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 This tiled panelling might have been originally made as part of an extensive architectural project in early 17th century Isfahan, the capital of the Safavid Dynasty.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.

A Persian carpet and a Socialist

The Victoria and Albert Museum houses a huge, antique carpet from Ardibil (in Persia).It was made in about AD 1539, and is one of the oldest accurately dated carpets.

You will need to read my book “Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London” to discover the link between this carpet and a Socialist activist, who lived in Hammersmith.

Buy your copy of my book at Lutyens & Rubinstein (Kensington Park Road) OR from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/BEYOND-MARYLEBONE…/dp/B0B7CR679W/)

A well hidden treasure and a film from Iran

FROM THE STREET, the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill Gate does not look like much from the aesthetic viewpoint. However, although the box-like building containing the cinema is typical of unexciting 1960s architecture, the auditorium is a real treasure. Its beautifully decorated interior was converted in 1911 from a former Italian restaurant, which had been designed in 1861 by William Hancock. The ceiling is adorned with plaster mouldings depicting fruits and foliage. The dull exterior housing this lovely auditorium contains in addition to the cinema, the foyer, and offices. It was built in 1962 by the architects Douton and Hurst. Unlike the walls and ceiling, the seating in the cinema is modern and comfortable. One small problem is that there is not much of a rake so that if you are unlucky enough to have someone tall in front of your seat, your view of the screen might be obstructed if you do not lean to the left or right.

To celebrate the 1st of August (2022), we watched a prize-winning film made in Iran in 2021. Its title (in English) is “Hit the Road”, and it is a ‘road movie’. Its four main actors, who are the characters making a long journey across Iran, are superbly credible. Although it portrays the stunning landscapes of Iran beautifully, there is much more to it. Subtly and intelligently, it reveals how delicately the filmmakers view the sophisticated nature of Iranian life and culture. It is easy to make the mistake of viewing Iran solely as a menace and threat to western civilisation. This film and others that I have seen, which were made in Iran after the downfall of the Shah’s regime, might occasionally have aspects critical of the current status quo, but they also demonstrate that the great cultural heritage for which Persia has been known for many centuries persists today. “Hit the Road” does allude delicately at several problems that plague Iran today, but so gently are these allusions made that they were either missed or ignored by the censors in the country where the film was made.

“Hit the Road” should not be missed. If you are in London, why not see it at the Gate, and before the lights dim enjoy the well-conserved early 20th century décor of the auditorium.

A place of refuge

THE ROAD FROM SURAT TO BOMBAY runs through flat terrain with many industrial establishments until it is within a few miles of the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra, a frontier that did not exist before 1960, when the former Bombay State split along linguistic lines into Gujarat and Maharashtra. Beyond the border, the countryside changes suddenly and dramatically, becoming hilly, greener, and much more rustic.

We stopped at Sanjan, a small town near the Arabian Sea and just within Gujarat. In 689 AD, some boatloads of Zoroastrian refugees, fleeing from the Moslems in Iran landed at the, port of Sanjan. The local Indian ruler gave them sanctuary. Thus, began the Parsi community in India.

Sanjan today is a small rather untidy country town surrounded by Arcadian landscape. The modernistic Parsi agiary (fire temple) stands in a walled enclosure at the edge of town close to the Surat to Bombay railway line. It is only open to Parsis.

Close to the agiary and open to the public there is a large enclosure dominated by a tall obelisk surmounted by a gold coloured jar from which gold coloured metal flames are modelled. On three of the four sides of the obelisk there are inscribed plaques: one in an ancient Parsi script (maybe Avestan), another in Gujarati, and the third in English. These notices explain that the obelisk was inaugurated in 1920 by Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy. The column was erected to celebrate the arrival of the first Iranian Zoroastrians at Sanjan and their welcome by the Hindu ruler Jadi Rana.

Next to the obelisk, there is a structure containing a Parsi time capsule placed there in 2000. It contains objects that characterise the past and present of the Indian parsi community. It does not mention when the capsule may be opened.

About 50 yards from the monument stands a cluster of buildings. One of them that stands alone is a meeting hall. The other buildings are parts of a hostel (dharamshala) where Parsi pilgrims can stay for 15 rupees per night in simple accommodation. The main room of the hostel contains aging photographs of no doubt eminent Parsis. There is also a bust of Dadabhai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress.

We left this peaceful flower filled Parsi compound and returned to the National Highway. We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant called Atithi (means ‘guest’) and ate a very good mutton dhansak, a Parsi dish containing meat cooked in a gravy rich in dals and spices. We were surprised how excellent it was. A few hours later, we met a Parsi friend in Bombay, who told us that the restaurant is owned by a Parsi.

After crossing the river or large creek near Vasai, which was once a Portuguese possession and port, we entered the region of Greater Bombay. Immediately, the countryside ended and the landscape became urban. We were 70 kilometres from the heart of Bombay. We drove that distance through an uninterrupted built up area containing modern high rise buildings that look over large areas of slums filled with makeshift corrugated iron shacks, most of which have TV satellite dish antennae.

Eventually, we crossed the attractive Rajiv Gandhi Sealink Bridge that connects the suburb of Bandra with the upmarket Worli Seaface. It was not long before we were cruising along Marine Drive, one side of which is the sea and the other a series of buildings that includes many fine examples of Art Deco architecture.

Soon, we became immersed in the social life of Bombay, a tropical version of Manhattan: endlessly fascinating but quite exhausting.