Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from June 2013

27 June 2013

Recent acquisition - Rao Arjun Singh worshipping Sri Brijnathji

Past blog entries have highlighted our recent acquisitions in the Visual Arts department. Two of the most recent paintings we have acquired include a portrait of Ikhlas Khan and scene featuring a reluctant maiden by the artist Faizallah

I am pleased to announce that earlier this year we also added this striking study of Rao Arjun Singh of Kotah (ruled 1720-23) worshipping Sri Brijnathji in a rose garden. Painted at the court of Kotah during the period 1720-25, this is the only identified portrait of Arjun Singh in a national collection in the United Kingdom. This work can be attributed to one the master painters of Kotah of the early eighteenth century. 

Rao Arjun Singh worshipping Sri Brijnathji in a rose garden (BL Add.Or.5722) Kotah (India), 1720-25 Opaque watercolour and gold on paper Painting: 30.5 x 32.5 cm
Rao Arjun Singh worshipping Sri Brijnathji in a rose garden  noc (BL Add.Or.5722)
Kotah (India), 1720-25
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper
Painting: 30.5 x 32.5 cm

In this lavish scene, Rao Arjun Singh is featured worshipping Sri Brijnathji. Sri Brijnathji, the tutelary deity of the state of Kotah, is enthroned under a rose-bedecked chhatri. The setting is a garden which is divided by water channels into quarters that are filled with rosebushes. Standing directly behind Sri Brijnathji is an attendant. The painting reveals how Hindu rulers in Rajasthan treated deities not as idols but as living deities. More importantly, this work demonstrates how the ruler instructed the artist to personify the deity using his own physiognomy. Rao Arjun Singh’s distinctive sharp-nosed profile is the model for Shri Brijnathji (deity), the worshipper, as well as attendant. Arjun Singh features both the worshipper as well as the subservient attendant holding a peacock feather flywhisk. In regards to its research potential, this complex painting casts light on the intricate relationship between state and religion in one of the important Rajput kingdoms. Of course artists did also paint straighforward portraits of Rao Arjun Singh as well. For a study of Rao Arjun Singh of Kotah admiring a horse, see this study at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

On the reverse it is inscribed in Rajasthani in nagariSri Braijainathai ji gulabai bagai ma birajai cha (which can be interpreted as 'Sri Brijnath Ji is in the Rose Garden in Braj').

Material held in the Visual Arts department at the British Library can be viewed by appointment in the Print Room. Please email [email protected] for an appointment.


Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator  ccownwork
Follow us on Twitter @BL_Visual Arts


Further reading:

W.G. Archer, Bundi and Kotah Painting, 1959

M.C. Beach, 'Masters of Early Kota Painting' in Beach, M.C., Fischer, E., and Goswamy, B.N., Masters of Indian Painting, Artibus Asiae, Zurich, 2011, pp. 459-78

S.C. Welch, et. al., Gods, Kings and Tigers: the Art of Kotah, Prestel, Munich, New York, 1997.

26 June 2013

Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Calcutta

Abiola Olanipekun, an intern for the Social Sciences department at the British Library, recently spent some time researching British patrons of Indian art in response to the exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire (ended April 2013).

Although the Mughal exhibition has ended, I was interested in exploring some of the key British figures that played pivotal roles behind some of the Mughal happenings. The English East India Company was founded in 1600, while Emperor Akbar (ruled 1556-1605) was still in power. Initally, the British were only interested in trading. However, as the Mughal empire weakened, the British gained substantial strength and exerted political control over the northern subcontinent.

Researching the East India Company, I was surprised to discover that notable characters such as  Richard Johnson, Warren Hastings, General Carnac and Sir Elijah Impey had strong associations and even (undeniable) lifelong linkages with the East India Company through their work and reputations. Some of the characters were very colourful, interesting and quite scandalous! The controversy, bravery of exploiting the law and the supposed reasoning behind these actions make this history all the more exciting!

My starting point was Sir Elijah Impey who born 13 June 1732 into a relatively poor family. Impey attended the Westminster School with Warren Hastings; the two became and remained intimate friends throughout his life. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge. Elijah was called to the bar in 1756. For a portrait of Impey, see the National Portrait Gallery's collection.

In 1773, Impey was appointed as the first Chief Justice of the new Supreme Court in Calcutta. His wife Mary set up their household in Calcutta and established a private menagerie. Mary also commissioned local artists to produce drawings of the rare animals she collected, including one of a pangolin, or a Chinese anteater. This spectacular drawing featured in the exhibition.

