I have always been surrounded by books. my grandfather had a vast library. the Ferens art gallery in hull in the United Kingdom was founded by my three times great uncle, Thomas Ferens, in 1923. while studying history of art at university my father said if I needed any pocket money, I would have to get a job, but if i needed any books, I could use his credit card. so, I managed to start a reasonable sized library while still a student.
I get at least 10 books delivered a week to the office. We had the catalogue raisonné of Henry Moore delivered just last week. We have 19,000 books now, which is bigger than Karl Lagerfeld’s library. Farouk Hosny came to the gallery once and he said we had more books on Modern Egyptian art than he did. He was Egypt’s Minister of Culture for 25 years. Every single book has a book stamp, as well as a book plate and code. We keep all the auction catalogues at home, and these number around 5,000. Other than
auction catalogues, we have 9,317 books on modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art and 8,500 on Islamic and ancient medieval. These numbers include exhibition catalogues, as anything with more than six pages classifies as a publication. We have a space for journals and have all the first editions of Les Arts Plastiques de la Syrie, Art Forum, Selections, Brown Book, Canvas, Art Bahrain, Harper’s Bazaar and Contemporary Practices, to name just a few. We have more coming and are building another bookcase.
We started dealing with Middle Eastern art in 1999 in London. We were doing a mixture of modern and contemporary Arabic, and we looked after the Merrill Lynch art collection in Europe. When I moved to Dubai, in 2005, there was nothing much to do in those days. We travelled to cities like Beirut, Cairo, Tangier, Marrakesh, Rabat and Casablanca, where we would not only visit the museums but galleries and bookshops too. We have always collected books, but before the Arab Spring we bought as many as possible from libraries and book dealers in Damascus, Latakia, Aleppo, Cairo, Tunisia, Algeria, and Baghdad. There is that famous expression, the Egyptians write the books, the Lebanese print the books and Iraqis read the books. That changed in the Arab spring and Gulf war. The quality of publications has also changed. There used to be beautifully printed, stapled, well-bound and well illustrated publications. Suddenly they became cheap, tacky and mass produced. The collapse of publishing in Arabic culture in the mid 1980’s is also somewhat related to the Iran Iraq war and the act of people emigrating: those who used to write books and articles left.
I used to buy a lot of books from Al-Azbakiyya book market in Cairo The tragedy is that the younger generation don’t understand art. Now when I go to the book market and I ask them in my limited Arabic for kutub fann (books on art), they say no. This slightly mirrors the book fairs we have in the Arab world, where nowadays the books are 40 percent related to religion, 20 percent to business studies, 20 percent to children’s books and 20 percent to cooking books. The percentage of Arabic culture books is zero. If there are any books on art, it’s usually Western art and with a very limited production. In Lebanon, there was so much that was destroyed in the civil war, but then from the 1990s onward things started picking up with publications and programmes. When we go to Beirut, we visit exhibitions then go to all the book dealers in Hamra and bookshops, as well as to the contemporary art space Ashkal Alwan and fill a suitcase with books.
We have three or four people in Baghdad always looking for books at Al-Mutanabbi and in the surrounding areas. North Africa is limited in terms of books and you have more chance of finding them in Paris, which is a tragedy. There is an erasure of publications on modern Arabic culture in the Arab world. In the Iranian revolutions, books and publications of the previous regime were never destroyed, but today in the Arab world it is as if such a thing is happening.
We are the preferred supplier of Modern Arab art for key museums, internationally and regionally. We put together around 80 percent of the Barjeel Art Foundation collection, which is a unique collection. We selected and located all the key modern works from key periods by key Arab artists, even flying to Paris to organise Huguette Caland’s “Bribes de Corps”, and we presented them to Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi for his sign-off. We were only able to do this through the library I have built.
Looking through publications, such as the Alexandria Biennale catalogues from the 1950s, the Venice biennale catalogues for Iraq, Egypt and Syria, and publications like Les Arts Plastiques de la Syrie from the 1960s through to the 2010’s and the Civil War that followed, we discovered artists we weren’t aware of. By going through all these publications, journals, books and catalogues, we found the owners were listed, which is fantastic. This allowed us to track them down, contact them directly and make the acquisitions we did.
We acquired the “Protector of Life” artwork by Hamed Owais at Christie’s for Barjeel Art Foundation at a very good price because we owned the catalogue from the 1970s and were able to discern that this work was an original whereas others thought it was a later duplicate. There are so many issues with dealers selling fake works and openly sending works that have been looted. We have worked with Interpol to return certain Azzawi paintings to a museum in Baghdad, keeping track of forged works across all auction houses.
Recently, I have been correcting an auction house in London as they classified a work by Georges Sabbagh in 2017 as a View of Aswan Cataract. They swore blind it was Aswan, but we completely disagreed. Putting the word Aswan increases the price ten-fold as it suggests it is an Egyptian work.
However, a client sent us a painting of the same view and it is the Tidal Mill at Ploumanac’h in Brittany, which was done at the same time by another artist. This is an example of getting it completely wrong. We are not trying to be difficult, but we want to protect our clients. When auction houses make mistakes, it is not done on purpose. It is just because they have over a hundred lots to cover, they might not be the best qualified people to do research and it is difficult to research so many pieces in a matter of months.
