You need confidence to carry off an Ottoman hat. As an album of costume from the late 18th/early 19th century illustrates, Turkish statesmen, officers, politicians and courtiers punctuated their attire with unfeasibly structured headwear.
There are bulbous turbans the size of pumpkins, towering embroidered servant’s hats and the back-sleeved keches of the Jannissaries, the elite Ottoman infantry. Beneath these we discover an array of mintans, kusaks, gomleks, yeleks and entari – or vests, sashes, chemises, jackets and robes. Vibrant stripes and patterns are glimpsed beneath bold flowing kaftans. And there was a particular fondness for billowing bloomers – called salvars.
This exceptionally rare album of 124 watercolour and gouache works on paper is attributed to Fenerci Mehmed. Little is known about Mehmed except that his first name refers to his past as a lantern maker (the Turkish for lantern is fener) and that Sultan Abdulaziz admired his work. Only three other costume albums by the artist are known to exist: one in the Topkapi Palace, another in the Istanbul University Library and the third in the Rahmi Koç Collection.
This album – the largest of the four – was likely to have been created for a visiting diplomat as a kind of Rough Guide to the envoys, officers and dignitaries that they might encounter on their professional and social rounds. There are three distinct kinds of subject: Ottoman military, staff at the Topkapi Palace and assorted political movers and shakers. There is just one woman – a scantily clad courtesan.
As cataloguer Chiara De Nicolais suggests: “It is plausible that this impressive album was purchased by a member of the diplomatic entourage in Ottoman Turkey at the end of the 19th century which was later acquired by an Ambassador to Iran at the beginning of the 20th century.”