Great Britain xi. Persian Art Collections in Britain





The collecting of Persian art in Great Britain goes back at least to the missions despatched by the Safavid Shah ʿAbbās I (996-1038/1588-1629) and the activities of the Sherley brothers at his court in Isfahan. The early 17th century also saw the growth of trade with Persia through the East India Company which exported Persian textiles and pottery to Europe and to the Mughals in India. However, what remains from this traffic is better evidence for contemporary taste in furnishing materials, notably carpets and silks, than for the collecting of art as such, though even for the later centuries little of it now survives.

Illustrated manuscripts. For the history of Persian art in Great Britain illustrated and illuminated manuscripts and albums in the British Library, the India Office Library, the Bodleian Library, the John Rylands Library, and, to a lesser extent, the Royal Library at Windsor are of prime importance. They contain material from pri-vate collections of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as from libraries like those of William Beckford (1759-1844) and Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), which have been dispersed. Many of their finest Persian manuscripts are of Indian provenance, for the sack of the imperial Mughal library by Nāder Shah in 1152/1739 resulted in the dispersal of manuscripts in Northern India and Persia. Since many of these were Mughal, hence persianate if not specifically Persian art, they are somewhat peripheral to the present survey. The India Office Library incorporates that of the Oriental Repository of the East India Company founded in 1804 (Desmond). The illustrated manuscripts from the Library of Sir William Jones, transferred to it from the Royal Society in 1876, included: ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Jāmi’s Eʿteqād-nāma and Selselat al-ḏahab (copied Tabriz, Moḥarram 951/April 1544, the principal copyist of which was Šāh Maḥmud Nisāburi; Robinson, 1976, nos. 134-35); A Divān of Jāmi (copied Khorasan, Moḥarram 984/April 1576; ibid., nos. 214-17); a Ḵamsa of Neẓāmi Ganjavi (copied Shiraz, ca. 983/1575; ibid., nos. 324-41); and pseudo-Ferdowsi’s Yusof o Zolayḵā (copied Bukhara, ca. 957/1550; ibid., nos. 545-48). The Persian manuscripts received from Tipu Sultan’s library, captured by the British after the battle of Seringipatam in 1799, were all Safavid, apart from an Ottoman mid-16th-century Fo-tuḥ al-Ḥaramayn of Moḥyi-al-Din Lāri (d. 933/1526-27; ibid., nos. 1175-89). Those collected by Richard John-son (d. 1805) and acquired by the East India Company in 1807 (India Office, MS 132; Sutton) during his service at Lucknow and Hyderabad included an Il-khanid anthology of about 714/1314 (PLATE IV), which once belonged to the library of Shah Esmāʿil I (Robinson, 1976, nos. 1-53). Manuscripts acquired in 1807 from the library of Warren Hastings (1732-1818) included four copies of the Šāh-nāma of varying qualities (copied Shiraz, ca. 957/1550, Shiraz, 18 Ḏu’l-qaʿda 967/10 August 1560; possibly Isfahan, ca. 998-1009/1590-1600; and Isfahan, later 17th century; Robinson, 1976, nos. 378-434, 269-91, 953-1001, 1152-74).

Among the manuscripts in the British Library (cf. Titley, no. 369), Turkish as well as Persian, which came through Claudius James Rich (1787-1820), the East India Company’s Resident in Baghdad, are an illustrated Ẓafar-nāma of Šaraf-al-Din ʿAli Yazdi (copied Shiraz, 929/1523; Rieu, Persian Manuscripts I, p. 176, no. Add. 7635) and a copy of Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh’s Jāmeʿ al-tawāriḵ, without illustrations, bought in Baghdad in 1810, now in the British Library (Rieu, Persian Manuscripts I, pp. 74-78, no. Add. 7628; cf. Morley, p. 7), which bears the seals of the Timurid Šāhroḵ’s library (ḵezāna) and of his grandson, Moḥammad Juki, and, at the head of the preface to the Tāriḵ-e mobārak-e ḡāzāni, which concludes the volume, a fine besmela (see BESMELLĀH) in gold in Ḡiāṯ-al-Din Bāysonḡor’s autograph. Manuscripts were acquired on the spot from Sidney Churchill, an employee of the British Legation in Tehran, who between 1883 and 1895 was an official agent for the British Museum. Churchill’s acquisitions included possibly the superb Ḵamsa of Neẓāmi made for Shah Ṭahmāsb Ṣafawi around 946/1539 (Or. 2265; Rieu, Persian Manuscripts III, p. 1072) and an equally fine Ḵamsa made for the Amir ʿAli Fārsi Barlās of Herat in 900/1494-95 (Or. 6810; Meredith-Owens, p. 66), the fly leaf of which (folio la) bears the signatures of the Mughal emperors Jahāngir (1014/1605) and Shah Jahān (1037/1628). This evidently was part of Nāder Shah’s loot from the imperial Mughal library.

