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 This tiled panelling might have been originally made as part of an extensive architectural project in early 17th century Isfahan, the capital of the Safavid Dynasty.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

Just around the corner … in South Kensington

PEOPLE USUALLY ASSOCIATE South Kensington with its magnificent set of museums. However, there is far more than that in the district, and within a few yards of the museums. Here are a few places of interest near to the Victoria and Albert Museum (the ‘V&A’).

The V&A stands on the northeast corner of Exhibition Road and Cromwell Gardens (a short stretch of the A4) and faces the Ismaili Centre on the southeast corner. This attractive building built for the religious community that is led by the Aga Khan was designed by the Casson Conder Partnership and completed in 1985. According to the website of the Ismailis, https://the.ismaili, the building’s pleasing exterior:

“… has used materials and colours which are compatible with those of the surrounding buildings while at the same time in keeping with the traditional Islamic idiom and its colours of whites, light greys and blues.”

Monument in he Yalta Memorial Garden

An open space, The Yalta Memorial Garden, on the east side of the centre contains a monument to remember “… the countless men, women, and children, from the Soviet Union and other East European states, who were imprisoned and died at the hands of Communist governments after being repatriated at the conclusion of the Second World War…” The memorial consists of a column on the top of which there is a sculpture by Angela Conner (born 1935) depicting 12 faces of men, women, and children. Nearby, a house on the northeast corner of Thurloe Square and facing the V&A, bears a plaque informing that the museum’s first Director Henry Cole (1808-1882) lived there.

The Brompton Oratory, or to give its full name, the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is a huge Roman Catholic church with a neoclassical façade and a dome. It stands east of the V&A. It was designed by the architect Herbert Gribble (1846-1894), a convert to Roman Catholicism, and constructed between 1880 and 1884. The architectural style is mainly Roman Baroque. This enormous edifice was the largest Roman Catholic church in London until Westminster Cathedral was constructed in the first decade of the 20th century.

Cottage Place runs along the east side of the Oratory towards the Holy Trinity Brompton church north of it. A building that looks like many of the older Underground station entrances on the Place has a façade decorated with blood-red glazed terracotta tiles. Between 1906 and 1934, when it was closed, it was the entrance to Brompton Road station on the Piccadilly Line. It was a stop between the still functioning Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations. It was closed because it was hardly ever used by passengers.  An article in the Guardian newspaper, published in February 2014, related that during WW2, the disused station was used as a command centre for anti-aircraft batteries. It also suggested that the Nazi Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) was interrogated here. Between the station’s closure and about 2014, the building was owned and used by the Ministry of Defence.

The Holy Trinity Brompton Church, a gothic revival structure, was designed by Thomas Leverton Donaldson (1795-1885), and completed in 1829. It was established to accommodate the growing population of this part of Kensington, which until then had to worship in the church of St Mary Abbots in Kensington, almost one mile away. In 1852, a part of the church’s land was sold for building the Oratory upon it. The large grassy space north of Holy Trinity, now a park, was formerly the church’s graveyard.

Although none of the places I have described rival the splendour of the V&A and especially its fantastic collection of artefacts, they are worth exploring if you happen to be in the neighbourhood. A problem in London is that there are so many places of the greatest interests to visitors, which often means they have so little time to explore the lesser-known curiosities that form part of the rich tapestry of London’s past and present.