206. An Ottoman Calligraphic Panel

Signed by Isma’il Zuhdi
Istanbul, Turkey, dated AH 1198 / AD 1783 
Size: 21.5 × 33.5 cm

Download PDF

The interest of this panel of calligraphy, apart from the fact that Isma’il Zuhdi was the finest calligrapher of his time, is the top line. It translates as: ‘When I play with her, she is shy, until she sees the benefit.’ But that is not the most interesting part. In an exhibition of Islamic calligraphy in 1987, The Calligraphers’ Craft, one of the stars was a magnificent line of writing by Abdullah Sayrafi, from the early 14th century, with the same line, written large in black and gold. At the time I was entranced by its beauty, and had no idea that it was once in an album in the Topkapi. Sayrafi was among the six revered pupils of Yaqut al-Musta’simi, but different from the rest because of the playfulness that he introduced into his art. The Ottomans collected calligraphy of the great masters of earlier periods specifically as models and inspiration for the calligraphers being trained in the Imperial Scriptorium in the Topkapi Palace. The students were encouraged to choose a particular master to emulate, according to their own empathy with the style and personality of the calligrapher, as expressed in his writings. I became aware of this when I saw Sayrafi’s line copied by the great 16th-century Turkish calligrapher Ahmet Karahisari, another brilliant eccentric in the great calligraphic tradition. Obviously, he had copied it from this page when it was in an album in the Topkapi library, as too did Isma’il Zuhdi. Eccentric calligraphers, unlike classical ones, never had schools of followers because, having mastered their art, they created something personal and unique within a very strict code. Isma’il Zuhdi liked to play around with calligraphic forms, and this page reveals from where his inspiration came. 

Provenance: Seward Kennedy, London

Abdullah Sayrafi, from ‘The Calligraphers’ Craft’