Pangolin or scaly anteater by Shaikh Zain al-Di, Calcutta, 1779 (BL Add.Or.4667)

Pangolin or scaly anteater by Shaikh Zain al-Di, Calcutta, 1779 (BL Add.Or.4667)

In 1775, Elijah presided at the trial of Maharaja Nandakumar, who was accused of forging a bond in an attempt to deprive a widow of more than half her inheritance. The results of this trial ensured that he went down in history and in 1789; both he and Warren Hastings were subjected to impeachment, for their handling of this case. In 1790, Elijah returned to parliament as the member for New Romney; he spent the next seven years as an MP before retiring to Newick Park. He died on 1 October 1809.

Abiola Olanipekun

You can follow Abiola @Ola_Ola1

Further reading:

T. H. Bowyer, ‘Impey, Sir Elijah (1732–1809)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004


21 June 2013

Jahangir’s Hafiz and the Madrasa Jurist

Mughal rulers’ liking for the renowned Persian lyric poet Ḥāfiẓ of Shiraz is reflected in a number of manuscripts (see our earlier posts ʻWhat were the Mughals' favourite books?ʼ and ʻA rare commentary on the Divan of Hafizʼ), among them a copy of his Dīvān believed to have been completed in 1582 by ‘Abd al-Ṣamad Shīrīn-qalam, one of the artists whom the emperor Humāyūn brought to Kabul – and later to Delhi – from his native Iran. Subsequently the volume was enhanced by order of Jahāngīr with nine illustrations. The greater part of this manuscript, including eight miniatures, is preserved at the British Library (MS. Or. 7573); the last part, including one miniature and the colophon, belongs to the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (MS Ind 15, see Leach, pp. 328-31). 

Among the interesting features of this manuscript is the relationship between the paintings and the text. Priority appears to have been given to providing a text to fit the paintings rather than vice versa: comparing the verses in Or. 7573 with those found in critical editions, one finds that in several cases a number of couplets have been deliberately omitted from the text panels on the illustrated pages (examination of the leaves in question reveals that there is no text underneath). The present writer is currently researching this subject for an article.

The Madrasa Jurist. Painting by Muḥammad Riżā ca. 1611 (Or.7535, f. 25r)
The Madrasa Jurist. Painting by Muḥammad Riżā ca. 1611 (Or.7535, f. 25r)

One of the most interesting miniatures, from the point of view of artistic interpretation of Ḥāfiẓ, is the first one in the manuscript, on folio 25r, which contains the artist’s signature in Arabic: ṣawwarahu al-‘abd Muḥammad Riḍā (‘painted by the slave [of God] Muḥammad Riżā’). This scene has previously been identified as ‘Imād al-Dīn Faqīh of Kirmān and his pupils in ecstasy (see Titley, p. 60; Losty and Roy, pp. 102-3 below). The inscription beneath the text panels reads al-Ṣalāt ‘imād al-dīn (‘Ritual prayer is the pillar of the faith [of Islam]’), a Hadith or Prophetic Tradition. The idea that the subject of the miniature is ‘Imād al-Dīn Faqīh of Kirmān originates from a misunderstanding of this inscription and of the second couplet on the page. ‘Imād al-Dīn ʻAlī Faqīh was a very orthodox Sufi master and poet of the 8th/14th century with an enormous following, and would have been horrified by any depiction of human beings, let alone that of the wine-sodden jurist in Muḥammad Riżā’s painting.

In this miniature the two text panels are contiguous, but the verse couplets are the first and the fourth of Ḥāfiẓ’s ghazal:

Now there’s a cup of pure wine in the hand of the rose,
the bulbul is singing its praises in (or, with) a hundred tongues.

Yesterday the madrasa jurist was drunk and gave this ruling:
Wine’s unlawful – but better than consuming waqf (charitable trust) assets.

Here Ḥāfiẓ shifts abruptly from setting a delightful scene, with the use of conventional lyrical imagery, to acerbic social criticism; such swift transitions are not uncommon in his poems. The first couplet is not relevant to the scene depicted except inasmuch as wine is mentioned. In this instance, however, being the opening bayt (couplet) of the ghazal it has been retained in the text. In Muḥammad Riżā’s painting it is the social criticism that counts, and it is reflected in aspects of realism that are not so commonly met with in Or. 7573 or elsewhere.

