THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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190 posts categorized "Art"

23 October 2017

Mastering the art of a strong background: examples from Thai manuscripts

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The importance of a strong yet subtle background cannot be underestimated in manuscript painting. Illustrations in manuscripts often accompany a particular text, or are used to highlight an important section of text. At the same time they function as decorative elements and sometimes their purpose is to increase the value of a manuscript. Manuscript painters had to master the fine balance between the subject or central motif, determined by the text, and decorative ornaments and backgrounds in a painting. The background is an important part of the composition and has a significant impact on the finished artwork: if it is too strong or blatant it dominates the rest of the painting, but a weak or neglected background leaves a large area of the painting unappealing.

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Scenes from the legend of Phra Malai while meeting the god Indra in one of the Buddhist heavens (left) and the future Buddha, Metteyya, shown with attendants (right). Central Thai folding book dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630 f.43 Noc

In Thai manuscript art special attention was usually paid to the design of backgrounds in paintings depicting heavenly scenes and celestial figures, whereas the backgrounds of worldly scenes were often shown in a realistic way with plants, rocks, ponds, mountains, buildings, etc. The marvellous scenes shown above are from the legend of the Buddhist monk Phra Malai, here shown during his visit to Tavatimsa heaven. The lavishly gilded red background in a flame-like pattern known in Thai as lai kranok complements the main figures and the structure of the heavenly stupa Chulamani Chedi perfectly. Red was a preferred background colour even before the 19th century, but at that time decorative elements of different sizes and shapes were strewn in randomly to fill in empty space, as shown below in the example from the 18th century.

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A scene from the Nimi Jataka showing Prince Nimi’s journey to the Tavatimsa heaven, passing through the Buddhist hells. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068 f. 4 Noc

The 19th century was a period of experiment and innovation in Thai manuscript painting. Not only were new and brighter tones for background designs introduced, but also strong and well-structured patterns like the lai kranok. Minerals to produce blue tones were expensive and rarely used in manuscript illustrations before 1800, but during the 19th century blue paints were imported from Europe and sometimes were used very lavishly to questionable artistic effect.

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The gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) with attendants in their heavenly environment. From a central Thai folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1875. British Library, Or 6630 f. 1  Noc

In the image above the strong blue background used for the central part of Buddhist text passages in Pali language, written in gold ink, is almost overwhelming. It is unlikely that the excessive use of blue was the painter’s decision, but rather the request of the person(s) who commissioned the manuscript. Bright blue tones became very fashionable during the 19th century and together with the gold ink they made the manuscript appear more valuable. In the illustrations of the gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) together with other celestial beings, however, the painter decided to use blue tones very sparingly in the lai kranok pattern which has a bright red as its basic tone, very much in the pre-1800 tradition.

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The gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right) in their heavenly environment. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257 f. 2 Noc

The usual way to record text in illustrated Thai folding books was to write it in black ink on the naturally cream-coloured paper as shown above. Sometimes, the paper was blackened and the text recorded in yellow ink or white steatite pencil. The image above shows illustrations of the gods Indra (left) and Brahma (right), both before a background dominated by red. The lai kranok pattern makes use of white, blue, green and pink tones. The figures are kneeling on a blue ground that is decorated with gold floral patterns.

Besides the lai kranok pattern, floral background designs enjoyed great popularity throughout the 19th century. The use of floral patterns for backgrounds was a further development of the already well-established application of flowers and foliage as decorative elements in manuscript illustrations of worldly scenes before the 19th century, though not in strictly structured, pattern-like designs.

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Illustrations of four Buddhist monks at a funeral. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. British Library, Or 15257, f. 4 Noc

Flowers are not only aesthetically-enhancing elements in Thai manuscript painting. They can also symbolise a peaceful and enjoyable environment as well as positive thoughts and beautiful minds. This can be assumed in the case of the illustrations above, showing four Buddhist monks seated in meditation or while chanting Pali texts at a funeral. Although the floral pattern of white-and-pink blossoms with foliage in green tones on a dark brown foundation is very strong and distinctive, it does not overpower the four figures in the foreground. The monks’ appearance is presented in very bright colours, dominated by an almost white cream tone and an intense orange so that they stand out before the darker background.

The following three manuscript illustrations feature similar floral background patterns which aim to enhance the appearance of the god Brahma, a red Hanuman figure and a hermit.

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The god Brahma seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with red foliage before a black background with a light blue and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 4 Noc

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The red coloured Hanuman seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with white foliage before a black background with a white, pink and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 8 Noc

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A hermit seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with blue foliage before a black background with a white, pink and green floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 10 Noc

Simpler floral background patterns that were frequently used consisted of triple blossoms, single or multi-coloured, combined with a green leaf as shown in the image below. An even more simplified floral pattern consisted of a combination of dots arranged in such a way that they resembled multiple blossoms on trees. Such simpler floral patterns were also used to decorate curtains or carpets which sometimes appear in manuscript paintings.

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A half-human half-bird kinnara seated in a respectful pose on a floor decorated with green foliage before a black background with a simple multi-coloured floral pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1903. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15370, f. 9 Noc

Another frequent background pattern in Thai manuscript painting is the cloud pattern. Consisting of distinctively shaped white or light blue clouds on a bright blue foundation, this pattern usually accompanies celestial beings to show their heavenly environment. The cloud pattern often resembles clouds that were used in East Asian manuscript decoration (compare, for example, the Vietnamese Truyện Kiều) and may have been adopted from East Asian traditions.

