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Cushions and Works of Art

A painting of a bearded man in fine white clothes leaning against a delicately patterned cushion

Cushions are one of Kiesha's best sellers. I love the comfort of a good cushion behind my back and I think it is great that a change of cushion covers can give a room a fresh look. So as a professional maker of cushions I thought it might be quite fun to look at cushions (and their relatives, bolsters and pillows) in works of art. Believe me, once you start studying art for something as specific as a cushion the pile of books gets higher and higher!

So, this might be the first in a series, but the focus for this post is on art from the Indian Subcontinent. I have used just the books we have at home and searched online only for better images and links for you to find out more.

Prop a cushion behind your back as we start in the 2nd Century BC.

A round sculptured relief of a a queen lying asleep, being fanned by two women sitting on cushions.

This amazing little relief (just 54 cm in diameter) depicts Queen Maya lying on a bed in the palace, attended by her ladies-in-waiting two of whom are sitting on cushions. This is a wonderful piece of art, full of detail. It tells the story of the Buddhist legend that says when the Buddha would descend to the world for the last time, he would take the form of a white elephant and enter the womb of a virtuous queen. The plump cushions are plain unlike the detailed hairstyles and jewellery of the queen but with the lamp and the water urn beside the queen's head, they add to the sense of comfortable luxury.

An ancient work of art. A carved stone relief of the dead Buddha resting his head on a cushion and surrounded by devotees and monks.

Move forward several hundred years to about the 3rd Century and the huge geographical region under the Kushan dynasty, which stretched from Gandhara (now in Pakistan) in the north, to Sanchi in the south. This was a period of massive movement of trade taking silks from China in the east to Rome in the west. Whilst from west to east came gold and glass and art forms and so developed a unique school of Kushan art from Gandhara especially seen in sculptures of the Buddha or depicting Buddha’s life. And out of that school came a well-preserved relief depicting four major events in Buddha’s life from his birth to this amazing little scene at the Buddha’s death. Here he lies, as if asleep, on his side, enrobed and surrounded by devotees and lamenting monks, and his head is resting on one, if not two, pillows. In one rendition the stitch line of the cushions has been carved into the rock, a delicate detail of particular interest to anyone who makes cushions now. To read more about this fascinating period of historical art do check out this detailed essay from The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

An old work of art depicting two women sitting in a grand pavilion, one is plucking the petals off a lotus flower whilst in the background is a bed with two bolster cushions.

The limitations of my personal library mean we now skip thirteen hundred years to 1605 and a pair of "his and her bolsters" on a bed in a bedroom. Alas the lady waits with her maid in another room, pulling the petals from a lotus flower, perhaps wondering if her lover loves her and if he will come or not. This painting is called Malasari Ragini. (Rajasthani, from Chawand in Mewar). It is from the Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art but at some time has been out on loan to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and there is a helpful description of the painting and the artist on their website.

An old work of art depicting a woman sitting on a chaise with a bolster cushion behind her back. She is looking at a hawk that she is holding.

Bolsters appear in a number of courtly paintings of this kind. One I especially like is this water colour on paper of a lady holding a hawk. She is sitting on an elegant chaise with a large pink bolster behind her. I love the detail of the two chubby grey tassels that tie off the bolster. The lady has the most gorgeous slanting eyes in a lovely face and the artist has magically conveyed the diaphanous translucence of her sheer dupatta and the pretty print on her churidar. Here the bolster can hardly be said to be providing her with any comfort as she is sitting up so straight, but she is smoking a hukka so perhaps when she has finished her study of the hawk, she will lean back and relax. Lady with a Hawk, Pahari, Guler, C. 1750. Victoria and Albert Museum.

An old work of art depicting two lovers on a terracein a exotic pose with cushions scattered all around them.

Now for something a little more exciting and packed with cushions! This painting is called Lovers on a Terrace and is attributed to Chokha, Rajasthani, Devgarh c. 1810. This is a great one for cushions. A pair of lovers, in an erotic pose appear to have scattered cushions all around them in their delight with one another. The cushions are oddly shaped and pieced in different colours but on the plain white marble floor they make a splendid pattern of colour and hint at robust abandonment. The plainness of those cushions and the vagueness of the view beyond the terrace (can it be the water of a lake and a tiny strip of sky?) makes me laugh, it is as if the artist used up all his energy on the delicate jewellery, features and expressions of the lovers and didn’t have any left to fancy up all those pillows! There is a bit more about this painting here.

An old work of art depicting a noble man playing holi with the women in the zennana. The man is dressed in white and leaning against a delicately patterned cushion.

And to close, for this time, is a lively celebration which includes a rather delightful cushion. In this picture Rawat Gokul Das is in the zenana (women’s quarters) playing Holi. The place is gorgeous with a row of jaalis, each one a different design, facing out onto a deep blue sky. Gokul Das is dressed elegantly in white, and the playful women are wearing orange or yellow dupattas. Behind Gokul Das is a huge plain bolster and then a smaller delicately decorated cushion allowing him the greatest of comfort whilst spraying the women with Holi colours. There are splashes of Holi colour on the bolster, I hope they won’t mark that pretty cushion with their gulal for it might be quite fun one day to see if we I can copy that design either in print or embroidery onto a Kiesha cushion cover.

Now plump up the cushions and get on with things until next time...

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I love the pattern Rawat Gokul Das's cushion.

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