Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 21, 2019
Moya Carey Persian Art: Collecting the Arts of Iran for the V&A London: V&A Publishing, 2017. 272 pp.; 250 color ills. Cloth $74.99 (9781851779338)

In this meticulously researched and thoughtfully organized book, Moya Carey tells the story of the collection of art objects from Iran held at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. Established in 1857 and known as the South Kensington Museum until 1899, the V&A has a particular institutional character—its founding mission was to improve the quality of industrial production by engaging worldwide visual cultures—that turns this museum into an ideal case study for scrutinizing collecting activities in Europe and North America in the second half of the nineteenth century. The nature of the political relationship between Britain and Iran in this period adds another dimension of complexity to this inquiry: while Iran was nominally independent under the rule of the Qajar dynasty (1789–1925), the country faced constant political and economic pressure from imperial and colonial powers, such as Britain. This political situation, which can be termed “semicolonial,” created a specific web of interactions and intermediaries that facilitated the transfer of a large amount of artwork outside of Iran. Attending to both contexts—Victorian Britain and Qajar Iran—Carey crafts a lucid, detailed narrative that illuminates the web of art dealers, collectors, professionals, and connoisseurs whose assumptions, tastes, and financial interests culminated in the formation of the V&A collection. The book’s primary concerns are the circumstances and mechanisms of collecting: the shifting notions and tastes that turned certain classes of objects into collectible items, the networks that made their transfer possible, and contemporary perceptions of objects once they had been acquired by the museum. In substantiating this narrative, the author draws not only on archival materials at the V&A but also on architectural fieldwork and a wide range of primary visual and textual sources, including travel books and publications of the era.

Noteworthy for the breadth and size of its holdings, the V&A collection of art objects from Iran was largely formed in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, the period that forms the focus of Carey’s book. As the author shows, the acquisition process was spearheaded by the Scottish engineer and diplomat Robert Murdoch Smith (1835–1900), who served as the director of Iran’s section of the Indo-European Telegraph Department and was tasked with purchasing artworks for the museum in 1873. This was a period in which a large number of European expats and diplomats residing in Iran were involved, in one way or another, in the lucrative business of exporting antiquities, while the British-controlled infrastructure—as embodied in the expansive telegraph lines—ensured these objects’ secure shipment overland and across the ocean.

The book consists of an introduction and four chapters, each focusing on one medium and arranged in a roughly chronological order. The introduction outlines the political and economic conditions in nineteenth-century Iran, as well as the prevalent collecting trends in Europe in general and Britain in particular. Carey not only underscores the British penchant to expand its political influence in Iran but also points to Iran’s frail economy—the decline in domestic manufacturing and the replacement of agricultural production with the cultivation of cash crops such as opium intended for European markets—which was further exacerbated by what the author describes as the Qajar state’s “mishandling” of the shifting patterns of production and trade.

The book’s first chapter focuses on what is perhaps the most unique object in the collection: the Mirza Akbar Drawings, a set of architectural plans and decorative patterns executed on paper by different practitioners and attributed to Ustad Ali Akbar, a royal architect active in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Originally compiled in a scroll, these drawings, rare extant examples of this kind of medium, were purchased in 1875 by English architect Caspar Purdon Clarke (1846–1911), who was in Tehran at the time to oversee the construction of a new compound for the British Legation. Carey convincingly links Clarke’s interest in acquiring these drawings—which rarely circulated beyond professional networks—to the ideas of the British architect Owen Jones (1809–1874), whose book The Grammar of Ornament (1856) had sparked a new interest in the architecture of Islamic cultures in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. Indeed, like the patterns included in Jones’s book, the Mirza Akbar Drawings were mostly praised by nineteenth-century designers and architects for their aesthetic value, while their uses and meanings were poorly understood. An interesting manifestation of this decontextualized approach is a still-preserved stucco decoration executed on a ceiling in the new building for the British Legation in Tehran; as Carey observes, the ceiling’s design of a medallion filled with vegetal scrolls was based on Jones’s reproduction, in The Grammar of Ornament, of the decoration on a metal door made in the late fourteenth century in Mamluk-period Cairo instead of a Qajar model.