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Celestial banner bearers (left) and the future Buddha Metteyya with attendants (right) before a light blue background with a cloud pattern. From a central Thai folding book containing a selection of Buddhist texts and the legend of Phra Malai, dated 1849. British Library, Or 14838, f. 57 Noc

The manuscript paintings shown above are fine examples where larger and smaller clouds were combined to form a light-blue and white background pattern that contrasts and enhances the presentation in yellow, orange and red tones of celestial beings (devata) and Metteyya, the Buddha-to-be, in their heavenly environment.

A clear example of neglect in the background design can be seen in the illustrations below. Although the artist put considerable effort into the execution of the celestial beings, paying much attention to details of their clothes and jewellery which are presented in gold, yellow and orange tones, the background design is really bland with broad white brushstrokes thrown wildly on a blue foundation.

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Male and female heavenly beings, devata, before a poorly executed background with clouds. From a central Thai folding book containing the legend of Phra Malai, 19th century. From Soren Egerod’s collection. British Library, Or 15371, f. 25   Noc

It is difficult to explain such carelessness in the presentation of the background. The painter may have been under time pressure to finish illustrating the manuscript; or maybe he wanted to experiment with foreign water-colour painting techniques which he had not mastered yet. It may also be the work of two painters, one of whom was not very skilled or an apprentice. Another possibility is that the manuscript was produced at one of the many commercial workshops that had sprung up in Bangkok during the second half of the 19th century where numerous low-quality manuscripts and affordable copies of older, more valuable manuscripts were produced by less skilled artists.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

18 October 2017

Bestiary of Fears – an artist’s inspiration from illustrated Hebrew manuscripts

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Today's  post is by guest contributor Jacqueline Nicholls, a London based visual artist and Jewish educator. She uses her art to engage with traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways. She co-ordinates the Art Studio and other Arts & Culture events at JW3, and regularly teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies. Jacqueline’s art has been exhibited in solo shows and significant contemporary Jewish Art group shows in the UK, USA and Israel, and she was recently artist-in-resident in Venice with Beit Venezia. Jacqueline is a regular contributor to BBC R2 Pause for Thought

In the Jewish religion the seven weeks between the freedom festival of Passover and the festival of Pentecost is called the Omer. It is traditional to ritually count every day of these seven weeks and to use this time for personal spiritual transformation. For the last couple of years I have used this time for art projects, and I have undertaken this counting as a daily drawing practice, exploring different themes each year.

In 2016, I was invited to make use of the online digital Hebrew manuscript collection of the British Library and give feedback on how this resource could be useful for artists. I used this as an opportunity to explore the collection with a very personal project: The Bestiary of Fear. If this time is one of personal transformation, the focus for this project was to be on the things that terrify and paralyse the self and prevent growth. The etymology of the word ‘monster’ and the word ‘to demonstrate’ have the same root. They issue out an omen, bring forth a warning, and make visible that which is hidden in the dark. This Bestiary would be an externalising of the internal hidden fears, drawing them out to identify and demonstrate them, transforming the fears into finite monsters that can be contained, and hopefully, overcome.

The process of making this Bestiary was one of daily introspection; by contemplating my vulnerabilities, I was able to identify the fears I wanted to explore through this project. This introspection was followed by searching through the collection items included in The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts to find forms that resonated with the fears I had identified. I was drawn to the strange animals and fantastical beasts in the marginalia, and decided to focus on adapting them to develop the drawings for the Bestiary of Fears.

Seven manuscripts were selected for this project, exploring one each for a week of the seven-week Omer. They were: The Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761), The Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160, Prayer book (Add MS 26957), The Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639), The Hispano-Moresque Haggadah (Or 2737), The Sister Haggadah (Or 2884), and The Golden Haggadah (Add MS 27210). As the Omer begins during the festival of Passover when the Haggadot would have been used, it seemed appropriate to primarily focus on the illustrations within the Haggadot in the British Library’s collection.

The beasties and monsters within these manuscripts are delightful and charming. Sometimes the connection with the text is clear, fulfilling an interpretive role of commentary. And sometimes their inclusion seems decorative with very loose connections to the content. There are breaks and dividing markers within the long body of writing and playful insertions in the margins. One of my favourites is the depiction of a dog licking its bottom on the page containing some special festive prayers in the Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639 f.232v).

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Dog licking its bottom, The Northern French Miscellany, France, 1278-1324 CE (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 232v)  noc

This whimsical and vulgar treatment is not found in modern day printed Hebrew prayer books, and contemporary Jewish religious culture is poorer for its exclusion. These are manuscripts that were made for a particular audience and therefore they can be intimate and personal in a way that printed books for a wider readership cannot.

An example of this can be seen in the Italian Prayer Book (Add MS 26957). This manuscript was created in 1469 for the patrons Menachem ben Shmuel and his daughter Maraviglia bat Menachem ben Shmuel. In this manuscript, mindful that it is made for a woman, the stage-directions for the prayers depict a woman and not a man as the active participant who performs the rituals. This is something that would be unusual to find in a mainstream printed Hebrew prayer book today. I was inspired by the woman on folio 55v, who is pointing to the blessing to count the Omer, as the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity. To portray the fear I turned her pointing instructing finger into the gesture of an overbearing matriarch.

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Illustration of a woman pointing to the text for the counting of the Omer, Italy, 1469 CE (British Library Add MS 26957, f. 55v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity ©Jacqueline Nicholls

In the process of searching through the beasts in the marginalia looking for the right external form to match the inner emotion, I sometimes made connections with the text on that page. An example of this can be seen in Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval. This features a stern, condescending, and judgemental creature looking down his nose and frowning with contempt. The inspiration for this beastie was found in the Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761) accompanying the introductory passage of the Four Sons (f33v.), where it describes how a parent should tell the Passover story to their different types of children. It seemed fitting for this fear, because there is nothing more disapproving than the patriarch who judges his children, who pigeon-holes them and finds them lacking. 

