Archives By-Fellowship Report 2018: Nebahat Avcioglu

22nd October 2019 in Archives Centre, People

Nebahat Avcioglu

Nebahat Avcioglu (centre, in the blue shirt) at a mini-exhibition of Elisabeth Amery's papers.

As an art historian, specializing in Islamic art and architecture, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to study Ottoman-European cultural interactions at the Churchill College Archives. The Archives By-Fellowship (Michaelmas 2018) enabled me to explore the papers of Leopold Maurice Amery, concerning especially his mother Elisabeth Amery (née Saphir but who went by the name of Leitner until her marriage), his uncle Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, a well-known Orientalist and British colonial educator in Punjab and the builder of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, the first purpose-built mosque in England (1889).

Elisabeth and her brother were born in Pest but grew up in the Ottoman Empire (Bursa and Istanbul) as the adopted children of a protestant missionary, Johann Moritz Leitner, before emigrating to Germany, England, India and back to England. Elisabeth especially left behind a trail of textual and visual accounts of her and her family's life in the form of official documents (Ottoman, German and English), letters, diaries and published translations, articles, an unfinished autobiography as well as photographs and photographic albums showcasing the social and political circles in which she moved, and several scrapbooks. This collection had never been studied before, yet it is a fascinating source for investigating the history of Hungarian immigrants in the Ottoman Empire displaced after the 1848 Revolution. The study of Elisabeth’s collection also contributes to the growing and much-needed scholarship on migrant narratives of the self, especially by women whose lives were deliberately overlooked. Her agency, as attested by her diaries, autobiography, and near-obsessive passion for photographs and album-making, is remarkable in that respect.

While in Cambridge, I organized a two-day workshop (with Dr. Deniz Turker) entitled “The Forgotten Revolution: Visual and Material Culture of the Hungarian Diaspora in the Ottoman”, funded by CRASSH. For the occasion, I had the opportunity to curate a small exhibition of Elisabeth’s papers at the Churchill College Archives to bring them to the attention of Ottoman and Hungarian scholars in Cambridge and beyond. I am grateful to Conservator Sarah Lewery for her help with this endeavor. During my fellowship, I also wrote and published ‘Mobility, collecting and modernisation: The Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century’, in The Rise of Islamic Art, 1869-1939, ed. Jessica Hallett, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, 2019, using some of my archival findings. I am about to complete another article focusing on the postcard collection of Elisabeth Amery, especially those of Istanbul, as a testimony to the transnational and interconnected lives of the inhabitants of the city and beyond.

I feel confident that my research on Elisabeth Amery will also lead to the reassessment of her son Leopold Amery’s life. He is a well-known collector of Islamic art, yet no one has paid any attention to how this collection came about and what was his relationship to this specific art form. The knowledge of his ‘Ottoman’ heritage challenges the accepted notion that the East and the West are separate categories; it equally forces revision of the prevailing idea that the ‘Europeans’ collected Islamic art only for aesthetic reasons rather than cultural significance. I owe special thanks to Archivist Katharine Thomson for bringing the papers of Julian Amery to my attention, which sheds important light on the history of the collection and their dispersal in the late 1960s. I have already begun working on an article analyzing the correspondence between Amery and his dealers, art historians and other wealthy collectors, as well as auction houses, set into the larger context of collecting and identity formation. I look forward to returning to the Archives to complete this work in the near future.

I have enjoyed my fellowship tremendously. An important contributing factor has been the openness and the unstinting support of the Archives Centre staff, without which I would not have accomplished as much as I did. I am particularly grateful to Director Allen Packwood for being sympathetic to my research goals and most encouraging in every way.

Nebahat Avcioglu, Hunter College/City University of New York

Archives By-Fellow, 2018


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