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Designs with animals and birds were produced throughout the life of the Turkey red industry. Like the floral patterns, they were often aimed at specific markets. The peacock, for instance, was a popular motif with the Indian market and appears in a variety of guises in the Turkey Red Collection.

Animals and birds were not as popular as floral motifs in printed textiles for clothing in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though the arts and crafts movement in the later nineteenth century, through designers like William Morris or retailers like Liberty and Co., introduced more of such motifs in domestic furnishing fabrics, and this influence can be seen in the NMS Turkey Red Collection. Animals and birds were clearly more important in other cultures, where they were frequently viewed through the lens of religion, or myth and superstition. Aesthetically also, animals and birds in eastern and tropical countries were more exotic and spectacular than those of Europe, and more likely to be incorporated into colourful designs.

Animals for the Indian market

Turkey red designs for the Indian market incorporated numerous animals and birds, often reflecting the use of animals to represent Hindu deities, the most important being Ganesh, the elephant, who signifies wisdom and the removal of obstacles and was depicted in numerous forms. Indeed, so important and distinct was the elephant that it was commonly viewed from outside as the symbol of India as a whole, and Turkey red exports for this market were identified with complex highly-coloured labels which often included an elephant.

The bird appearing most often in the Turkey Red Collection is the peacock, which represented war and immortality through its association with the god Kumara, and is also connected with fertility and love. With the exotic colouring and elaborate tail feathers of the male peacock, it was a popular motif for sari end pieces. Peacocks were often depicted in pairs – one with its tail in full display, the other taking a more demure pose with its tail down – and came in a variety of forms, including the highly stylised and simplified, which the Scottish manufacturers faithfully copied from earlier Indian embroidered textiles. They were also portrayed in the imitation tie-dye style, with tiny mosaic-like squares used to create the outline of the bird. 

Parrots also appear frequently, but unlike the peacock they were rarely the main design element. Parrots have associations with courtship and love and are sometimes seen as messengers for lovers, which would explain why they are generally depicted in pairs. Parrots, like all flying creatures, were also linked with freedom, heaven and infinity. Several Indian goddesses are represented in art and sculpture with parrots on their hands, and this motif occurs in some of the Turkey red prints.

Animals from the Far East

Animals and birds were common motifs in Chinese and Japanese textiles, which featured in elite European households as high quality imported silks and embroidery. Scottish Turkey red manufacturers adopted East Asian motifs for the home market and for sale abroad, including butterflies and birds such as sparrows and cranes, the latter associated with longevity, immortality and royalty in China. Mythical creatures such as dragons also featured prominently in China-inspired designs, with one example from 1888 comprising two, three-clawed dragons and two golden pheasants, placed in a central motif surrounded by stylised butterflies on a red ground. All three emblems were commonly found in imported oriental textiles — the dragon symbolic of the imperial court and government officials, the butterfly signalling joy and the golden pheasant representing beauty and fortune.  Among the Japan-influenced designs there were exotic fish such as the carp, butterflies, cockerels – which signified valour – and swallows, which represented good luck.

Exotic and domestic animals

Animals were sometimes used to represent national identity. One of the most distinct designs in the National Museums Scotland collection features a lion holding a sword in its left paw, with a sun rising over its shoulder. These were symbols of the nineteenth-century Iranian Qajar dynasty and such a design was destined for this market alone. A pattern that probably dates from the 1880s shows an eagle in flight, holding a serpent wrapped round a stick, which was seemingly intended for Mexico, where the eagle and snake had long been symbols of the nation since the days of the Aztecs. The Mexican flag today still uses the same iconography.

Alligators, deer, leopards, monkeys, and turkeys – the list of exotic animals to appear in Turkey red patterns is enormous. Then there are the handkerchief patterns, mainly intended for home consumption or export to Europe and North America. Several include hunting scenes, or scenes depicting fights between man and beast. One shows a tiger attacking a man on horseback, another has an angry big ape biting at a man’s arm, while yet another depicts a hunter in what seems to be a last ditch attempt at warding off a grizzly bear. Fox hunts with hounds and bison hunting also feature in these colourful designs for male consumers.

  • Big dog head

    Big dog head
  • Camel

  • Eagle and snake

    Eagle and snake
  • Horse head

    Horse head
  • Multi-coloured elephant

    Multi-coloured elephant
  • Multi-coloured peacock

    Multi-coloured peacock

Next: Figures and objects >

Text © Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett, ‘Colouring the Nation: Styles and patterns.’

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