Robert Pinner

Carpet scholar and collector
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The Independent Online

Robert Pinner probably did more than anyone else in the last 30 years to promote the scholarly study of old Oriental carpets. He and his wife, Lesley, started as collectors of rugs in 1968 and were dismayed by the dearth of serious evidence-based studies and the absence of a specialist journal for their publication.

Robert Hans Pinner, metallurgist, publisher and writer: born Hamburg, Germany 11 September 1925; married 1962 Lesley Fletcher (died 1982); died Twickenham, Middlesex 20 November 2004.

Robert Pinner probably did more than anyone else in the last 30 years to promote the scholarly study of old Oriental carpets. He and his wife, Lesley, started as collectors of rugs in 1968 and were dismayed by the dearth of serious evidence-based studies and the absence of a specialist journal for their publication.

In the late 19th century and through the 1930s this important branch of Islamic art had received the attention of great art historians such as Wilhelm von Bode, Friedrich Sarre and Arthur Upham Pope but by the mid-1960s the principal remaining carpet scholar, Kurt Erdmann, was dead. The Victoria and Albert Museum, despite its splendid collection, had published nothing since before the Second World War and the one serious British student, May Beattie, had few opportunities to publish. Enthusiasm for the art form was none the less widespread, especially in the United States, but there, too, apart from publications from the Textile Museum in Washington, little came out in print except books repeating old lore.

In the mid-Seventies Pinner, with the young carpet dealer Michael Franses, set up a small publishing company, Oguz Press, which issued a small number of books including the compendium Turkoman Studies I (1980). More importantly, they planned publication of a new magazine to be named HALI (the Turkish word for carpet), the first issue seeing the light of day in 1978.

This gained worldwide success. Copies were to be seen in the bazaars from Istanbul to Kathmandu as well as museum libraries, but after some years it became too big to manage as a private enterprise and was sold on, eventually to Centaur Communications. Robert Pinner remained very actively involved as Consultant Editor and wrote many major papers and countless smaller contributions for it. Its present total of 137 issues constitutes the prime repository of informed knowledge in the field of Oriental carpets and textiles.

Also in the Seventies Pinner, with others, started up the International Conference on Oriental Carpets (ICOC) and he was its Secretary-General for many years. The first meeting was held in London in 1976 and since then a further nine have taken place in America and Europe, including a second one in London in 1983. This was an annus mirabilis for carpets with associated exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery, the Barbican Gallery and the National Gallery.

Conference papers were afterwards published in Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies, an occasional journal also founded and largely edited by Pinner. The 1983 Conference included a special symposium entitled "Carpets of the Mediterranean Countries, 1400-1600" and the separate volume of OCTS containing the papers has been described as the most important single publication in the field for decades.

An indefatigable worker, Pinner translated into English several German carpet books, most notably Kurt Erdmann's The History of Early Turkish Carpets (1977) and Friedrich Spuhler's Oriental Carpets in the Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin (1988). He also compiled detailed catalogues for two important collections of Turkmen (Central Asian) carpets which were his and his wife's particular loves: The Rickmers Collection: Turkoman rugs in the Ethnographic Museum Berlin (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 1993), and Between the Black Desert and the Red: Turkmen carpets from the Wiedersperg Collection (Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, 1999).

Robert Pinner was born in Hamburg of Jewish parents, Walter and Elizabeth Pinner, and the family, including an elder brother, left Germany for England early in 1936 and settled in Birmingham, where Robert attended King Edward's High School for Boys. It would seem that he was a somewhat rebellious schoolboy. When in 1938 he was convicted of throwing acorns in class, the essay he wrote in detention roundly criticised the workings of schools in general and King Edward's in particular; it caused great offence. In a letter (proudly preserved) from the Headmaster to Robert's parents he is said to have "insulted the entire School".

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Robert and the school were evacuated to Repton in Derbyshire and he was billeted on a farm for some years before going on to Aberystwyth University, where he took a general science degree. It was some while after before he found his feet, with several unsuccessful ventures. Practical dexterity did not match his mental agility and in later life he would tell of his unsuccessful work at Allbright and Wilson. He was put to analysing metaphosphates but the results were never the same on a repeat analysis and the firm dispensed with his services.

He eventually found his vocation in the specialist area of metals finishing and he formed a small company to carry out this sort of work. In 1956 he co-authored an important book, Surface Treatment and Finishing of Aluminium and its Alloys, which remained in print until recently. He also published, and largely compiled, a periodical, Metals Finishing Abstracts, continuing to work at this until two or three years ago. He eventually sold his firm to devote himself fully to his carpet activities.

Robert Pinner loved music, above all Beethoven's late quartets. He was also a gourmet (unfortunately tending to gourmand) and was very hospitable, often providing board and lodging at his house in Twickenham to fellow carpet lovers from Europe, Turkey, Russia and the United States. He had taken to chess already at school and in his middle years was an ardent player. His wife and fellow chess player and collector Lesley died aged only 49 in 1982.

John Mills

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