Leafing through pictures of Persia

Persian Paintings in the Collection of the Royal Asiatic Society
July 9, 1999

This catalogue, by the most senior of Britain's experts in the field, records 15 Persian manuscripts owned by the Royal Asiatic Society and illustrates them lavishly, including 29 colour plates. The society was founded in 1823 by a group of enthusiasts, most of whom had worked for the East India Company, and its collection was built from members' donations.

Most spectacular of the Persian manuscripts are those given to the society by Major-General Doyle in 1834. These include a Shahnama , or Book of Kings , produced in Herat under the Timurid emperor Shah Rukh sometime in the 1440s, a splendid work that passed through some famous hands in the Moghul empire: it bears an inscription by Shah Jehan. The paintings are by several different hands. B. W. Robinson is the leading authority on their styles, and a summary of his assessment is given in the catalogue entry. Its famous illustrations, crisp and brilliant evocations of agitation and order rendered with a supernaturally delicate palette, were recently exhibited at the British Museum when the manuscript was dismantled for conservation. (The great interest generated, even though the museum is so short of space that the exhibition had to be held in a corridor, shows how valuable would be a centre for display and technical study such as that proposed elsewhere by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan.) Other notable items include a rendering of Nizami's Khamsa, or Five Stories, produced under Black Sheep Turkman patronage, and a late 16th-century version of the love story of Shirin and Khusraw with exquisitely delicate marginalia. A copy of Qazwini's Marvels of Creation contains 148 miniatures by Abd al-Karim, who preferred to illustrate particular textual anecdotes rather than slavishly follow stereotypes. Another precious item is a copy made by a French scholar in 1830 of a manuscript that no longer exists, Kirmani's Humay U Humayun , which was burnt in a fire in Turin in 1904.

This collection is of major importance, and the catalogue, which provides brief descriptions of all the illustrations and notes on the various schools and attributions, will be a necessity for academic libraries collecting in the field, to put beside Robinson's catalogues of the Bodleian, John Rylands and India Office Persian collections. Like those publications, it is intended for scholars and those already familiar with narrative and historical contexts. It is also traditional in taking little account of textual inserts.

Of course, it is important to have this catalogue available, but before we join Robinson in the warm tribute that his preface pays to the Royal Asiatic Society, we might reflect on the fact that this slim book would be twice the size if the society had not sold its greatest art treasure at auction in 1980, Robinson himself contributing the introduction to Sotheby's sale catalogue. That manuscript, a portion of the World History of Rashid al-Din , created in Tabriz in 1314, contains 100 illustrations, many of them extraordinary works of art in their own right and collectively crucial for an understanding of the relationships between Mongol and Persian art. It was given to the society in 1841. It is now in the Khalili collection.

The sale was the more iniquitous in that Edinburgh University Library, owner of the other portion of the work, could not possibly compete with the auction price. The RAS's treasurer bemoaned the loss of interest that even the delay in granting an export licence had cost the society. The art market's judgement of Solomon on this great work has been to leave the hapless baby in two parts.

It is valuable for scholars to have this excellent catalogue of the society's remaining manuscripts, but one must question whether these rather grand gentlemen's clubs are the best guardians of art treasures.

Jane Jakeman is a librarian and Islamic art historian.

Persian Paintings in the Collection of the Royal Asiatic Society

Author - B. W. Robinson
ISBN - 0 947 59316 0
Publisher - Royal Asiatic Society
Price - £35.00
Pages - 79

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