Some Islamic figurative art in the Victoria and Albert Museum

THE VICTORIA AND Albert Museum (‘V&A’) in London’s South Kensington is one of my favourite museums. It contains a huge variety of exquisite artefacts. Some of them were obtained by fair means, and others, such as Tipu’s Tiger (an 18th century mechanical toy), by means that some might consider foul. I do not propose to write about the current discussions on the ethics of museum collections, but instead I will concentrate on some interesting tiles that arrived in the museum from Persia, where they were made during the Safavid Dynasty that was established in 1501 AD, and lasted until 1722.

The 36 tiles, arranged in 4 rows of 9, together depict a garden in which a lady is reclining with her 5 attractively dressed attendants around her, all wearing headgear: their uncovered faces are portrayed fully. This tiled panelling might have been originally made as part of an extensive architectural project in early 17th century Isfahan, the capital of the Safavid Dynasty. Other similar tiled panelling can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, so wrote Farshid Emami in his paper “All the City’s Courtesans: A Now-Lost Safavid Pavilion and Its Figural Tile Panels” (published in the Metropolitan Museum Journal in 2019). The panel is shaped so that it could be fitted beneath a window.

The Safavid Dynasty was Islamic. Unlike many other groups in the Islamic world, which discourage or forbid figurative representation, the Safavid rulers, who were great patrons of the arts, developed a dynastic artistic style in which the depiction of human figures played an important role. The tiles that are on display are a fine example of this. According to the V&A’s website (https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O93167/tile-panel/) these tiles were:

“Bought from L.S. Myers, 6 Savile Row, for £275…”

Myers & Co, which flourished at the above-mentioned address in the 19th century, usually dealt with prints. “A Biographical Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Antique and Curiosity Dealers” by MW Westgarth (publ. 2009) revealed:

“Abraham Myers (born c1815/16) traded as a curiosity dealer in Old Bond Street and at New Bond Street, London, from the 1850s. Myers is listed as ‘antiquary dealer’ at 179 New Bond Street in Kelly’s Directory, 1878 and 1886 and at 6 Savile Row in 1886–91.”

So, assuming that LS Myers was associated with this firm, the tiling might well have been bought between 1886 and 1891.

Every visit to the V&A, which might take much of a lifetime to explore fully, is exciting because each time I visit the place, I discover something fascinating, which I had not noticed before. These tiles are no exception to this.

The admiral and the antiques shop

THE BATTLE OF Portobello was fought between the British Navy and the Spanish in November 1739. It was an event during the War of the Austrian Succession. The battle’s aim was to capture the port of Portobello in Panama from the Spanish. The British were victorious.

I have been walking along Portobello Road frequently for over a quarter a century. Each time, I have passed a series of neighbouring shops collectively known as Admiral Vernon Antique Market. I thought it was an odd name until today when I noticed that it is close to an alley called Vernon Yard. Then, the penny dropped, and I began thinking about the choice of the shop’s name – an admiral on Portobello Road.

Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757) was born in London. He joined the Royal Navy in 1700, aged 12, and rose through the ranks. One of his many achievements was the creation of the name ‘grog’ for the commonly consumed drink consisting of rum diluted with water. Also, he made improvements to the methods of naval manoeuvres and the welfare of sailors. Another of his claims to fame was that along with Lieutenant-General Thomas Wentworth (c1693–1747) he led the British forces that captured Portobello.

Knowing this makes sense of the name of the antique shop and the name Vernon Yard. The shop and the dreary little alley are not the most magnificent of memorials to Edward Vernon. There is a more elegant one in Westminster Abbey. The most impressive item commemorating the admiral is the estate of Mount Vernon in Virginia (USA), which was once owned by George Washington’s family. It was named after Edward Vernon because one of Washington’s brothers, Lawrence (died 1752), had been under Vernon’s command during the capture of Portobello.

Street market in Portobello Road

THIS IS AN EXTRACT from my latest book, “Walking West London”, which can be downloaded in its entirety (as a pdf file), free of charge and with no strings attached, from: https://adamyamey.co.uk/walking-west-london/ (just click on the green button, labelled “Download”). The sample below relates to the street market on Portobello Road:

NO LONGER A COUNTRY LANE (PORTOBELLO)

Lovers of street markets, whether they be searching for antiques, bric-abrac, jewellery, telephone covers, clothing, snacks, cafés, flowers, fruit, or vegetables, will enjoy browsing the diverse stalls and small shops that line Portobello Road. This street, which used to be called ‘Portobello Lane’ runs from Notting Hill Gate to just south of the main railway line that begins at Paddington Station. In days gone by, it ran from the gravel pits at Notting Hill Gate to the now long-since demolished Portobello Farm,which stood roughly between Orchard Close and Blagrove Road in NorthKensington.

Before the mid-19th century Portobello Lane, as it was then called, was to quote the historians Florence Gladstone and Ashley Barker (writing in1924):

“‘… one of the most rural and pleasant walks in the summer in the vicinity of London’, and within living memory it led ‘through fields to Kensal Green … cornfields and meadow land on each side … ‘”

Well, Portobello Road is no longer bucolic. It is lined with buildings along its entire length. Currently, it begins with a short section that leads off Pembridge Villas. It is here that you can stop for a drink at the Sun inSplendour pub, which was built in the early 1850s. After running a few yards westwards, Portobello Road heads off in a north-westerly direction, which it maintains with barely any deviation for the rest of its length. Number 22 was the first London home of the writer George Orwell. He lived there as a lodger in the winter of 1927.

After crossing Chepstow Villas, the road slopes downwards and soon after this the market area commences. On most weekdays, much of the market is dedicated to daily domestic needs, mostly food. On Fridays and Saturdays, the number of stalls and the variety of goods on offer increases dramatically. In normal times (i.e., when there is no pandemic), Portobello Road is choked with crowds of people from all over the world, especially on Saturdays.

In the 1860s, the Metropolitan Line (now the ‘Hammersmith and City Line’) was built. It crosses Portobello Road close to the Ladbroke Road station, which was originally known as ‘Notting Hill’ station. Rail access probably accounted for the urban development of what was once ‘Portobello Lane’. The market in Portobello Road probably began operating in the second half of the 19th century. Until the 1940s, it served people’s daily needs. Then, in the 1940s, traders selling anything from junk to antiques began trading along the road, alongside the purveyors of daily  requirements, and that has how it has remained.

The architecture of Portobello Road is far from distinguished. Much of it is ‘bog standard’ Victorian suburban sprawl, but this is hardy disturbing as the eye has plenty of other things to distract it along the multicultural, bustling, colourful, sometimes quirky market street.

Next, I will point out several things worth noticing if you can take your eyes off the shops, the buskers, and the stalls in the market. The Electric Cinema on Portobello Road was first opened in 1910, making it one of the oldest still working cinemas in the UK. It was one of the first buildings in the area to receive a supply of electricity. It has an Edwardian façade. Despite having been closed for several short periods during its lifetime, it still shows films. Since its extensive repairs in 2000, it has become a luxurious space in which to watch films. It is near to Talbot Road that leads to the church of All Saints.

The Victorian church was built between 1852 and 1861 …

END OF SAMPLE. If you have enjoyed it, please download a copy of my book to learn more about London west of Park Lane.