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Introductory passage of the Four Sons, Barcelona Haggadah, Spain, 14th Century CE (Add MS 14761 f. 33v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval ©Jacqueline Nicholls

I was particularly struck by the nuance and detail of expression that were captured in these small and delicate drawings. The high quality of the photography and the ability to examine close details on the computer screen meant that the subtleties and sleight touches in the drawings can be scrutinised without damage to the original manuscript. As the online digitised manuscripts do not have a scale on the screen, one can only estimate the size of the original manuscript and accompanying illustrations by noting the width of the pen strokes.

In the Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160), the text of the Five Books of Moses is decorated with micrography of patterns and beasts in the margins around the text. This unique Jewish scribal art form consists of weaving minute letters into abstract, geometric and figurative designs. In the section which tells the story of Jacob and Esau, there is a strange dopey looking dinosaur-like figure (f. 19v) that became the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up. The narrative of Esau and Jacob is one of a relationship that does not run smooth, with patterns of deceptions and mistakes.

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Micrographic dinosaur-like hybrid, Yonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160 f. 19v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up ©Jacqueline Nicholls

Discussions about definitions of Jewish Art tend to centre on the prohibition of making graven images in the Ten Commandments. This focus side-lines the history and existence of Hebrew illustrated manuscripts. It misinterprets a specific Rabbinic directive about idolatry, putting it into a wider context of disapproval of the plastic arts. This has resulted in a tendency to be suspicious of or to downplay the role of the visual within Jewish heritage. As an artist who engages with traditional Jewish texts, it was refreshing and inspiring to connect with the range and diversity of imagery within the Hebrew manuscript collection at the British Library, at the same time becoming familiar with the quirks, humour and artistry that exist within the tradition, a spirit that can be renewed for contemporary Jewish Art.

The complete Bestiary of Fears can be found online at Jacqueline Nicholls: Omer Drawings.

Jacqueline Nicholls
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27 September 2017

A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama (Book of Conquest)

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While art historical research has focussed on the beauty and splendour of Persian miniature paintings, the study of Judeo-Persian manuscript art has lagged behind, receiving only more recently the attention and recognition it deserves. These paintings form part and parcel of manuscripts that have been copied in Judeo-Persian, that is a dialect or dialects of Persian heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic and written in Hebrew script. The major obstacles to studying these significant hand-written books have been a lack of knowledge of the language, unfamiliarity with the Persian and Judeo-Persian literary traditions, and also with the history of Persian manuscript art in general.

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Joshua and the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant and crossing the Jordan river, from the Fath Nama, Iran, gouache on paper, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century. The elaborate raised halo over Joshua's turban is a motif borrowed from Persian iconography, where it is especially associated with prophets (British Library Or 13704, f. 15r)
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A major change occured in 1985 when a scholarly study exploring the socio-historical and cultural factors that influenced the development of Judeo-Persian manuscript painting was published. This study by Vera Basch Moreen included a detailed inventory of miniatures in Judeo-Persian manuscripts held in major library collections. In it, she described twelve accessible Judeo-Persian manuscripts containing a total of 179 miniatures, as well as numerous additional decorative elements.

Persian manuscript art flourished particularly under the Safavid rulers (1502-1642) who deliberately encouraged the artistic expression of various population groups within their kingdom. The Safavid shahs not only patronized manuscript art, but some were gifted calligraphers and painters in their own right. As a result, during the Safavid period, the art of miniature painting spread from the royal workshops to the smaller aristocratic courts and ateliers, eventually reaching the marketplaces of Persia’s major cities. It was in these centres that the popular, provincial style of Persian manuscript art – to which the Judeo-Persian paintings belong – was born. Judeo-Persian manuscript illustration reached its pinnacle between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Some art historians have argued that Judeo-Persian manuscripts commissioned by Jewish patrons were actually illustrated and decorated in Muslim workshops. Their view is based on the stylistic similarities existing between Persian and Judeo-Persian miniatures. The identity of the artists who created them remains uncertain, essentially because none of the existing Judeo-Persian miniatures found in these manuscripts were signed.

In terms of their content, Judeo-Persian illustrated manuscripts can be divided into two main categories: a) Hebrew transliterations of Persian classic works such as those of Jami (1414-1492) and Nizami (1140-1202), two giants of the Persian literary tradition; and b) original works by prominent Jewish-Persian poets such as Mawlana Shahin Shirazi (Our Master the Royal Falcon of Shiraz, 14th century) and Imrani of Isfahan (1454–1536). Among Shirazi’s epic compositions are the Musa Nama (the Book of Moses) dated 1327 which contains narratives from the Pentateuch and has around 10,000 couplets (consisting of two rhyming hemistiches), and the Bereshit Nama (Book of Genesis) which he completed in 1358, comprising over 8,000 verses.
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Seven Priests blowing seven horns in front of the Walls of Jericho, from the Fath Nama, Iran, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century (British Library Or 13704, f. 31v)
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Composed around 1474, Imrani’s epic Fath Nama (Book of Conquest) is a poetical paraphrase of narratives from the biblical books of Joshua, Ruth and Samuel, consisting of about 10.000 verses.   Imrani endeavoured to uplift the biblical story to the level of the Persian epic, combining in his works Jewish and Islamic legendary and literary material. He is known to have written ten full compositions all of which except three deal with Jewish themes. Imrani’s works are permeated with a deep sense of exile and isolation and a pessimistic view of human condition. While composing the Fath Nama, Imrani had the support of a patron – Amin al-Dawlah (Trustee of the State) who was most probably a wealthy man, perhaps an official in the city of Isfahan. When his patron passed away, Imrani abandoned his work, resuming it only after he had found another patron named Rabbi Yehuda.

