Mary Roberts

The Poetics of the Orientalist Interior

Frederic Leighton’s Holland Park home was one of the most famous British Orientalist interiors in nineteenth-century London. His home, the site of his creative practice, it was also an evolving work of art and a space into and out of which objects, art works and people travelled. Here Leighton amassed an exceptional collection of Islamic art. The quality of the historic Near Eastern tiles and the artistic ambitions of their installation in Leighton’s Arab Hall, built between 1877 and 1879, distinguishes his Orientalist interior from the homes of his peers.

The Arab Hall was conceived as a gesamstkunstwerk, a secular aestheticist fantasy of suspended time in which historic near eastern craft production was synthesized into an harmonious aesthetic present tense. Accounts by contemporary visitors disclose the experiential poetics of this orientalism. This interior was created through Leighton’s collaborative efforts with architect George Aitchison, ceramicist William De Morgan and Walter Crane. The inclusion of over one thousand early modern tiles from İznik, Damascus and Persia made by unknown craftsmen prompts a consideration of the role their creative practice plays in the space. William De Morgan undertook the challenge of replicating tiles parts to repair some of these historic multi-tiled panels. In doing so he submitted to an apprenticeship across time, as the products of his kiln were answerable to the superb precedents of the near eastern master craftsmen. The Arab Hall’s tile panels had been designed for other interiors and their history of dislocation from those walls is often legible in their fragmentary remnants and scarred surfaces. In this lecture Roberts addresses the ways in which this obdurate materiality posed an impediment to an aesthetics of synthesis. 

Mary Roberts

Professor of Art History, University of Sydney

Mary Roberts is the John Schaeffer Professor of Art History at the University of Sydney.  She specializes in nineteenth-century British and Ottoman art with particular expertise in Orientalism, the history of artistic exchanges between the Ottoman Empire and Europe and the culture of travel. Her books include: Istanbul Exchanges. Ottomans, Orientalists and Nineteenth-century visual culture (University of California Press, 2015), Intimate Outsiders. The Harem in Ottoman and Orientalist Art and Travel Literature (Duke, 2007) and four co-edited books: The Poetics and Politics of Place. Ottoman Istanbul and British Orientalism (Pera Museum and University of Washington Press, 2011) Edges of Empire. Orientalism and Visual Culture (Blackwells, 2005), Orientalism’s Interlocutors, (Duke, 2002) and Refracting Vision. Essays on the Writings of Michael Fried (Power Publications, 2000/2012).

Mary has been awarded residential fellowships at the Center for the Advanced Study of the Visual Arts, (2014-15), the Clark Art Institute and Oakley Center for the Humanities (2009-10), the Getty Research Institute (2008-9), Yale Center for British Art (1999 and 2008), and was a visiting scholar at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University (2011-12). Her research has also been supported by grants from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Australian Research Council. She has been invited to speak at the Getty Research Institute, The Freer/Sackler Galleries in Washington, the Courtauld Institute of Art, Tate Britain, Northwestern, University of Michigan, Bosphorus University, University of Fribourg, Switzerland, the Yale Center for British Art, CUNY, Boston University, MIT and Pera Museum, Istanbul. Mary’s current book project is Artists as Collectors of Islamic Art.