When Were They Made? Recently two top scholars in the field have examined these questions and have come up with virtually identical answers. First I reviewed the Cohen article in "Silk &; Stone The Art Of Asia". 1Cohen gives a beautifully written and wonderfully illustrated theory of the Rugs provenance. Shortly after that I received Daniel Walker's "Flowers Underfoot".2 Walker agreed so strongly with the Cohen premise that one would almost think Cohen could have written it for him. Cohen and Walker are brilliant careful scholars who make convincing arguments in most endeavors but despite their masterful work appear to fall short in this endeavor. The Cohen/Walker premise seems overly euro-centic and fundamentally flawed. This may sound a tad rash so let me review the subject:

When seeking to attribute a rug it is advisable that we look is to hard factual evidence of provenance. With the red ground grotesque fragments we lack a clear evidentiary trail. We have no record of purchase in Lahore India such as we had with the Girdlers Carpet where there is documentation of the purchase of the carpet in the 1630's. Nor are their inventory tags such as we see in the Mughal Carpets of Jaipur that show the rugs were in the inventory of a palace since the Seventeenth century. In fact there is no record of these fragments before the nineteenth century at all. When we look to art for clues we again find out that there is no hard evidence. Apparently no Lotto or Holbein every thought to portray one of these rugs in a painting that we can use to date them. We even lack a large enough fragment to have a clear picture of the overall design. So when we review the facts all we have in this respect is that worn fragmentary pieces of this type of carpet began to appear in the early part of the nineteenth century. Let me add that Steven J. Cohen manages to trace most of them back to Paris and perhaps even one dealer who was responsible for cutting them up (or perhaps even having some of them made).

Lacking factual evidence of provenance we then turn to structure to look for clues. The first major clue we come to is a shared structural similarity in the warps. All of the red ground grotesque fragments are of a group of high ply count warped rugs, which are attributed to Lahore.2a The hallmark of this group is the use of cotton warps with a ply count greater than four that have not been corded. The late Charles Grant Ellis mentioned this group and felt it was the characteristic construction of Lahore. In The Widener Mughal Animal Carpet I argue for the existence of a Lahore group which has characteristic high ply count warps that I date back into at least the fourth quarter sixteenth century. The only major dissenters that I am aware of are the Murray Eilands . 3

One rather glaring error common to both the Cohen and Walker theories is the idea that all the remaining fragments are from two carpets. Walker said, "It seems likely that the surviving fragments came from two carpets made from the same cartoon". Cohen said, "It is much more likely that a contemporaneous pair of carpets, woven from the same design but with their orientations reversed, was the source of all of the red ground grotesque fragments." It is rather troubling that these two giants in the field can come to virtually identical wrong conclusions.

One of Cohen's two schematic representations.4
Warps run length wise from top to bottom Therefore B C H and E must share warps for the Cohen/Walker premise to be correct.

B. Louvre 7225 (b) White Z7S
C. Detroit 31.64 White Z7S
E. FAMSF 1952.35 White Z7S
H. David Collection Tex 32 Ivory-Beige 7S

Since H. is obviously different the Cohen /Walker premise places it in the wrong spot or there is a third rug. Unless someone started knocking off the fragments ala Tudek. While I am not suggesting that the rugs are forgeries one must consider the possibility.

All of the fragments have several basic structural similarities. i. e. the warps and wefts are all cotton and the pile is wool. The warps are mostly Z7s but there are some Z6S and one fragment that is S7. The warp/DM range from a low of 102 to a high of 126. The warp depression ranges from not very depressed (28 degrees) to deeply depressed (80 degrees). All of the pieces have 3 shoots of weft with 1/3 also having some rows with 4 shoots. 14 of the 15 fragments have some areas of discontinuous wefts. 13 of the 15 have 2Z pile. The 15 pieces make up a cohesive group and clearly are related fragments of Lahore type rugs. Many people have read Cohen's article and from his schematic reconstruction of possible design have come to the conclusion that all the fragments are from two carpets. A careful reading of Cohen show that this is highly improbable because Cohen's schematic would call for warps to change color and physical makeup at several points in a line lengthwise. For instance in Cohen's second schematic B, C. H, and E, are in a row lengthwise therefore since H has 7Z warps then C and E should have at least a band of 7Z warps which they do not. This is not to say that Cohen's schematic representation of design is wrong it only shows that there were more than two carpets. So factoring in this information we can say that the fragments appear to be from a number (more than two) of related Lahore type carpets.

The Essence of the Cohen Argument.

"since all the animals depicted on the red-ground fragments are native to India and, more crucially, since every detail is drawn in an artistic style known from hundreds of Indian Miniature paintings dated from about 1580 to 1610, it is most probable that the carpet was also designed in Indian at that period. 5a
By comparison of artistic elements in the red-ground grotesque fragments with the body of classical art Cohen argues for a match of some of the design elements in the fragments with the art of the late Akbari period. Most importantly Cohen spots the large hunting cat in several of the fragments and shows a similar example in late Akbari art. The problem appears to be two fold. Cohen has a poor grasp of how animals were portrayed and when. He then sees similarities that escape me.

