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A Princely Pursuit - Sam Fogg Gallery

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AN EXHIBITION of over 20 outstanding illustrated manuscripts and leaves, A Princely Pursuit: Persian Paintings and Illustrated Manuscripts, 1300 – 1650, will be on display at the Sam Fogg Gallery from April 16 to May 4, 2007.

From the Mongol period onwards, the illustrated manuscript was the primary vehicle for the pictorial arts in the Persian-speaking world. Along with Persian language and literature, the Persian arts of the book spread over a vast area that stretched from Anatolia to Central Asia and India, constituting a visual lingua franca that was understood, reproduced and embellished upon.

Though the origins of Persian illustrated manuscripts lie as far back as the 12th century, it was under the Ilkhanid Mongol rulers of Iran at the beginning of the 14th century that the patronage of illustrated books became an established princely pursuit.

Curiously for the Mongol Ilkhans, the work most frequently commissioned for illustration was Firdausi’s national poem, the Shahnama or ‘Book of Kings’. The interest in Firdausi’s epic may have stemmed from a desire on the part of the foreign Ilkhans to identify themselves with their Iranian subjects’ national traditions.

An illustrated leaf in the exhibition comes from one of the earliest of these Shahnamas, probably made for the Mongol ruler Ghazan in Baghdad around 1300 (fig. 1). It shows the Iranian prince and commander Rustam, depicted in Mongol dress, seated in a tent, receiving the commander of the Arab army, Sa’d ibn Waqqas.

Many of the dynastic and artistic concerns of the Mongol rulers were taken up in the 15th century by the Timurid rulers of Iran, the sons and grandsons of the Central Asian conqueror Timur. Like the Ilkhans before them, the Timurids showed a particular interest in commissioning historical works which sought to give their ruler a sound historical pedigree.

Among the most famous of these was a universal history, the Majma’ al-Tawarikh or ‘Collection of Histories’. Commissioned by Timur’s son, Shahrukh, it was written in imitation of the Mongol universal history the Jami’ al-Tawarikh and gave an account of the history of the world from its beginning to the year 1427, encompassing Biblical, Iranian, Islamic as well as Chinese history.

Two leaves from one of the large illustrated copies made in Shahrukh’s reign depicting the Iranian king Gushtasp Enthroned and the Qur’anic episode of the Destruction of the Tribe of ‘Ad are included in the exhibition. The large dimensions, 42 × 23 cm, are a testament to the work’s imperial ambitions.

During the 15th century, especially at the cultivated courts of rulers like Sultan Husayn Bayqara, the mystical and lyrical tendencies in Persian painting and poetry became heightened. Illustrated copies of mystical romances such as the Khamsa or ‘Quintet’ by Nizami, or Amir Khusraw Dihlavi’s work of the same name, became popular alongside the traditional epic and historical subjects.

The standards set by the rulers of the 15th century were perpetuated at the Safavid court of Iran, as well as centres of commercial manuscript production, the undisputed centre of which was Shiraz. The exhibition includes several illustrated versions of the Khamsa in the form of leaves from a late 15th century copy in the vigorous ‘Turkman’ style, as well as two complete copies from mid 16th century Shiraz.

One of these was illustrated by the most accomplished Shiraz painter of the day, identified by Basil Robinson as ‘Artist C’. The illustrated Khamsa is a showpiece for this artist’s love of dazzling tiled interiors and luxurious detail, and his skill in composition and expressive portraiture.

The five beautifully preserved paintings in a copy of Amir Khusraw Dihlavi’s Khamsa are a superb example of delicacy and lyricism that Persian painting was capable of in the second half of the 16th century. Particularly touching is a painting from the story of Layla and Majnun, in which Majnun’s father is shown in search of his son whose love for Layla has led him to seek solace amongst the wild animals in the wilderness.

The 17th century saw new directions in Persian painting and artistic tastes as single page paintings and drawings became increasingly popular. Shah ‘Abbas’ new capital at Isfahan, home to pioneering artists and draughtsmen like the eccentric Riza ‘Abbasi, was the centre of these developments.

Despite the popularity of single pages and albums, painting never became divorced from manuscript illustration. Artists like Mu’in Musavvir, one of the pupils of Riza ‘Abbasi, continued to work on illustrating copies of Firdausi’s Shahnama commissioned by high-ranking patrons.

An illustrated copy of the epic Garshaspnama is a witness to the continued excellence of manuscript illustration in the 17th century. Dated 1613 and recording the name of the patron as well as the scribe, the manuscript contains 22 paintings in the style of Riza ‘Abbasi, probably executed by his outstanding pupil, Malik Husayn al-Isfahani.

Among the remarkable aspects of the fluid and inventive illustrations are the depiction of idol worshippers in a temple as Europeans and the ‘updating’ of the battle scenes to include muskets and cannons.

The spread of Persian language, literature and painting accompanied the expansion of Islam in India. Though the Mughal emperors themselves did not commission copies of the Shahnama, illustrated copies of the work were popular among the Indo-Persian nobility, who probably regarded them as emblems of status and sophistication.

The exhibition includes one of the earliest Mughal Shahnamas, dated 1603, containing 66 small, bright illustrations in the ‘popular’ Mughal style that combined the naturalism of Mughal painting with the colourism of Hindu painting.

The exhibition is staged to coincide with Islamic week at the auction houses.

Sam Fogg Ltd, 15d Clifford Street, London, W1S 4JZ.

Telephone: +44 (0)20 7534 2100.

Times: Monday to Friday 9.30 am to 5.30 pm.