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Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the People of Jericho (British Library Or 13704, f. 32r)
Right: Joshua and the Israelites at the battle of Ai (British Library Or 13704, f. 50v)
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Or 13704, the Fath Nama manuscript illustrated here, contains seven coloured illustrations[1] and numerous floral and faunal designs. The manuscript is incomplete, and, since it lacks a colophon, the exact date of its production and the names of its patron and creators are unknown. The assumption that the manuscript was written and decorated at the end of the seventeenth or the beginning of the eighteenth century is based largely on the style of its paintings and on the names of former owners’ inscriptions found within its pages. Several scribes were responsible for copying the text in a writing style characteristic of Persian Jews.

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Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the enemies of the Gibeonites (British Library Or 13704, f. 75r)
Right: The death of the King of Makkedah (British Library Or 13704, f. 85r)
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This manuscript is one of two known illustrated copies of this work. Acquired in 1975, it was purchased from the estate of David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), a renowned bibliophile of Baghdadi origin, who travelled extensively in search of books and manuscripts for his private library. His collection of 1,153 manuscripts is described in a two-volume catalogue published by Oxford University Press in 1932 under the title Ohel Dawid (David’s Tent). Thanks to the Polonsky Foundation, this manuscript has now been digitised and is available digitally on our Digitised Manuscripts site to explore cover to cover.

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An example of the typical bird and flower decorations in Or 13074
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Further reading
Moreen, Vera Basch, Miniature Paintings in Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1985), pp. 40, 49-50.
–––, A Supplementary List of Judaeo-Persian manuscripts”, British Library Journal, Vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 1995), p. 72 and plate II.
Moreen, Vera Basch and Orit Carmeli, The Bible as a Judeo-Persian epic: an illustrated manuscript of Imrani's Fath-Nama (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2016). On Ms 4602 of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
David Yeroushalmi, Emrānī”, in Encyclopædia Iranica (1995).

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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[1] Folio 90v, the only illustration not included here, contains an unfinished sketch in outline of Joshua in battle against the five Amorite kings.

22 August 2017

Colin Mackenzie: Collector Extraordinaire

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Through the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Purvai Project at An Lanntair cultural centre in Stornoway has curated an exhibition celebrating the life of Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), one of the Isle of Lewis’ most famous 19th century explorers who travelled to India and Indonesia. Mackenzie was born on the Isle of Lewis but spent most of his life in India working for the East India Company as a military engineer and surveyor. He saw action across South India, including at the Battle of Seringapattam (1799) against Tipu Sultan, and also spent two years in Java (1811-1812/13) as part of the British occupation force during the Napoleonic Wars. After his return from Java (Indonesia), Mackenzie was appointed the first Surveyor General of India in 1815. He held this post until his death in 1821. He is buried in Park Street Cemetary in Kolkata. The exhibition Collector Extraordinaire brings together a selection of drawings, coins and sculpture collected by Mackenzie from the collections of the British Library, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. For the first time ever, these collections have travelled so far north to Stornoway.

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View of Colin Mackenzie's memorial plaque and family mausoleum near Stornoway. Photographs by John Falconer, 2017.  noc

Mackenzie was interested in the rich history and culture of the lands in which he travelled and worked. He surveyed numerous sites of historical interest, including, famously, the stupa at Amaravati. During his long residence in India, Mackenzie, helped by his local assistants, amassed one of the largest and most diverse collections made here. The tens of thousands of objects in his collection ranged from coins to small bronzes and large stone sculptures, as well as natural history specimens, drawings, and both paper and palm-leaf manuscripts. After his death in 1821, his widow, Petronella, sold his collection to the East India Company for Rs100,000 (£10,000). Most of this material is now held at institutions in the UK and India, including: the British Museum, British Library, V&A, Chennai Government Museum, and the Indian Museum in Kolkata.

The British Library's collection includes more than 1,700 drawings collected by Mackenzie during his career in India. A selection of thirty-two drawings on a range of topics, from sculpture and architecture in India to antiquities in Java either drawn by Mackenzie or under his supervision, are currently on display in the exhibition. Additionally, the well known portrait of Colin Mackenzie painted by the British portraitist Thomas Hickey in 1816 is featured. The drawings are complemented by a number of sculptures and coins from the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Highlights include:

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Portrait of Colin Mackenzie painted by Thomas Hickey in 1816. Mackenzie, wearing scarlet uniform, is accompanied by three of his Indian assistants. In the distance is the colossal Jain statue of Gomatesvara at Karkala. British Library, Foster 13  noc

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Selection of drawings and plans relating to the Buddhist stupa at Amaravati as well as a limestone panel with a high necked vase called a Pūrṇaghaṭa (dating to circa 8th-9th centuries) from the British Museum (1880,0709.68) are on display. Photograph by John Falconer, 2017  noc

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Exhibition also features the Jain sculpture of Parvanatha from the Victoria and Albert Museum (931 IS) which dates to the late 12th century - early 14th century and found by Mackenzie in a ruined Jain temple in Karnataka. Photograph by John Falconer, 2017  noc

The exhibition 'Collector Extraordinaire' is on view at the An Lanntair and Museum nan Eilean from 12 August to 18 November 2017. The exhibition is curated by Catherine Maclean and is part of Storoway's Puravi festival. 