The faqīh or jurist at the centre of the painting has been described as being apparently on the point of passing out from religious, or possibly vinous, ecstasy. What we are actually shown is the (literally) drunk faqīh of the madrasa or Islamic college, who is honest enough not to deny his own wrongdoing but declares, as Ḥāfiẓ’s mouthpiece, that drinking wine is unlawful but better than consuming the assets of a waqf, or inalienable charitable endowment. The wrongdoing of the ostensibly righteous is a key theme in Ḥāfiẓ’s poetry.

In the painting, it may be that the seemingly righteous are represented by the two figures seated to the right (our left) of the faqīh, one of whom seems to be remonstrating with him. Possibly they have brought the miscreants before him in the expectation of having them sentenced to the ḥadd punishment (in other words, a severe beating) for drunkenness. Imagine their surprise at having the moral tables turned upon them by the representative of Sacred Law! Meanwhile, in the foreground two figures struggle to hold up or resuscitate a beardless young man whom they may have been introducing to corrupt practices. There are no signs of spiritual ecstasy, or of spiritual practices of any kind. That the opposite is the case is amply shown in the figure on the far right, possibly the brother of the one on the left. His turban has unravelled in picturesque style. What is more, he is quite unmistakably throwing up on the floor of the madrasa courtyard.

A text page from the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, calligrapher ‘Abd al-Ṣamad, probably ca. 1582 (Or.7535, f. 276r)
A text page from the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, calligrapher ‘Abd al-Ṣamad, probably ca. 1582 (Or.7535, f. 276r)

To conclude, and to bring out some of the themes that so appealed to the Mughal audience, here is an attempt at translating the entire poem, so typical of Ḥāfiẓ in the manner in which mysticism, hedonism and social criticism appear intermingled:

Now there’s a cup of pure wine in the rose’s hand,
the bulbul sings its praises in (or, with) a hundred tongues.

Call for a slim book of verse and head for the open air.
What time is this for madrasa, studying kashf (revelation) and Kashshāf (Qur’ān commentary)?

Cut yourself off from people. Learn from the ‘Anqā (a phoenix-like bird whose home is in the remote mountain chain of Qāf) what to do:
hermits are renowned from Mount Qāf to Mount Qāf (from one side of the world to the other).

Yesterday (a word Ḥāfiẓ uses not literally, but to refer to poetic, ‘mythical’ time) the madrasa jurist was drunk and gave this ruling:
wine’s unlawful – but better than consuming waqf (charitable trust) assets.

Dregs or pure wine?  The choice is not yours — but drink on!
All our Cupbearer (here meaning God) does is the essence of kindness.

The gabble of the pretentious, the vain thoughts of sycophants –
it’s all the same story of gold-embroiderers (refined craftspeople) and basket-weavers (būriyā-bāf: cf. riyā, ostentation; these latter are thought of as unrefined artisans).

Hold your peace, Ḥāfiẓ. And these fine points [pure] as red gold –
hold onto them: the town banker is the town forger!


Muhammad Isa Waley, Asian and African Studies

Follow us on Twitter: @BLAsia_Africa


Further reading

Ḥāfiẓ, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad, Dīvān (Numerous editions).
Linda York Leach, Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library. London: Scorpion Cavendish, 1995.
Norah M. Titley, Miniatures from Persian Manuscripts. London: British Museum Publications, 1977.
Jeremiah P. Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire. London: British Library, 2012.
Husayn Ilahi-Ghomshei, ‘The Principles of the Religion of Love in Classical Poetry’. In Hafiz and the Religion of Love in Classical Persian Poetry, ed. L. Lewisohn. London: I.B. Tauris in association with Iran Heritage Foundation, 2010, pp. 77-106
Leonard Lewisohn, ‘The Religion of Love and the Puritans of Islam: Sufi Sources of Ḥāfiẓ’s Anti-Clericalism’. In Hafiz and the Religion of Love, pp. 159-196.
J.T.P. de Bruijn, ‘‘Emād-al-Dīn ‘Alī Faqīh Kermānī.’ In Encyclopedia Iranica.
‘Imād al-Dīn ‘Alī Faqīh Kirmānī, Dīvān. Ed. Rukn al-Dīn Humāyūn-Farrukh. Tehran, 1348/1969.