The first fine illustrated Persian manuscripts (Robinson, 1958, pp. xxi-xxv) in the Bodleian Library were Jāmi’s Yusof o Zolayḵā (PLATE I), one made at Qazvin (Rabiʿ II 977/September-October 1569), with a lacquered binding (Greaves 1), and another one copied in Shiraz (Rabiʿ I 94[0]/Sept.-Oct. 1533), the latter donated by Thomas Hyde, Bodley’s librarian and Laudian professor of Arabic, in 1692 (Hyde 10). In 1713 Narcissus Marsh (1638-1713), Archbishop of Armagh, bequeathed a Bustān of Saʿdi of 921-26/1515-20, with illustrations attributed to Behzād (Marsh 517), and the Ketāb ṣowar al-kawākeb al-ṯābeta of ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Ṣufi of 400/1009-10, the earliest illustrated copy of this treatise extant, copied by the astronomer’s son after the silver globe engraved by his father for the Buyid ʿAżod-al-Dawla (Marsh 144). This treatise, incidentally, is the only illustrated manuscript mentioned by Ebn al-Nadim (Fehrest, ed. Flügel, p. 342, tr. Dodge, pp. 669-70).

Among the acquisitions of the later 19th century were more than seven hundred manuscripts collected by Sir William Ouseley (1767-1842; Ouseley), the brother of Sir Gore Ouseley, including the Samak ʿayyār by Farā-marz b. Ḵodādād (copied Shiraz, 733-41/1333-40; Ouseley 379-81) and the Šāh-nāma copied by Ebrāhim Solṭān (copied Shiraz, 1430s; Ouseley Add. 175). Four volumes of the Ḵamsa of ʿAli Šir Nevāʾi (copied Herat 890/1485-86; Elliot 287, 317, 319, 407) came from John Bardoe Elliot of Patna, who had acquired four hundred and twenty-two manuscripts from the collection of Sir Gore Ouseley (1770-1844) for the Bodleian in 1859. Volume 5 of the set is in the John Rylands Library in Manchester (Turk MS 3; cf. Robinson, 1980). Ouseley’s instructions on his appointment as ambassador to the Qajar court in 1810 had also provided for the purchase of Persian and Arabic manuscripts “at modest prices” for the British Museum up to 600 Pounds Sterling per year.

Other Persian illustrated manuscripts which came early into British collections are two fascicules of the Jāmeʿ al-tawāriḵ of Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh, one of 714/1314-15, formerly in the Royal Asiatic Society, and the other, of 707/1307-8, now in Edinburgh University Library (Arab MS 161). The former, now in the Nour collection, was acquired (Morley, no. 1) probably at Lucknow, by Colonel (later General) John Staples Harriot of the Bengal Infantry, who, according to Morley, presented it to the Royal Asiatic Society. The latter was acquired (Morley) before 1813 by Colonel John Baillie (1772-1838), ultimately Professor of Arabic at Fort William College, Calcutta, who served with the East India Company in Bundelkhand and at Lucknow from 1791 to 1823 (Hukk, Ethé, and Robertson, no. 20). (Cf. PLATE III).

