Bonhams Sale of Exotic Textiles From Lord McAlpines Collecion

A magnificent collection of African and Asian textiles, belonging to Lord Alistair McAlpine, will go under the hammer at Bonhams in Knightsbridge on 12 February 2008. The sale will feature over 200 lots of Tribal Art from countries in North and West Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Ivory Coast) and Asia (India and Indonesia). An extraordinary range of items is included in the sale – wedding shawls, veils, Fante flags, wall hangings, shrine cloths, capes and cushion covers. Estimates range from £5,000 to £300. Siobhan Quinn, the specialist in charge of the sale, states: “The sale features a fascinatingly diverse collection of colours and abstract designs from a myriad of cultures”.
Highlights include:
A silk Pelangi -“ Indonesia. Estimate £3,000-5,000
An Atlas Mountain Veil – Morocco. Estimate £800-1,000
A velvet Ikat Hanging – Persia. Estimate £800-1,200
A strip woven Wedding Cloth -Mali. Estimate£1,200-1,500
A Kantha Cloth – Bengal. Estimate £800-1,000

Most well known for his role as Treasurer in Margaret Thatcher’s government, Lord McAlpine has always had a keen appetite for the arts. As a young man in the 1960s he was one of the first people to fully recognise the significance of the abstract expressionist art movement and indeed to collect such works. Lord McAlpine explains “When I look at a work of art I look for an emotional response, it’s the feeling that it evokes in me that matters”.

Despite having owned paintings by artists of such calibre as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, Lord McAlpine insists that he gains as much pleasure, if not more, from the simple primitive designs of the textiles he has collected over the years. His fascination for textiles began as a small child, he explains: “I was entranced by the swatches of fabric that my mother’s dressmaker used to bring with her”.

Lord McAlpine is clearly moved by the origins of these textiles, which are all anonymous, but as he says: “have been made by tribes who have incorporated not only their imaginations into their work but also their myths, many of which are 2,000 years old”.

Lord McAlpine now owns a spectacular converted convent in Puglia, Southern Italy, which his wife runs as a hotel. The walls of Il Covento di Santa Maria di Constantinopoli are swathed in fabric and textiles, as Lord McAlpine states: “These fabrics look just as wonderful in a 21st Century house as they do in an old country house or indeed, as in my case, a 14th Century house”.

Amongst some of the most unusual and striking textiles in the collection are a group of Fante flags. The flags, which combine West African proverbs and European flags, were made by the Fante people who live along the coast of Ghana, a region that was once a centre for trade with European countries such as Portugal and Britain. Close associations with these countries inspired the Fante people to adopt many European military traditions such as the use of individually stylised flags for different infantry companies. The flags are made from a collage of cloth with images and symbols appliquéd and embroidered on to them.

The flags are still an important part of communal life in Fante villages today. They are used as a means of communication since the Fante people have no history of the written word. This form of visual vocabulary is regularly used in processions at special events and also funerals.

A wealth of imagery is embodied in the 12 flags featured in the collection- examples include a brightly coloured flag depicting a tree with multi-coloured heart shaped leaves with the Ghanaian flag in the left-hand corner (estimate £2,000-2,500) and a flag featuring an appliqud leaf flanked by a regiment of soldiers with a union jack in the corner (estimate £2,000-2,500). Other scenes depicted include a huntsman brandishing a sword whilst enticing a white cow, two blue crocodiles flanking a green fish, two red figures holding swords hunting a lion, a mounted officer flanked by two foot soldiers and a group of animals including a leopard, shark, porcupine and hornbill (estimate £1,000- 1,500).