They were both students on a specialist Islamic art course at Boston College in the US, and between them they’ve written more than 20 books on the subject. Their latest offering is a lavishly illustrated survey covering the work of French art expert Emile Prisse d’Avennes, a pre-20th-century Egyptologist who specialised in Arab art. We met the duo to learn more about their passion for the subject.
What defines Arab art?
Sheila: We normally don’t speak of Arab art today, just as we don’t speak of Persian or Turkish (or French or German) art, because these are ethnic stereotypes. For Prisse, the term meant the art produced in Egypt during the period of Islamic rule there, and his book actually includes examples of art produced from Spain to Iran, which is why we would call it Islamic art today.
Why reprint Prisse’s unique discoveries now?
Jonathan: This is a very rare book that has been unavailable to most people for more than 100 years. Prisse’s meticulous drawings depict buildings that have vanished or been restored out of recognition. In the 19th century, there was no such thing as ‘Islamic’ art; Prisse believed that the art of Egypt after the Pharaonic period deserved special recognition. Prisse is normally dismissed today as a cranky 19th-century hack. People love his illustrations, but rarely read the text that was meant to go with them. This republication of his work shows why he remains so important. He loved Egypt’s art and spent many years living there, learning Arabic and sketching its monuments.
How does your version differ from Prisse’s original?
Sheila: While this reprint is a big book, measuring 12x18 inches, the original was four times larger. There are many surprises to be found: as well as views of 19th-century Egypt, it includes some of the first colour reproductions of famous manuscripts from Paris collections, including the Maqamat of al-Hariri and illuminated Qur’an manuscripts.