 

Further reading:

David M. Blake, ‘Colin Mackenzie: Collector Extraordinary’, The British Library Journalpp.128-150.

Jennifer Howes (2002) ‘Colin Mackenzie and the stupa at Amaravati’, South Asian Studies, vol. 18, pp.53-65.

Jennifer Howes (2010) Illustrating India: The early colonial investigations of Colin Mackenzie (1784-1821), New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sushma Jansari (2012) ‘Roman Coins from the Mackenzie Collection at the British Museum’, Numismatic Chronicle vol.172 (2012), pp.93-104.

Robert Knox (1992) Amaravati: Buddhist sculpture from the Great Stupa, London: British Museum Press.

Akira Shimada & Michael Willis (eds.) (2017) Amaravati: The Art of an Early Buddhist Monument in Context, London: British Museum Press.

 

Sushma Jansari (British Museum) and Malini Roy (British Library)

28 July 2017

Children of Sir John Spencer Login in Lucknow in 1846

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Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage, the joint Library of Birmingham and British Library exhibition exploring Britain's enduring connections with South Asia opened on July 15th. Featured in the exhibition is a rather lovely portrait of the children of Sir John Spencer Login (1809-63)  with their ayah (governess) painted in Lucknow, India in 1846.

Login and his family's lives changed in the aftermath of the Anglo-Sikh war and annexation of the Punjab by the British, when he was appointed as the legal guardian of the ten-year-old Maharaja Duleep Singh in Lahore in April 1849.

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'Maharaja Dhulip Sing', plate 1 from Recollections of India. Part 1. British India and the Punjab by James Duffield Harding (1797-1863) after Charles Stewart Hardinge (1822-1894), 1847. British Library, X738/1(1).   noc

Login was born in Stromness, Orkney in Scotland and trained at the Royal Infirmary at Edinburgh. After arriving in India in 1836, he obtained the position of surgeon to the 1st Brigade Horse Artillery and served under Sir Charles Metcalfe in Agra. In 1838, he was transferred to Lucknow where he was appointed as the Residency Surgeon and Postmaster General. It was in Lucknow that he met his future wife Lena Campbell, whom he married in 1842.

A rarity in the British Library’s collection is this rather lovely miniature painting on ivory, featuring the young children of John and his wife Lena who were born in Lucknow. Riding astride on the rocking horse and dressed in a tartan kilt is the eldest son Edward William Spencer Login (b.1843). Standing in a blue dress and missing a shoe is Lena Margaret Campbell Login (b. 1845). In the arms of their ayah is Louisa Marion d’Arcy Login (b. 1846). Standing off-centre is an Indian playmate. Painted by an unnamed Indian artist, it was completed a few months after the birth of Louisa.

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The Children of Sir John Spencer Login in Lucknow by an unnamed Indian artist, 1846. British Library, Add Or 5639.  noc

Lena Login’s published account Lady Login’s Recollections reflects on her life in Lucknow and her interactions with the women of the royal family of Awadh.  She wrote, ‘Indeed, Malika Geytee, the King’s favourite wife, treated me always as an intimate friend, and all the Princesses made a point of presenting me, on the birth of each of my children, as a sign of personal regard with a complete outfit of native dress for myself and the newcomer, of their own handiwork, gorgeously embroidered in gold and silver bullion’. Lena Login learned to speak Urdu and regularly assisted her husband to treat the women in the zenana that she could see first-hand and report symptoms back to Dr Login. As Login declined accepting payment for treating the local Nawabs, the family often received rather extravagant presents including a carriage ‘lined in satin and gold’ with ‘horses [that were] enormous milk white creatures with pink noses and tails of brilliant scarlet’. The children were sent baby elephants as well as ‘two huge Persian cats, more like leopards’.

After the departure of Lena and their children from India back to England, John Login fought in the second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49). In the aftermath, the British appointed Login as the guardian to the young ruler Duleep Singh. The Maharaja, only a few years older than Edward William Spencer Login, would remain under the care of the Login family until he was 19. They travelled from Lahore to Fatehgargh and ultimately Duleep Singh was permitted to travel to England in 1854. Invited to court, he developed a close relationship with Queen Victoria and her family. For the next several years, he remained with the Login family at Castle Menzies in Scotland. While visual evidence of his early years in England is primarily limited to formal portraits commissioned by Queen Victoria and her own sketches, an informal group portrait picturing the Maharaja with the Login children amongst other party goers at Castle Menzies taken in 1855 appeared at auction just a few years ago. It would be interesting to know if other visual representations of the young Maharaja and his adopted family have been identified and can be explored in a future blog post.

The painting of the children of John Spencer Login is currently on display at the Library of Birmingham in the exhibition Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage from 15 July – 4 November 2017.

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Further reading:

Edith Dalhousie Login, Lady Login's recollections : court life and camp life, 1820-1904, London, 1916. 

 

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator

 

12 June 2017

Portraits of Dara Shikoh in the Treasures Gallery

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Visitors to the Treasures Gallery at the British Library may notice that the display of Dara Shikoh album pages have changed. On exhibition are eight folios from the Dara Shikoh Album (Add.Or.3129), one of the great treasures of the Asian and African department. The album was compiled by Prince Dara Shikoh (1615–59), the eldest son and heir of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, and presented as a gift to his wife Nadira Banu Begum in 1646-47, whom he married in 1633. A new selection went into the gallery at the end of May in time for the Jaipur Literature Festival. You can find these in the Arts of the Book section near the entrance to the Magna Carta. For information on the previous display, please read our blog post on 'New Display of Dara Shikoh Album'.

