The making of the Kincardine Carpet
An article by Andrew Haughton August 2022
Since first seeing the celebrated and world famous Wagner Garden Carpet in the Burrell Collection, Glasgow, I had been fascinated by this 400 year old genre of carpet weaving which represents the chahar bagh or Persian four part garden. I was enchanted by the poetic connections evident in the formal arrangement and rich content of these carpets and the gardens they illustrated. Some deeper meanings are indicated by scriptural sources too. The four water courses evoke imagery of The Garden of Eden, of the four rivers which flowed out of it.
Thaddeus' illustration above is based on Gen 2:10: “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.” They were the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates.
In the Koran Heaven is described as “gardens beneath which rivers flow” over 100 times. The great Safavid and Mughal ‘chahar bagh’ had precedents in the Achaemenid dynasty 400 years before Christ. Communities in the arid lands of that region depended on controlled water supplies. Fields, orchards and gardens were irrigated often via hundreds of miles of underground water conduits known as Qanats. These were expensive assets associated with power and the source of life itself. A great leader demonstrated his power by being a great provider. The provider of water was the provider of life, God like.
It is not hard to see why the imagery in these early Safavid garden carpets is one of the primary sources for many Persian city and tribal rugs and carpets, evolving and becoming more stylised over generations. In 2014 the subject of Paradise Carpets became the focus of an exhibition at The Nomads Tent with, at its centre, a small garden carpet woven in India and designed for us by Laura Mackenzie, celebrated garden architect and artist. It was her first carpet design. The ‘Mackenzie Carpet,’ as we called it, eventually ended up, rather fittingly perhaps, under the feet of visiting Middle Eastern dignitaries in The Tony Blair Institute in London. Though we didn’t know it then, that project laid the grounds for the huge Kincardine Carpet.
From its early days in the 1980s The Nomads Tent has regularly taken van loads of goods to homes all over the UK for one of our Nomads Tent Road Show. At such a show in 2017 in Kincardine Castle, Aberdeenshire, hosted by Andrew and Nicky Bradford, the Kincardine Carpet was conceived after a talk I gave there to a group of about 40 people ‘The Origins and Imagery of 16th and 17th century Safavid Garden Carpets’. After the talk our hosts Andrew and Nicky Bradford invited me to see their walled garden which Andrew pointed out seemed to match the form and layout of a carpet I had referred to in my talk, the diminutive Figdor Carpet3, a garden design carpet which actually has six sections, unlike the primary model of four.
Google Earth view of Kincardine Castle and garden.
Figdor Carpet, Kerman, Safavid Empire, South Iran, 1st half 17th century 191 x 156 cm
Andrew Bradford then asked if we could produce a carpet for the grand dining room at Kincardine Castle based on their garden. It would be part of their legacy. I jumped at this chance to re-interpret the traditional garden carpet on a really grand scale; the dining room concerned is 10 metres long and 5.5 metres wide. I felt immediately it would be a great project if we could make it happen. For that we needed a designer and a weaver.
Designer Laura Mackenzie and master weaver Vijay Thakur, Delhi.
Laura Mackenzie was thrilled to be asked to work on it, bringing once again her knowledge of gardens and her skill in stylised representation of plants. Based in Perthshire, Laura has worked both in the public and private sector, in urban and rural situations as a landscape architect. Garden design includes historic gardens (such as those of the Lutyens designed Greywalls Hotel in East Lothian) and analysis of the designed landscape. As mentioned, Laura designed an earlier example of a garden carpet and several kilims too.
The master weaver
Vijay Thakur of Cottage Crafts of India has over 30 years of experience weaving carpets. He is well respected in the carpet weaving world and became chairman of The Carpet Export Promotion Council in the Government of India. In his own words: “I also tried my best to bring the entire community of carpet manufacturers, exporters, importers, retailers and wholesalers of the world together. The World Carpet Conference was held in New Delhi from 3rd to 5th November 2003 and was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister of India Mr Atal Bihari Vajpaee. It was attended by delegates from over 25 Countries including Iran, Turkey, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, US, UK, Germany, Denmark, France, South America, Australia, New Zealand etc. One of the sessions was chaired by Rufus Reade [of The Nomads Tent]”. Vijay has mainly worked with natural dyes which is quite rare in the weaving fraternity in India. He has a deep interest in historical carpet designs and methods of weaving and shows an exceptional dedication to authenticity. For a special project, including some he has undertaken for The Nomads Tent, he may develop a particular type of yarn and recreate the exact type of knotting to produce an authentic recreation of an old carpet. He employs a small team of highly skilled weavers and dyers which he regards as a family. Some have been with him for 30 years.
Laura and I visited Kincardine several times over 2018 and early 2019. Besides the garden plan and key elements such as the espaliered fruit trees, a magnificent laburnum covered walkway and an apple press, the carpet was to reflect family history, certain anecdotes and the great expanse of the Cairngorms seen over the walls. The carpet would be a massive 8.3 x 4.2 metres.