The Bodleian Library has no manuscript with 17th-century Isfahan paintings, an indication of the tastes of collectors in the service of the East India Company, who favored especially the Il-khanid, Timurid, and early Safavid periods, but doubtless also of the state of the market. In Paris, on the other hand, the center of the European market in Persian art from the late 19th century up to the 1920s or even later (Lowry), the 16th- and 17th-century Safavid schools, reflecting the tastes of Parisian collectors like Vever, Cartier, and Anet, figure much more prominently. Where Paris went, the rest of Europe and the United States followed. The development of a European market, often interested in paintings from broken up albums or manuscripts of obscure provenance, and the appearance of dealer-connoisseurs (cf. Stanley) complicate the history of collecting in the 20th century; the case of the sumptuous early Safavid lacquer book-covers bequeathed to the British Museum in 1948 by Sir Bernard Eckstein (OA 12-11 027-8) well illustrates its vagaries. They were from the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Düsseldorf, which had been obliged to dispose of them, on the orders of Adolph Hitler, as “non-Aryan art” (Basil Gray, personal communication).

William Beckford’s collection of Oriental paintings (Enderlein, pp. 5-9) was largely based on those of Na-thaniel Middleton, an East India Company’s resident in Lucknow, and of the Swiss mercenary, Major Antoine (de) Polier (1760-1801), who had served in the army of the East India Company both at Delhi and in Lucknow (see “Polier”). On Beckford’s death these mostly passed to his daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, and thence to the Berlin Museum following the Hamilton palace sale in 1882. Of the thirteen albums from Beckford’s library now in the Islamisches Museum eleven seem to have been from Polier. To judge from their contents Beckford’s tastes were rather for Mughal painting.

The Persian manuscripts in the Bibliotheca Phillippica, the library of Sir Thomas Phillipps Bt. (1792-1872), one of Beckford’s fiercest rivals and one of the most omnivorous collectors of manuscripts ever known, included a fine Šāh-nāma, copied in Isfahan in Jomādā II 1064/April-May 1654 and illustrated by Moʿin Moṣawwer (Sotheby, 1968, lot 179). Two albums from the Warren Hastings sale of 1853 (ibid., lots 367-407; idem, 1974, lots 790-813), which are almost entirely of Mughal material, however, suggest that Phillipps’s tastes were similar to Beckford’s and that Persian manuscripts were a by-product of his acquisitions from officials of the East India Company, notably Captain Robert Mignan (e.g., a copy of Zakariyāʾ Qazvini’s ʿAjāyeb al-maḵluqāt, dated 954/1547-48, acquired from Mignan in 1829; Phillipps MS 3906; Sotheby’s 1968, Lot 247). He also bought substantially from the sales of Leander van Ess of Darmstadt (1772-1847) in 1823, Auguste Chardin (Paris, 1824), and Guglielmo Libri (Sotheby, 28 March 1859), though, possibly in a fit of pique, he declined the offer of 750 of the Ouseley manuscripts in 1841.

Phillipps’s most remarkable Persian acquisition, and a significant document for Western relations with Persia in the later Safavid period, though it is in fact a Latin manuscript, a fragmentary Old Testament attributable to the milieu of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris about 1250 (Cockerell and Plummer, pp. 5-17), was offered for sale at Sotheby’s (16 March 1833, lot 201) by a Greek, John d’Athansi, probably from Alexandria. As an inscription of Cardinal Bernard Maciejowski, Bishop of Cracow, dated 7 September 1604 attests, it was sent as a gift with the Carmelite mission despatched by Pope Clement VIII, which reached Shah ʿAbbās I in Isfahan early in 1608. The Shah immediately had it given Persian captions and Arabic foliation, and Hebrew transliterations were added later in the 17th century. Its subsequent history is obscure, but its sheepskin binding is not Persian, so it may have returned to the Near East or even to Europe by the 18th century (Isidorus a S. Joseph and Petrus a S. Andrea, apud Cockerrell and Plummer, pp. 5-17).

