Wednesday, 11 April 2012

How A. Cecil Edwards Wrote The Book On Persian Carpets

LONDON, April 15, 20102 -- Books on oriental carpets are still a relatively new phenomenon, with the oldest dating back only to around 1900.

But if there is one book that is the most interesting of all, it may be "The Persian Carpet" by A. Cecil Edwards.

Part of the reason is that the book, published in 1953, is a comprehensive guide to the Persian carpet industry of the early 1900s, the period during which many of the Persian carpets in Western households today were made.

But the other reason the book is so interesting is the author himself.

Edwards was intimately familiar with his subject because, from the years 1900 to 1947, he was a leading figure in the rug business and spent much time in Iran.

Below is a picture of the book's cover.

And at the top of this page is a photo of the kind of Persian carpet Edwards particularly admired: a carpet from Kashan. It is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Edwards belongs to that bygone generation of British professionals who sought their fortunes in the East at the turn-of-the-last century through a combination of luck and daring.

His story begins in Istanbul, where his great uncle, George Baker, was the official gardener for the Turkish sultan and his uncle, James Baker, was a co-founder of Oriental Carpet Manufacturers, or OCM.

At the time, OCM was already one of the world's most successful international carpet companies. When it was founded in Smyrna (now Izmir) in 1908 as a merger of six major carpet manufacturing firms, it had a start-up capitalization of £400,000 - a massive sum for that day.

Young Cecil Edwards joined OCM as it bought and manufactured carpets in Turkey and Persia and exported them to the British market. He soon found himself focusing on Persia, moving to Hamadan in northwest Persia in 1911 to take charge of the company's production there.

Northwest Persia at the time was the center of much of the country's weaving for export trade. But Persia did not just interest Edwards and his American wife Clara, for its carpets. They both became fascinated by the history and culture which surrounded them.

Here is a picture of Gang Nameh, one of the most impressive relics of the ancient Persian Empire, just 5 km southwest of Hamadan.

It is a pair of inscriptions on the side of Alvand Mountain.

The one on the left was ordered by Darius the Great (521-485 BC) and the one on the right by Xerxes the Great (485-65 BC).

Each section is carved in three languages -- Old Persian, Neo-Babylonian and Neo-Elamite – and describe the lineage and deeds of each king.

Both Cecil and Clara began to write about the world around them as they made Persia their home for the next 12 years. He tried fiction and she wrote detailed letters to relatives which are now collected in the archives of Bryn Mawr College, her alma mater.

Cecil's first published book, a collection of short stories, was "The Persian Caravan." It appeared in 1928 and was a collection of unrelated tales whose exotic characters ranged from aghas, to Russian officers, to British missionaries – all apparently inspired by the people he saw around him. The text is occasionally sprinkled with ghazels by the poet Hafez.

Despite Edward's profession, "The Persian Caravan" rarely mentions carpets -- except when describing a luxurious setting. As in this passage, when an unidentified narrator visits a friend, a former defense minister, who has been arrested by the leader of a palace coup:

"My host had ordered his servants to prepare lunch in the posthouse. He ushered me, in due course, into the principal chamber. I found the earth floor garnished with a noble carpet from Kashan, where the best carpets in the world are woven. On the carpet a printed cloth was spread. It was dotted with little bowls of stews and sweetmeats; and like a sun, in the centre of that fragrant system, lay a huge metal platter, heaped with steaming...‎"

It is interesting that Edwards mentions Kashan carpets as the best in the world because, much later, when he wrote his definitive book on Persian carpets he would repeatedly say the same.

So much so, in fact, that some modern critics fault him for devoting too much time to Kashan's production compared to his survey of the rest of the Persian carpets of his time.

Here is another Kashan carpet of the kind Edwards might have admired. It is available from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Just when Edwards decided to write about the Persian carpet industry is unclear. But when the Edwards left Persia for London in 1923, his book was still a quarter of a century away from appearing.

In London, Edwards was managing director of OCM and is credited with making the decision to expand the company's market to America. In partnership with one of the biggest importers in the US market – Fritz and La Rue – OCM's rugs entered virtually every major department store chain in the United States in the years leading up to World War II.

Yet Edwards' interests remained both intellectual and commercial as he rose to the top of his profession. He was an early pioneer of globalization, increasingly moving production to India to make oriental carpets more affordable to average buyers. But he and Clara also developed firm friendships with historian Arnold Toynbee and the William Blake bibliographer Geoffrey Keynes.

Finally in 1948 the couple returned again to Persia (renamed in 1935 as Iran). The goal was for Cecil to complete research for his book which would be entitled, "The Persian Carpet: A Survey of the Carpet Weaving Industry of Persia."

The book was published five years later, in 1953. But by a sad twist of fate, both Cecil's and Clara's health were worsening by then. Clara's mind had begun to fail and in 1951 she entered a retreat near Brighton. Cecil died in 1953, followed closely by Clara in 1955.

The Edwards' story ends sadly but it is one of a fascinating life lived at a fascinating time.

"The Persian Carpet" won the highest accolades it could hope to win by being published to acclaim in English and also being translated into Farsi.

And the saga of the OCM has inspired another full book of its own.

It is "Three Camels To Smyrna: Times of War and Peace in Turkey, Persia, India, Afghanistan & Nepal 1907-1986 - The Story of the Oriental Carpet Manufacturers Company."

The book, by Antony Wynn, explores the dramatic history of the Near and Middle East in the twentieth century from the point of view of the men and women involved in the carpet trade.

Among them, to be sure, are A. Cecil and Clara Edwards.