Early colour plans under consideration.
Espaliered pear and other details.
Drawings and colour plans were developed and discussed, plants were stylised into forms that could be woven, the Cairngorms were photographed from sixty feet up on the roof so we could show specific hills and even the tail of a tiger was to be shown curling round the main gateway, reflecting the heroic exploit of a 19th century family member. And it was through this same entrance, several decades ago, that Princess Margaret had peered having heard about this remarkable garden. Despite attempts at discouragement and being told it was, at that time, a sadly neglected jungle, she commanded to be shown there. But she then expressed her disappointment.
Vijay determined the type of hand spun yarns and density of weave that would suit Laura’s design. Colours would be all natural vegetable dyes. In due course samples were woven in India and sent over for inspection. Part of my brief to Vijay was to weave 3 kilim designs based on the carpet and designed by Laura, as well as a ‘wagireh’ or sampler, 1.8 x 1.2 metres, showing the various elements in a compacted form which Vijay composed himself. Traditionally wagireh would be produced to send to a prospective customer before making a full size large carpet. A 100% scale graph of the Kincardine Carpet was produced in sections in which every single knot was accounted for. Approximately 7 to 8,000,000 knots would be tied to complete the carpet. Great quantities of wool were dyed and dried. The 6 metre wide loom for this carpet has immense steel beams needed to take the pressure of around 2000 cotton warps. Finally weaving got underway in January 2020. It was expected to take about 10 months to weave the carpet and ship to the UK.
Approximately 1 metre of the carpet had been completed on the 6 metre wide loom by February 2020. Then snippets of news from Woohan in China about a virus turned into a deluge of dreadful headlines and within a few weeks the world changed. Covid19 affected India especially badly, partly due to well documented mismanagement by national and local government which caused widespread panic and chaos. Weaving stopped in March when the weavers fled back to their villages, some 800 miles away. In July 2020 some weavers returned and work steadily picked up though at a slower pace than normal.
Corona virus hanging in a tree with the Cairngorms beyond.
Around this time we decided to incorporate an image of the Corona virus into the carpet to mark a rather historic episode in world history. Finally the carpet was cut down from the loom in the middle of 2021. Then followed a prolonged and vigorous washing and conditioning stage, and trimming and final adjustments. In December 2021 a very large bale arrived from Edinburgh airport just fitting through the door of our shop in Edinburgh.
In April 2022 the carpet was publicly exhibited in The Nomads Tent before being taken to the magnificent dining room at Kincardine Castle on 16th May. A special cradle was made to allow 6 people to carry the carpet up the long flight of stairs. Andrew, Nicky and several others, including some little helpers, assisted in rolling the carpet out.
Andrew Haughton with Nicky and Andrew Bradford in the Dining Room of Kincardine Castle.
With the generous and visionary approach of Andrew and Nicky Bradford, the creativity of Laura Mackenzie and the extraordinary and time honoured skills of Vijay Thakur and his weavers, we had delivered the largest and probably only contemporary hand knotted carpet of 'chahar bagh' design produced anywhere in the last 150 years.
This article is an adaptation of one published in June 2022 in the Oxford Asian Textile Group, edited by Gavin Strachan. It was a privilege to be included in the pages of a this excellent journal.
The Kincardine Carpet was noted in HALI magazine in April 2022. HALI is a spectacularly beautiful publication celebrating, par excellence, the rich history and contemporary place of carpets in the world today.
Covid affected the process, as I have mentioned. It also affected plans to exhibit the carpet as part of an exhibition relating to Persian gardens at the National Museum of Scotland. The exhibition is being curated by Friederike Voigt, Principal Curator West, South & Southeast Asian collections at The National Museums Scotland, and is expected to open in 2024. One of the founding directors of the museum, Robert Murdoch-Smith, personally collected many fabulous items for the museum (and a large part of the Islamic collections of The Victoria and Albert Museum ) while working in Persia in the 3rd quarter of the 19th century.
In March 2022 the Burrell Collection re-opened after a rebuild. Much of William Burrell’s spectacular collection which until now had been in storage, especially of his carpets, is on display and this includes the aforementioned Wagner Garden Carpet.
Bespoke carpets from The Nomads Tent
The Nomads Tent is delighted to discuss requirements for bespoke carpets and kilims from small hearth size up to very large sizes. For more information please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0131 662 1612.
References and contacts:
Kincardine Castle, Kincardine O’Neil, Scotland, UK email@example.com Tel: +44 (0) 1339 884 225 (The castle is a private home and is not open to visitors without appointment.)
Laura Mackenzie. Landscape Architect and Garden Designer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. 07890 591 356 https://uk.linkedin.com/in/laura-mackenzie-02237041
Vijay Thakur, Cottage Crafts of India, Kalkaji, Delhi, India. Linkedin here email: email@example.com, or contact Andrew Haughton at The Nomads Tent.