Other arts. Richly as other forms of Persian art are now represented in English public collections, they were for long not collected systematically. Sir Hans Sloane (d. 1753; Impey), for example, whose collection was the foundation of the British Museum, acquired only two objects, though both are important: a rhinoceros horn cup which has been identified with the boat-shaped cup that Ẓahir-al-Din Moḥammad Bābor states was ordered for him at Samarkand in 1525 (SL 1718), and a fine brass astrolabe inlaid with silver made for the Safavid Shah Solṭān-Ḥosayn (1105-35/1694-1722), made by ʿAbd-al-ʿAli b. Moḥammad-Rafiʿ and engraved by his brother, Moḥammad-Bāqer, and dated Šaʿbān 1124/September 1712 (PLATE II; Sloane OA+369; Impey, p. 226 and Pl. 23). Sloane also collected Persian manuscripts. His collection included an album with various paintings by a painter in the bāzār of Isfahan (ca. 10/96/1685), compiled by the 17th-century naturalist and traveler, Engelbrecht Kaempfer (OA 74 6-17 01; formerly Add. 5027B), and wrote a pamphlet on Islamic seals (Amuleta, Mahumetica, Gemmae sive Lapides continentes inscriptiones Arabicos, persicos etc.), now kept in the Department of Oriental Antiquities (MacGregor, ed., p. 291; “Sir Hans Sloane’s Catalogues,” no. 6).

Among other early donors to the British Museum were Sir John Malcolm (1769-1833), the Indian administrator, envoy to Persia, and historian, who acquired in Bombay an inlaid brass celestial globe, signed Moḥammad b. Helāl Monajjem Mawṣeli, dated 674/1275-76 (OA 71 3-1) and a splendidly illustrated and illuminated miscellany compiled for the Timurid prince Eskandar Solṭān, Shiraz in 813-14/1401-11 (British Library, Add. 27261).

British collecting of Islamic, especially Persian, art in the late 19th century was dominated by A. W. Franks of the British Museum through his friends and colleagues (Ward) like John Henderson (1797-1878; Henderson, catalogue nos. 475 ff.). Henderson’s Persian pottery was almost exclusively late luster-wares but his metalwork covered the whole period from the Middle Ages up to the Qajars, in all the principal techniques. The collection of Frederick Du Cane Godman (1834-1919), the greatest monument to Frank’s encouragement, was substantially complete by 1900. His Persian pottery was initially confined to groups of 12th-14th century luster-wares from the Kāšān potteries (Wallis, 1891; idem, 1894), which he bought, first in the early 1870s and then in 1889, from “collections” excavated at Rey/Rhages. They had been assembled by Jules Richard, a French émigré teaching at the Dār al-fonun in Tehran, who also dealt in Persian pottery. The material Godman acquired from Paris dealers, including possibly his later Persian luster wares, is difficult to identify, but he also bought through Sid-ney Churchill in Tehran and John Richard Preece (1843-1917), from 1891 the British consul in Isfahan (Godman’s own catalogue confuses him with Sir William Preece, who had nothing to do with Persia). Although he owned no complete pieces of mināʾi ware he donated an important group of mināʾi shards to the British Museum in 1891. He also bought late Safavid pottery, blue and white as well as “Gombroon” wares, fine white late 17th or early 18th century Persian export wares, which had been, perhaps over-precisely, identified as such by Franks (Ward). Godman’s taste was broadly similar to that of his European contemporaries, but his collection also reflects the current state of the market; the wide range of early sgraffiato and slip-painted wares from Nišāpur and other sites came on the market too late to attract his attention.

Godman’s bequest reached the British Museum in 1983. Its collections were meanwhile augmented by: important sherd-material collected in Kermān by Sir Percy Sykes (1867-1945), the British consul in Kermān and then in Khorasan 1894-13 (registers of the British Museum, Dept. of Oriental Antiquities); collection of Henry Van den Bergh (1851-1937), who was interested in Peruvian as well as Persian pottery; Oscar Raphael (d. 1945; registers of the British Museum, Dept. of Oriental Antiquities); and late luster-wares and some pieces of Safavid blue and white, belonging to Nora Lily Ziegler, a descendant of a family of carpet merchants. Sir Alan Barlow’s (1881-1968) representative collection of Persian pottery was mostly bequeathed to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (Fehérvári).