The album contains seventy-four folios with sixty-eight paintings interspersed with calligraphy and gilt tooled leather covers.  Inside the album, paintings are arranged in facing pairs alternating with facing pages of calligraphy. The album features eighteen portraits of Dara Shikoh, portraits of princes and notable women of the court, holy men, and studies of natural history subjects. 

In this new display, visitors can view a set of facing portraits of Dara Shikoh as a teenager, approximately 15-18 years of age. This complementary set  features the prince standing against blossoming shrubs. He is dressed in fine white muslin garment worn over vivid coloured trousers. In both studies, he is adorned in necklaces composed of enormous pearls, jewelled bracelets and earrings. On the portrait to the right, he holds a gold tray containing two loose pearls and a red spinel.

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Portraits of Prince Dara Shikoh, unknown artists, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.36 and f.35v.

The second pair of portraits features women at the Mughal court. This includes an unidentified beauty of the court and a  portrait of Dara Shikoh’s elder sister Jahanara who was an influential political figure and profoundly spiritual. She wrote ‘The Confidant of Spirits’, a biography of the Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti in 1640.

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[Left] A lady of the court, by an unknown artist from Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.14. [Right] Princess Jahanara aged 18, attributed to Lalchand, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1632. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.13v. 

The remaining four works on display were not intended as pairs, but are representative works from the album. This includes a study of two pigeons perched beside a portable dovecote, a pink crown imperial lily (one of eighteen floral studies in the album), a calligraphic exercise by Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri who was one of the most eminent calligraphers during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar (1555-1605), and an engraving of the Virgin and Child by either a Dutch or Italian artist from the 16th or 17th century.

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[Left] Two pigeons. [Right] A pink lily, artists unknown, Agra or Burhanpur, India, 1630-33. Calligraphic exercise by Muhammad Husain al-Kashmiri, northern India, c. 1590; flowers added, c. 1630. British Library, Add Or 3129, f. 31v, f.62, and f.40v.

For our audience and readers unfamiliar with the history of Mughal art, the European engraving pasted onto a Mughal album page may appear to be unconventional or even eccentric. In this album, the facing page too features western prints picturing St. Catherine of Sienna by Antonia Caranzano and a print of St. Margaret pasted into a Mughal album page.  Artists at the Mughal court were in fact exposed to European engravings, specifically Christian iconography, through Jesuit missionaries who visited the court of Emperor Akbar from 1580 onwards. Mughal artists were commissioned by Akbar and his son Jahangir to illustrate scenes on the life of Christ. While Mughal interpretations of Christian themes and studies of foreign visitors appear in albums, the original prints that inspired such works are more uncommon.

Add Or 3129 f42v
Engraving of the Virgin and Child by a Dutch or Italian artist, 16th or 17th century, British Library, Add Or 3129, f.42v


Further reading:

Falk, T., and Archer, M., Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library, London, 1981
Inayat Khan, The Shah Jahan Nama of ‘Inayat Khan, trans. A.R. Fuller, ed. W.E. Begley and Z.A. Desai, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1990  
Losty, J.P., ‘Dating the Dara Shikoh Album: the Floral Evidence’, in Ebba Koch and Ali Anooshahr, eds., The Mughal Empire under Shah Jahan (1628-58) – New trends of research, forthcoming
Losty, J.P., and Roy, M., Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012
Losty, J.P., 'Mughal flower studies and their European inspiration', Asian and African Studies Blog, 14 March 2014.
Sims-Williams, Ursula, 'Princess Jahanara's biography of a Sufi saint', Asian and African Studies Blog, 01 February 2013.

 

07 June 2017

Pem nem: a 16th-century Urdu romance goes on-line

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One of the treasures of the Urdu manuscript collection at the British Library has been digitised and made available online. The Pem Nem (Add.16880) is one of the finest examples of manuscript illustration from the court of Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II, who ruled the kingdom of Bijapur from 1580 to 1627. Containing 34 miniature paintings illustrating the Sufi love story of prince Shah Ji and princess Mah Ji, the manuscript was written by an author by the name of Hasan Manju Khalji, bearing the pen name of Hans.

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Left: The hero, Shah Ji, faints at his first sight of his beloved, Mah Ji (BL Add.16680, f. 82v)
Right: The hero, Shah Ji is enflamed with passion (BL Add.16680, f. 87r)
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While the author claims in the introduction that the manuscript was written in the year 999 AH (1590/91 CE), scholars doubt that this claim is more than an attempt to harmonise the year of the manuscript's production with Ibrahim Adil Shah II's fixation with the nauras, the nine rasas or essences/flavours art. The introduction tells us that the body of the poem contains 199 rhyming couplets (dohas, two lines of seven syllables) and 999 quatrains (caupais, four lines with the rhyme ABCB), and praises the 99 names of God, suggesting that the text is indeed structured around the ruler's fixation with the number nine. Although the dating of the text to the exact year of 999 AH may be no more than poetic license, the art historian and expert on the Bijapur court, Deborah Hutton, has identified stylistic and textual details that allow the creation of the manuscript to be safely dated to the period 1591-1604 (Hutton, 'The Pem Nem', p. 45).

Originally mis-identified in Blumhardt's Catalogue of Hindi, Panjabi and Hindustani Manuscripts (1899) as a variation on the Padmavat of Jayyasi, the text of the manuscript was later studied by the eminent Urdu scholar, David Matthews, who describes the spiritual love story of the two main protagonists that differs from the Padmavat and is a unique work, although it shares the central feature of narrating a spiritual quest through the trope of a love story.