The book I chased after for years is for the Saudi modern artist called Abdulhalim Radwi. It was printed in Geneva in the early 1980s. I had been trying to find copies for seven years when suddenly three popped up on Amazon at the same time. On the modernist side, the rarest one we have in the library is the 1930 Mahmoud Mokhtar catalogue from Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. They only produced 200 copies and no one has it, but it once turned up for sale on AbeBooks in France. Another precious publication is on Saliba Douaihy produced in Arabic, which was a gift from Farouk Abillama in Beirut. it is very rare. When Valerie Hess was putting together her catalogue raisonné on Mahmoud Said, she used the library. She asked if I was aware that the Mahmoud Said catalogues we have were signed by Mahmoud Said himself. She then had them professionally photographed and put them in the appendix for the catalogue raisonné. The original Jewad Salim publication from his retrospective show in 1965 is important. Another is from an exhibition of modern Egyptian art in 1947 in London, which has a letter inside from Oskar Kokoschka celebrating modern Egyptian and modern Arabic art. These are the real gems.
When Abu Dhabi Art was originally at Emirates Palace, we recreated the library there, but that was when the library was much smaller. Today, the library is never leaving here because the books are so precious. We don’t even lend books anymore. If a body like the Art Institute of Chicago, Tate Modern, MATHAF or Louvre Abu Dhabi were to request five or six books and sign a contract, only then would they be loaned. But some books are impossible to replace like Al Hiwar or Contact, or our complete set of Les Arts Plastiques de Syrie. The library is available for postgraduate research students, who can apply online. They also need a supporting letter from their advisor because unfortunately we had issues with books being stolen or put back in the wrong place. We had a very valuable book from the 1850s on Islamic Art, which was totally destroyed by someone bending the pages. The spine broke and it cost around four thousand pounds to have it repaired.
We had an 18th century Quran stolen from the library. Now we are very strict about who can come in. It is also my office. People can access it on a Saturday but need to book in advance and because of Covid we limit it to one person at a time rather than three.
In terms of other libraries, the National Art Library in London is good but limited to Modern Arab and Modern Iranian Art. The library of MATHAF is limited in relation to books on Modern and Contemporary Arab art as most of the books are focused on European art. Ashkal Alwan has a library but it is focused more on Lebanese art. Although the best art criticism can be found in Arabic journals in newspapers, these are very difficult to access unless they were photographed by galleries, which is rare. The concept of archiving by galleries has been minimal, although the Atassi Foundation has started to put its archive online.
The best place to find this material is the last place you would think to look. The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel-Aviv University holds scans of all Arab newspapers since 1948 for every day until today, be it regional papers, magazines through to all the key publications of the Metropolitan Cities. These resources were put together by both the internal and external security services of Israel and recently all made available for researchers globally with no restrictions and access is open too all.
When we commissioned a 12,000-word essay on Kadhim Haydar and his “Martyr” series, this archival material was essential to the essay and Baghdad newspaper reviews of the exhibition were pulled from archive for the essay.
My aim is to open a space with even more books in the United Kingdom as a space for research and talks, along with accommodation for postgraduate students. I would also like to publish a book annually on the work we are doing. The library I have built has been funded by myself as a personal passion and turned into a mission, this mission was and still is to protect and collect the written art history of the region.
The Noor Library is named after my daughter. Just before my daughter was born in 2008 I was looking at a book on Mughal architecture, on the Mausoleum of Itmad-ud-Daula, who was the father of Noor Jehan, whose son Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal. I thought to myself that if this mausoleum commissioned by Noor Jehan was a testament of her love for her father, I have to call my daughter Noor in the hope she would love her father as much as Noor Jehan loved her father Itmad-ud-Daula. That’s why my daughter’s third name is Noor and why the library is named The Noor Library after my daughter, Isadora Ines Noor Pocock.
Charles Pocock co-founded Meem Gallery in 2005 with Sultan bin Sooud Al-Qassemi and Mishal Hamed Kanoo. The Gallery runs a programme of solo and group exhibitions with a focus on regional Modern Masters, including Dia Al-Azzawi, Kamal Boullata, Marwan, Shakir Hassan Al Said, Jewad Selim, Abbas Kiarostami and Parviz Tanavoli. Meem Gallery exhibits the work of innovative contemporary artists such as Adel Abidin, Moataz Nasr, Mahmoud Obaidi, Jeffar Khaldi and Zhivago Duncan. Charles Pocock is the principal adviser to the Founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation and has advised the Qatar Museum’s Authority, Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, Haus der Kunst and Lenbachhaus. Charles Pocock is the Founder of the Noor Library, regarded as the comprehensive resource centre for the study of Middle Eastern arts in the region, comprised of an extensive collection of over 18,000 books and journals relating to ancient, medieval, modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art, architecture and archaeology. Charles Pocock is a Fellow of The Royal Asiatic Society and a Fellow of The Royal Geographical Society.