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Reflection: A brilliant collection of carpets opens a world of beauty and magic on Art Hill

One of the rugs in the Carpet and the Connoiseur exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum. This is a western Anatolian knotteed woll carpet with 'Lotto' patter from the 16th century.
Courtesy, St. Louis Art Museum
One of the rugs in the Carpet and the Connoiseur exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum. This is a western Anatolian knotted wool carpet with a 'Lotto' pattern from the 16th century.

In the art exhibitions business, when you find yourself faced with the conflicting character attributes of a millionaire who built his fortune on patent medicines of questionable quality yet who carried with him works of art of extraordinary aesthetic and historical value, you can be reasonably certain of having a hit on your hands.

And so it is with “The Carpet and the Connoisseur,” the beautiful and art-historically compelling show now on view in the special exhibition galleries of the St. Louis Art Museum. It is a triumph indeed; it goes so far beyond the notion of rug as floor covering that such a notion becomes risible.

The collector’s life was an American success story, albeit not 100 percent salutary, but in so many ways interesting and exotic. James Franklin Ballard was born in Ashtabula, Ohio, in 1851. His father owned timberland, enough of it to bring in plenty of money. Ballard went to public schools and skipped college, and instead joined the circus. His career and his pocketbook grew large from the pharmaceutical enterprises he built in St. Louis.

He moved here when he was in his early twenties. The move would be felicitous financially and, eventually, aesthetically for Ballard and important in the history of the St. Louis Art Museum, which in those days called City Art Museum. Ballard married and settled into what was, from outward appearances anyway, a low-key middle class existence.

Ballard portrait
Credit Courtesy, St. Louis Art Museum
An undated photograph of James F. Ballard. He lived from 1851 to 1931 and built his fortune selling pharmaceuticals with varying degrees of efficacy.

His life as a businessman was not low-key at all, however. He and his associates stirred up a Mississippi of patent medicines, some concocted entirely of big cure-all bragging and little substance. One product that is effective – interestingly enough – endures. It is Campho-Phinique, and as this is written you can buy a .23 ounce tube of it off the web for about $4.  Along with Swaim’s Panacea, which promised to cure just about anything ailing the blood, Campho-Phinique helped to build what became a solid fortune for Ballard.

Like many other wealthy businessmen of the time, wealth offered Ballard the time and wherewithal to pursue his avocation and accrue a certain amount of social cachet. His bank account was not large enough, however, to allow him into the Frick and Rockefeller league of collectors, but he was wealthy enough to do some very serious collecting in the decorative arts.

He did not pursue the obvious — silver or ceramics or furniture. Rather, he stumbled onto rugs, and even then did not walk a well-worn path. His approach was to buy carpets others weren’t buying, and he bought with an eye that quickly adjusted itself to quality.

In the exhibition catalogue, Thomas J. Farnham, a professor emeritus of the Connecticut State University Systems and research associate at the Textile Museum in Washington, gives a fine accounting of Ballard’s adventures and decisions made in the interest of collecting. He writes that Ballard loved telling the story of his first purchase.

In 1905, Ballard bought his first rug at a carpet dealer’s store at Fourth Avenue and 32nd Street in New York. The price was $500, which he considered outrageous. He left the store, but couldn’t get the rug out of his mind. He bargained and persuaded the dealer to reduce his price from $500 to $375. When, later on, another dealer offered him four times that amount for the rug, Ballard was convinced he was anointed with an intuitive savoir-faire of a collector.

Apparently he was so blessed. The initial dipping of his toe into the waters of serious collecting registered first as hobby, but soon enough Ballard dove headlong into the rarified world of serious collecting, complete with advisors and dealers – and journeys to the sources of carpet production. His collection would eventually be divvied up between the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the St. Louis Art Museum. The initial gift was made in 1929 and 1930, and was enriched by an additional donation by his daughter, Nellie Ballard White, in 1972. In all, the Ballards gave 110 rugs to the museum  -- and the region. His specialty became rugs from Anatolia, now Turkey.

Carpet historian Walter Denny provides a fascinating account of all this in an essay that distinguishes and brightens in the show’s handsome and luminous catalogue.

Another example of a piece from the exhibit. This is a Holbein carpet with large medallions 16th century Central Anatolia.
Credit Courtesy, St. Louis Art Museum
Another example of a piece from the exhibit. This is a Holbein carpet with large medallions from 16th century Central Anatolia.

Although Anatolian carpets provide special heft for the collection,  Denny wrote, “In terms of its scope, the Ballard Collection in St. Louis is vast. In addition to the four major geographic carpet weaving areas of Central Asia, Iran, Transcaucasia and Anatolia … it includes significant representation of carpets from Spain, Egypt and Syria, while India’s Mughal tradition is represented by two brilliant fragments.

“When we look at the very great differences in aesthetic among these carpet groups, it becomes obvious that Ballard’s collection is not so much the creation of a single individuals taste as it is a single individual’s concept of the unity and diversity present in the world of carpet art. In short, it is a collection to inform the mind" and to involve the public and scholars alike.  

Along with 51 rugs of exquisite variety and intricacy, there are with two astonishingly beautiful and rare pleasure pavilions – until recently the St. Louis Art Museum owned the only such shelters in America. Both are exhibited so tantalizingly that a visitor yearns to enter and experience the visual feasts at first hand.

But even at the required remove that  protects a work of art, the carpets' offerings feed the imagination, the intellect and the pleasure pavilions of the mind.

Having been through the show and supplied with wisdom by textile conservator Zoe Perkins, fantasies do take flight in the jet stream of magic flying carpets.

The fountains of great myths and rich legends say these flying carpets were the work either of Allah or Jehovah, depending on one’s religious faith. The chief and royal recipient of their industry and invention was King Sulieman, or King Solomon. The magic flying carpet was supposedly a conveyance fueled by a ferocious wind, a wind so mighty it drove the carpet, the passenger and his baggage at speeds so fast that a passenger could, in a single morning, take a journey that otherwise would require a month on horseback. The time investment was the same for the  return trip in the evening.

The myth persists at Disneyland and murmurs still in Steppenwolf’s seductive rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. It lingers too, and vividly, in the human imagination, where there is a willing conflation of carpets and magic and flight and escape from gravity’s tyranny.

The suspect medicinal remedies James Franklin Ballard stirred up brought him a fortune, but the true elixir he provides is woven into these rugs, these works of art that captured his eye and travel magically through such an admirable exhibition, one that celebrates the visual and visceral magic of Oriental rugs.

“The Carpet and the Connoisseur” was curated by carpet historian Walter B. Denny, professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in collaboration with Philip Hu, associate curator in charge of Asian art, and Zoe Perkins, textile conservator, both of the staff of the St. Louis Art Museum.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.