5b Big Cat in a Red-Ground Grotesque Fragment

Detail From The Fine Ats Museum of San Francisco red-ground grotesque fragment


Detail From The Widener Mughal Animal Carpet

Mughal India Circa 1590

The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


The Fremlin Armorial Carpet

Mughal India Circa 1640

V&A IM 1-1936

The big cat is of a style that dates from 1590 or before and definitely dated to 1640 and probably much later. This is the only animal in the red ground grotesque fragments that is at all close to court art. I say related because the Fremlin carpet is clearly not only sub-Imperial but clearly commercial workshop export quality. To be fair Cohen suggests that "the drawing of the rhinoceroses heads is precisely echoed in several of the red-ground grotesque carpet fragments (see top left corner of G)"

Judge for yourself because I fail to see what Cohen is suggesting

Cohen showed a picture showing these two details and suggested that "the drawing of the rhinoceroses heads is precisely echoed in several of the red-ground grotesque carpet fragments (see top left corner of G)" 7 Rhinoceroses referred to in the top left corner of G

The cat is of a type that the artist Miskin at the court of Akbar made popular. Cohen then takes that success and makes some assumptions that strain the bounds of credibility. First of all he shows a miniature with a rhinoceros and he suggests that the rhinoceroses in the fragments are in the same style.

Detail from the David Collection Red Ground Grotesque fragment

Detail from the Widener Mughal Animal Carpet.

The example that Cohen chose was a plate from the Baburnama with a rhinoceros the plate is very similar to a plate in the Baburnama by Kesu the elder and Miskin. In the Widener we see how a rhino was transmitted into carpet in the 1590s. We see a marked difference with the clumsy and childish portrayal in the Grotesque fragments. The notion that the art of the fragments is so sophisticated that it must be the product of a court manufactory is not acceptable. Proportions are wrong. The heads are often poorly drawn and not at all in the style of an Akbari court manufactory. Take for instance the Elephant head in the XXXXX fragment when we contrast that with the elephants in the Widener Mughal Animal Carpet we see that in comparison with Akbari court art the red Ground grotesque elephants are crude and clumsy. In fact with the exception of the hunting cats all of the heads appear to be stylistically less sophisticated derivatives of Akbari court art. Therefore I conclude that the art of the carpets is derivative of the court art of the Akbari Kitab khanni. That as derivative it is not of the court but of a lesser commercial type.

The next question is when were the carpets made? Cohen suggests that late sixteenth century early seventeenth is the most probable answer. Even after this review of the pertinent facts I must disagree. I believe that Cohen makes some fundamentally flawed assumptions about the design process in Mughal carpets, which throws off his attribution calculations. Cohen appears to assume that these rugs are what we may for simplicity sake call cartoon rugs. A designer creates a design. The design is transmitted to the weaver usually through a cartoon. In classical Persian Carpets the design was often a cartoon of a quarter of the full carpet because with horizontal and vertical mirror symmetry a quarter would give you the full design of the rug. The use of cartoons was a major factor in the design evolution of classical Persian carpets. Cohen talks of designers of the Akbari Court or closely influenced by the court art to suggest that the art must there fore be of the same period. I suggest in that basic assumption is where Cohen went astray. In Mughal carpets we do not have a strict adherence to a design convention of horizontal and vertical mirror symmetry. This is because there was a different system of design in use. They used what is called a pastiche system of design. They took sketches of copies of other art and used it to create linear pastiche segments across a rug. Various bits of art are assembled much like a graphic artist might assemble clip art and then fill in around it.

We know that in the Kitab Khani of Akbar young artists copied the art of the masters. Akbar maintained an important library of not just Mughal artists but also Turanian and Persian artists. It was this system of copying that allowed a diffusion of and then a degeneration of court art. The work of the court masters found its way into the art of the court carpets. We also know that many were called but few were chosen in the Kitab Khana. It was not uncommon for an artist who has studied and worked at the court to fail to meet the high standards of the court and be sent away. We then gain a body of court inspired sub-imperial art. Much of this art is merely bad copies of imperial themes. Work then is copied from copies of copies and in a period of 25 to 30 years we see the art to degenerate to the sloppy mess we see in the Grotesque Fragments. I interpret the grotesque fragments as an attempt to squeeze the last use out of almost worn-out art. So I conclude that the Red ground Grotesque fragments are really a latter use of degenerate Akbari art. Why is the cat so much better than the other animals? The hunting cat was a popular design icon and obviously they had a better one to copy from. At what point then can we attribute these fragments? I feel comfortable with an attribution of second quarter seventeenth century and suggest that those who hold to an earlier date rethink their logic.

1. Tilden, Jill. Ed. Silk & Stone The Art Of Asia. London, England: Hali Publications Limited, 1996

2. Walker, Daniel. Flowers Underfoot. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997


3. Murray Jr. and the Murray the third, I do not believe Murray Sr. has taken a public position on this question.

4.Tilden, Jill. Ed. Silk & Stone The Art Of Asia. London, England: Hali Publications Limited, 1996 pg. 117

5. Tilden, Jill. Ed. Silk & Stone The Art Of Asia. London, England: Hali Publications Limited, 1996 Notes pg. 192

5a. Tilden, Jill. Ed. Silk & Stone The Art Of Asia. London, England: Hali Publications Limited, 1996 pg. 108


5c. Realistic Animals Web article on the portrayal of animals in the Widener Mughal Animal carpet.

5d. "The South Kensington Ideal" Hali No. 96 January 1998, Page 100.
6. Okada, Amina. Indian Miniatures of the Mughal Court. Translated by Deke Dusinberre, (New York, Harry N. Abrahms, Inc. Publishers, 1992).Page 133
Plate 147
7. Tilden, Jill. Ed. Silk & Stone The Art Of Asia. London, England: Hali Publications Limited, 1996 Illustration and caption pg. 118 A page of a Baburnama circa 1590 British Museum, London:,f.379b

Note: To further a long term research project I am collecting data. When a piece such as this may be of interest to others I have decided to share my notes prior to culmination of the project. As such the attributions are my own and may be different that the catalogue attribution. Any additions, information, or corrections, would be appreciated.