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Left: Convinced that Mah Ji is only a reflection of the image in his heart, he weeps a stream a tears (BL Add.16680, f. 90v)
Right: Mah Ji passing time with her companions during her period of separation and longing, playing board games and tending to pet birds (BL Add.16680, f. 135r)
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Not unlike other Persianate tales of spiritual awakening and the search for truth, the story begins with the hero, Shah Ji, encountering an image of his as-yet-unseen beloved, Mah Ji, brought to him by a tortoise, while Mah Ji receives a similar portrait-via-tortoise delivery. The two main characters fall deeply in love (Matthews, 'Pem Nem', p. 174). This curious scene, quite unfortunately, is not pictured among the illustrations of the manuscript. The hero's love for the heroine is uniquely depicted through the innovative visual metaphor of the princess' image appearing on his breast throughout the illustrations.   After falling in love, Shah Ji embarks on a journey to find his beloved, which takes him to an island where his paternal uncle rules as king, and where his daughter, Shah Ji's beloved, resides.   Upon finding his beloved, Shah Ji faints, and then later refuses to believe that Mah Ji is anything more than a pale reflection of the image on his chest, who he mistakes for the real beloved. In a case of mistaking the real for the reflection, Shah Ji abandons Mah Ji. At this point, the text integrates the Indic baramasa genre, which depicts the emotions of the different seasons as the twelve months of the year pass, into the Persian masnavi tradition, or Sufi love story of spiritual awakening written in narrative verse.   During her period of abandonment, Mah Ji is depicted as aflame with longing - quite literally on fire - for her absent lover, just as the same striking visual metaphor was used to paint Shah Ji's desire for his beloved before he encountered her.   Mah Ji is painted in scenes of amusement with her companions in the garden of the palace, although she maintains an isolated and melancholy air, such as in the images of celebrations for Holi, in which she broods while a maid fans her, presumably to cool her passions.

Add_ms_16880_f138r_2000   Add_ms_16880_f147r_2000
Left: The heroine is aflame with passion and longing for her absent beloved (BL Add.16680, f. 138r)
Right: While Mah Ji’s companions prepare fireworks and celebrate, Mah Ji sits alone and is fanned by an attendant (BL Add.16680, f. 147r)
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After much solitary meditation, the hero of the story, Shah Ji, realised the spiritual error of mistaking the real beloved, the actual Mah Ji before him, for the reflection of Mah Ji in his heart, and returns to the palace to much rejoicing. The largest number of illustrations, twelve of the thirty four, in the manuscript represent the celebrations and rituals surrounding their union in marriage. As in other tales of the same genre, the union of the lover and beloved is a metaphor for the union of the soul with God after mistaking the image, the majaz or symbol (here the image of Mah Ji on the hero's chest) for the haqiqa, or truth.

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Left: Realising that Mah Ji is the real beloved and not an illusion, Shah Ji returns, and then faints (BL Add.16680, f. 166r)
Right: The lovers are now united in marriage, and Mah Ji offers Shah Ji paan (BL Add.16680, f. 232r)
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While the images of the manuscript have been studied by art historians, much research remains to be done on the text and its languages. David Matthews has commented that, "One of the most striking features of the work is its language. The gist of the text can be understood with a little patience; the grammar, syntax and meaning of many verses defy interpretation," and he has also identified the use of many words borrowed from Marathi and Telegu into the Dakani Urdu verse of the manuscript (Matthews, 'Eighty Years', p. 96), suggesting that a team of specialist scholars would have to examine the text of the manuscript together in order to make full sense of it. While the images have been studied, published and displayed, Marika Sardar in her description of the manuscript for the Sultans of the Deccan India exhibition, has observed that some of the paintings, undertaken by three separate artists, seem to date from a later period and serve the purpose of expanding the illustrative narrative without adding content. She also comments that the manuscript seems to have been dis-bound and re-bound slightly out of order, so much work remains to be done on both the text and the study of the images. While the gist of the story and the dating of the images have been established, further study of the linguistic and art historical intricacies are still needed, which should be helped by the availability of the digitised manuscript on the British Library's website. Regardless of the mysteries surrounding certain aspects of the manuscript, the artists have given us the striking visual metaphor of the hero carrying an image of the heroine in his heart throughout the course of his spiritual quest, and also the flames of passion quite literally springing from the two main protagonists as they long to be together.


Bibliography and Further Reading
Along with other manuscripts from the courts of the Deccan Sultanates, the Pem Nem travelled to New York as a loan to Metropolitan Museum of Art for the 2015 exhibition, Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700, Opulence and Fantasy, for which Jeremiah Losty wrote a blog (British Library loans to Sultans of Deccan exhibition in New York).

See also:
Deborah Hutton, "The Pem Nem: A Sixteenth-Century Illustrated romance from Bijapur" in Sultans of the South: Arts of India's Deccan Courts, 1323-1687, edited by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2011): 44-63.
D.J. Matthews, "Eighty Years of Dakani Scholarship", The Annual of Urdu Studies, No. 8 (1993): 91-108.
David Matthews, "Pem Nem: A 16th Century Dakani Manuscript" in From Cairo to Kabul: Afghan and Islamic Studies presented to Ralph Pinder-Wilson, edited by Warwick Ball and Leonard Harrow (London: Melisende, 2002): 170-175.
Marika Sardar, "The Manuscript of the Pem Nem (The Laws of Love)" in Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700, Opulence and Fantasy, by Navina Najat Haidar and Marika Sardar (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015): 97-98.
Mark Zebrowski, Deccan Painting (Sotheby Publications, University of California Press, 1983): 67-121.