Chapter 2 turns to the museum’s collection of ceramics and tiles from Iran. Carey connects the desire to acquire these objects to growing European scholarly and commercial interests in glazed ceramics, which first emerged in France in the 1860s. The V&A collection of Iranian ceramics and tiles was primarily formed through the purchasing activities of Smith, whose acquisitions laid the foundation for the opening, in 1876, of the museum’s “Persian court.” Initially, Smith purchased artworks from local dealers or received objects as gifts from Qajar nobility, but eventually the Tehran-based French photographer and art dealer Jules Richard (1816–1891) became Smith’s main supplier. The collaboration between these two figures was indeed instrumental in the acquisition of these objects: Smith procured funding for the wholesale purchase of artworks and secured their shipment, while Richard instrumentalized his access to a local network of brokers. As Carey notes, several well-known examples of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century luster tiles in the V&A collection, which were removed from sacred shrines across Iran, had been acquired by Richard through dubious transactions.

The book’s third chapter focuses on yet another unique set of artifacts in the V&A collection: polychromatic drawings of tile revetments that adorn six monuments in Isfahan, which was the capital of the Safavid dynasty (1500–1722) in the seventeenth century. Executed on site by a group of local Isfahani practitioners, these full-scale copies were commissioned in 1877 by Smith, who conceived of the project as a viable substitute for acquiring original tiles from religious buildings, which were inaccessible to foreigners. As Carey notes, while this undertaking can be linked to the museum’s interest in replicas and surface patterns as materials for design education, it also hints at the greater value placed on earlier works compared to contemporary, nineteenth-century manufacture. A similar historicist view prompted the production of modern tiles that imitated historical styles, as evident in the work of Ali Muhammad Isfahani, a tile maker active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who produced tile pieces modeled after older works in response to the demands of the European market.

The final chapter deals with the museum’s collection of knotted pile carpets, which consists of both nineteenth-century and Safavid period examples. Carey elucidates the distinct yet interrelated trends that made both types available and desirable to the museum. On the one hand, in response to the European market, handwoven contemporary carpets made in Qajar Iran or elsewhere in Asia had become increasingly homogenized over the course of the nineteenth century, taking on the quality of “mass-produced” production. On the other hand, this perception of contemporary carpets being of lesser quality than the more “authentic” historical models led to a greater interest in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Safavid carpets. It was in this context that the V&A acquired the now well-known Ardabil Carpet, a piece made in 1539–40 and originating from the Safavid dynastic shrine in Ardabil, Iran.

There is presently a mounting awareness of the extent to which our current understanding of the field of Islamic art and architecture—its collections, definitions, and frameworks—has been informed by the developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A valuable, timely contribution to this line of inquiry, Carey’s Persian Art not only broadens our knowledge of collecting trends during this period but also provides a solid base for further inquiries into several other domains. By bringing back the contextual meaning and provenance of the objects, for instance, the book also could illuminate the study of late medieval and early modern artworks dispersed in museums; a greater knowledge of the biography of architectural fragments enables us to trace them back to their original settings and reconstruct their now-lost contexts of display and viewing. Likewise, while Persian Art engages with the context of Qajar Iran, its focus is primarily on the collecting activities of the V&A. Future studies can provide further nuance to our understanding of the specific sociocultural conditions in late nineteenth-century Iran as they might pertain to the collecting activities of foreign dealers; they may also shed further light on, say, the impulses that led to shifts in artistic taste in Qajar Iran, or the reasons for the authorization of the sale of art objects by the Qajar ruler Nasir al-Din Shah (r. 1848–96) at the 1889 International Exhibition in Paris. 

Interweaving the biography of objects with an analysis of the ideas that made them desirable and the constellations of humans who were involved in their acquisition and transfer, this book is a venerable contribution to our appreciation of a major collection of Islamic art. Thanks to Carey’s study, we are now able to see the Iranian artworks at the V&A not merely as products of distant pasts, but also as objects that bear traces of the “contemporary” tastes, politics, and worldviews of the late nineteenth century—in both Victorian Britain and Qajar Iran. In its thorough approach and balanced investigation of collecting, Persian Art offers an excellent model for future studies of other similar collections. 

Farshid Emami
Assistant Professor of Islamic Art History, Department of Art, Oberlin College