Emery Walker's Islamic collection opens to public in London

The collection includes a miniature Qur’an printed by David Bryce.
 The collection includes a miniature Qur’an printed by David Bryce.

The printer, photographer and antiquarian Emery Walker loved beautifully made things and when in 1903 he moved into a small house overlooking the Thames at Hammersmith, now preserved as a museum, he filled every inch of it from cellar to attic with his modest treasures, some bought for pennies in bazaars and markets.

His many friends, who included George Bernard Shaw and William Morris, laughed affectionately at his determination when he spotted a piece of craftsmanship. A photograph in the house shows Walker in a three-piece suit and hat in a square in Toledo in 1905, clutching his umbrella and raincoat, but also a large Islamic jug which still has pride of place in his dining room.

Emery Walker’s toledo jug, c1900.
 Emery Walker’s Toledo jug, c1900.

Shaw, who accompanied Walker on an Art Workers’ Guild expedition to Venice in 1891, wrote to Morris: “Walker has just paid 3 1/2 francs for a three spouted brass thing supposed to be a lamp, but really a sort of candle-snuff incense burner which would stink him out of Hammersmith Terrace if he attempted to use it.”

Sara Choudhrey, an artist and Islamic researcher, has been cataloguing Walker’s Islamic collection for the first time, including the scores of heavy bowls and jugs he got back to Hammersmith from Spain and Morocco, tiles, inlaid boxes, jewellery and textiles, many with calligraphic decoration which fascinated the printer,whose lovely type for the Doves Press was flung into the Thames by his embittered former business partner.

Once Choudhery started looking she found Islamic pieces in every room, including a very tatty camel saddle, and a copy of the Qur’an the size of a postage stamp sent by Walker to his daughter who wanted to learn Arabic. The Qur’ans were actually printed by a Scottish man, David Bryce, who specialised in miniature books. They were mass-produced for Muslim soldiers during the first world war, supplied in metal cases with a ring so they could be hung on a chain.

Emery Walker’s David Bryce miniature Qur’an
 Emery Walker’s miniature Qur’an in silver locket with magnifying glass portal, made by Scottish craftsman David Bryce, c1900

TE Lawrence recorded that the Bedouin leader Auda Abu Tayi owned one, which had cost him dear. “He told me later in strict confidence that he had bought a miniature Qur’an for 120 pounds, 13 years before, and had not since been wounded … The book was one of the little Glasgow reproductions, costing 18 pence in England, but the Arabs were too afraid of Auda’s deadliness to laugh at his superstition … or to explain to him his bad bargain.”

The tiny metal case included a useful magnifying glass, but although Walker’s daughter, Dorothy, did learn Arabic Choudhery does not believe she could possibly have used the Qur’an, as its pages are pristine.

The house is an arts and crafts treasure chest, with original William Morriswallpaper and oriental rugs in many rooms. The building had to be emptied for recent major conservation work, and then every object was put back in its original place.

The Emery Walker house Hammersmith west London
 The Emery Walker house in Hammersmith, west London, open to the public after extensive restoration. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian


Maev Kennedy


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