 

Nur Sobers-Khan, Lead Curator for South Asia
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28 April 2017

A 17th century copy of Saʻdi’s collected works (IO Islamic 843)

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The Persian writer and poet Musliḥ al-Dīn Saʻdī of Shiraz (ca.1210-1291 or 1292) is without doubt one of the best-known and most skillful writers of classical Persian literature. With an established reputation even during his lifetime, his works have been select reading for royal princes and ʻset textsʼ for more humble students of Persian the world over. It is hardly surprising then that a corresponding number of deluxe copies survive of his works. A previous post (What were the Mughals' favourite books?) described some copies of his best known works, the Būstān (ʻFragrant Gardenʼ or ʻOrchardʼ) and the Gulistān (ʻRose Gardenʼ), in the Library's collection. Another sumptuous manuscript, which has also been digitised, is an early 17th century copy of his Kullīyāt (ʻCollected Worksʼ)IO Islamic 843 which was completed in 1034 (1624/25) by Maḥmūd, a scribe of Shiraz (al-kātib al-Shīrāzī), during the reign of Shah ʻAbbas (r. 1588-1629).

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The frontispiece portraying Shah ʻAbbas in a garden surrounded by courtiers and musicians, and accompanied by Turkish, Indian and European ambassadors (BL IO Islamic 843, ff 1v-2r)  noc

Very little is known about the poet’s life. Born in Shiraz, Saʻdī left his hometown to study in Baghdad. After a period of study at the Nizamiyah Madrasah, Baghdad, he set off on travels that lasted over thirty years. His experiences and adventures found their way into his writings, including being a prisoner of the Crusaders in Syria, visiting Kashgar, and killing a temple priest at Somnath in India. Many of these tales, however, have been proved to be anecdotal rather than biographical. Saʻdī returned to Shiraz in 1257, already a widely recognized poet and completed his two most famous works: the Būstān in 1257 and the Gulistān in 1258. These two works of poetry and prose respectively, contain anecdotes from the life of the author, moral teachings, and advices for rulers. Many stories communicate elements of Sufi teachings through their dervish protagonists. Other works reflect the changing political situation in Shiraz. Several of his poems are dedicated to the Salghurid dynasty, which ruled in Fars from 1148 to 1282, while later works are addressed to their successors the Mongols and their administrators.

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The heavenly journey (Miʻraj) of the Prophet mounted on Buraq approaching Leo and led by Gabriel with a green banner and Israfil with the seven-fold trumpet. From the beginning of the Būstān (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 94r  noc

This collection of Saʻdī’s work consists of 16 works that include, among others, the Gulistān and Būstān, Arabic and Persian Qaṣīdas (odes), Ghazals (love poems), Rubāʻīyāt (quatrains), and Khabīsāt (ʻnaughtyʼ poems). It has sumptuously illuminated openings and contains 18 paintings, including two double-paged illustrations (ff.1v-2r and 413v-414r). For details see Basil Robinson's catalogue description available here.

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Illustration from the Gulistān. Here the King, possibly representing Shah ʻAbbas, is travelling with a slave who, never having been in a boat before, complained of seasickness. Following advice on how to keep him quiet, the king has him thrown overboard and ʻrescuedʼ, the moral being that safety can only be truly appreciated by one who has experienced disaster. The ship is based on a European model of the period, with three masts and cannon at the port-holes (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 42v noc

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Illustration from the Khabīsāt (ʻnaughtyʼ poems) depicting a group of dervishes under a tree, one leading a handsome youth by the hand. The Khabīsāt (ff.391r-399r in this manuscript) is often omitted from printed editions of Saʻdī's collected works on account of its risqué nature (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 392r  noc

The illustrations are good examples of paintings of their time, but the illumination is of a much higher standard. Eight works have lavishly decorated openings: ff. 2v-3r, 34v-35r, 92v-93r, 175v-176r, 183v-184r, 223v-224r, 372v-373r, and 405v-406r. These consist of a central headpiece (sarlawḥ) and heading (ʻunvān) encased in ruled and decorated borders and a band containing foliate scrolling or alternating cartouches and quatrefoils. The outer margins are based on a pattern of diamond shaped lozenges or flower heads in red, black, brown and gold on a dark blue or gold ground with arabesque scrolls with pale blue, red and pink flowers. A variant contains flower heads which alternate with human and/or animal faces (ff.35-6, 175-6 and 372-3).

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The beginning of the Gulistān, copied by Maḥmūd of Shiraz (BL IO Islamic 843, ff. 34v-35r noc

2v
405v 34v  
175v
Details of illuminated openings on ff. 2v405v34v, and 175v. The faint grid marks are from gauzing which, regrettably, was regular conservation practice in the early-20th century (BL IO Islamic 843)   noc

This manuscript was purchased in 1807 from the East India Company civil servant Richard Johnson (1753–1807). His collection formed the backbone of the newly established East India Company Library, consisting of 716 manuscripts, mostly Persian and Arabic, and 64 albums of paintings. Johnson left India in 1790 
and did most of his collecting at Lucknow between 1780 and 1782 and at 
Hyderabad between 1784 and 1875. This particular manuscript was no doubt purchased there having been taken to India at some point in the 17th century.


Further reading
W. M. Thackston (tr.), The Gulistan (Rose garden) of Sa'di: Bilingual English and Persian edition with vocabulary. Bethesda: Ibex, 2008.
G. M. Wickens (tr.). Morals Pointed and Tales Adorned: The Būstān of Saʻdī. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974.
B. W. Robinson, Persian Paintings in the India Office Library: A Descriptive Catalogue. London: Sotheby, 1976.

Wojciech Tworek and Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
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