Since 1880 virtually all the pottery in public and private collections in Great Britain has been the product of unsystematic commercial excavation. Dealers’ provenances are notoriously misleading, and it is rarely possi-ble to distinguish between staple products, experimental luxuries, or even chance imports. The popularity of certain wares, notably mināʾi, with collectors has also led to widespread sophistication. Of prime importance for the history of Persian pottery, therefore, is the material collected in Persia for the South Kensington (later the Victoria and Albert) Museum from 1873 onwards, and for the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art (now the Royal Scottish Museum) by (Sir) Robert Murdoch Smith (1835-1900), who became the director of the museum in 1885 (Smith, 1876, pp. 1-18; idem, 1896; Scarce, pp. 75-76). It comprises Chinese porcelains, Safavid monochromes, and blue and white and late Persian luster, which were all the basis of Arthur Lane’s still unsuperseded study, and glazed and unglazed pre-Mongol wares, including “mercury vessels from Rhages” and part of a luster meḥrāb (prayer niche) from Qom (1526-27/1876). He acquired these during his travels as the director of the Indo-European Telegraph Company in Persia (1865-86), as well as in the form of further “collections” from Jules Richard, shown in 1878 and 1883 (Scarce, pp. 75-76).

Carpets. Of all luxury goods carpets tend to be the most ephemeral, not least because they were generally treated as furnishings, not art, and were thus subject to changes in fashion as well as to wear and tear. The abundant documentation of Persian carpets in Britain from the early 17th century onwards, though they only slowly grew to equal Turkish carpets in popularity, is thus disproportionate to what has survived. Typical is the case of Sir Anthony Sherley (Ross, p. 210) before his European mission on behalf of Shah ʿAbbās I; Sherley was presented by the shah with “six mules, each carrying four carpets, four of silk and gold, six clear carpets and the rest very fair crewel carpets,” of which there is now no trace. In fact, attempts by the East India Company to order carpets from Persia in the late 1610s were unsuccessful, so that it was obliged to have recourse to Mu-ghal India for special orders, like the Girdlers’ carpet, woven in Lahore in 1041/1631-32 (King and Sylvester, ed., no. 35) and the Fremlin carpet (Victoria and Albert Museum IMI 1936; King and Sylvester, ed., no. 36) woven in about 1640. But a “Portuguese” carpet at Knole (King and Sylvester, ed., no. 38) and a Polonaise carpet at Boughton (Kendrick, no. 9), both early 17th century, were almost certainly ordered new.

The Zieglers, a Manchester firm that had established a highly successful factory for manufacturing carpets at Solṭānābād (the modern Arāk) in 1874 (Housego, 1973; Wright, pp. 99-100), acquired the Ardabil Carpet dated 946/1539-40 for Vincent Robinson and Co., a London dealer, who in 1893 sold it to the Victoria and Albert Museum (272-1893) for 2,500 Pounds Sterling. It is exceptional among historic Persian carpets in the museums of the world in having a Persian, not a European (more particularly Italian), provenance.

Arms and armor. Arms and armor also exemplify the fine line between interior decoration and the collecting of art. Apart from the miscellaneous, mostly 18th and 19th century material in the Tower of London (now in the Royal Armouries, Leeds), probably the oldest collection in Great Britain is that of Sir Richard Wallace and Lord Hertford (the Wallace Collection, London). It is lavish, though rather indiscriminate, and is probably more characteristic of taste in 19th-century continental Europe. Lord Hertford bought substantially at the Pourtalès-Gorgier, Fould, d’Aigremont and de Rougemont sales in Paris of the 1860s. There were also seventeen lots of “armes orientales” in Sir Richard Wallace’s sale (Paris, 26 August 1857), but there is no evidence that any of the arms in Laking’s catalogue (1914), which was careful to distinguish between Persian and Indian material, were purchased by him at any stage in his career. The oriental arms and armor in the Royal collection at Windsor castle seem to be entirely Qajar and were evidently contemporary gifts to Queen Victoria.



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(J. Michael Rogers)

Originally Published: December 15, 2002

Last Updated: February 23, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XI, Fasc. 3, pp. 267-273