19 June 2013

Burmese Horoscopes (Myanmar Zata)

Burmese astrology is as old as the ancient civilization of Burma (Myanmar). It is based on the seven days of the week. Most Burmese believe in astrology and often consult with fortune tellers and astrologers for their future. Burmese parents usually record carefully the exact moment at which a child is born and engage an astrologer or a Buddhist monk to create a horoscope (zata) for their child soon after birth. The zata is inscribed with a metal stylus on both sides of a folded piece of corypha palm leaf which has been sewn tightly together to make a thick surface. The zata is incised on one side with astrological diagrams, calculations and zodiac signs, a complicated array of figures that depict the position of various planets at the time of birth and date, and the day of the week is represented by numbers. The day and time of birth and the zata name — given by the astrologer — are neatly inscribed on the other side. Usually the zata is about 21 x 6 cm long, half the length of palm leaf. Some of them are very beautifully engraved and ornamented. 

Front of the zata of Ma Hnin, dated 1840 (Or.12469a)
Front and back of the zata of Ma Hnin, dated 1840 (Or.12469a)

Zata are always kept carefully in a secure place by the parents, sometimes in a special religious room, until the children are old enough to take care of them themselves. Parents take their children’s zatas to the fortune tellers or astrologers to find out about their children’s health, wealth and even their future. The astrologers calculate and predict according to the time and circumstances of a person’s birth and then give detailed interpretations of their readings. People also consult with astrologers over matters such as marriage, illness or jobs.

The earliest of the five horoscopes in the British Library Burmese collection is the zata of Myat Tha Aung, dated 1781 AD (Egerton 852C). The Burmese inscription on one side shows that this person was born in the year 1143 BE, in the month of Thidingyut (October), on the fifth day of the waxing moon, and the first day of the week, Taninganwei (Sunday), in the evening. On the reverse a roundel and a square table with the numbers is surrounded by an ornamental border of numbers. 
The Zata of Myat Tha Aung, dated 1781 AD (Egerton 852C)
The Zata of Myat Tha Aung, dated 1781 AD (Egerton 852C)
The Zata of Myat Tha Aung, dated 1781 AD (Egerton 852C)

The zata of Ma Hnin (Or.12469a) is dated 1840, the zata of Ma Thaing (Or.4789) is dated 1842, the zata of Shin Hkaing (Or.4790) is dated 1852, and the zata of U Thuwunna (Or.12469b) is dated 1875. Each of them consists of a single palm leaf stitched to another to make a thick surface. All are very neatly executed and the general construction is the same.

This kind of Burmese art and this form of astrology still remain popular in Burma, with some ordinary people as well as astrologers being able to interpret the signs.    

San San May, Asian and African Studies


15 June 2013

South Asia Archive and Library Group Conference, 5-6 July 2013

The South Asia Archive and Library Group (SAALG) is holding its next conference in Norwich on Friday 5 and Saturday 6 July at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and the South Asian Decorative Arts & Crafts Collection Trust. The conference will focus on South Asian arts and crafts and will include the following talks:

‘Early British Observations: The Madras and Environs Album 1804-1808’  by Diana Grattan (Collection Curator, The SADACC Trust) 

‘Indian anthropology and it’s archive’ by Dr Dan Rycroft  (Lecturer in the Arts and Cultures of Asia at the School of World Art Studies, UEA)

'Networked Artist-led Initiatives in South Asia' by Emily Crane (PhD Candidate, Sainsbury Institute for Art, University of East Anglia).

This meeting is a unique opportunity to visit the art gallery and museum of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and the collections of the South Asian Decorative Arts & Crafts Collection Trust which include altogether about 4,000 paintings, prints, textiles, metal work and ethnographic items from South Asia and the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Burma, Thailand and Indonesia.

The conference is open to anyone interested. For further details or to make your booking please get in touch with Helen Porter [email protected] by Friday 28 June.

Download SAALG_Norwich_conf_prog2013_July

Download July2013_Confirmation form

Keep in touch on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa

13 June 2013

Frances Wood, Curator of Chinese Collections

On 31 May 2013, Frances Wood retired as curator of the British Library’s Chinese collections. Some of us in Asian and African Studies have known her for almost the entire period and can honestly say that her retirement leaves a gap that is impossible to fill. This is a sentiment shared by her younger colleagues also, as well as readers and visitors to the Library over the years. Frances has on frequent occasions gone out of her way to help and advise, far beyond the call of duty, and her integrity, support and committed engagement to subjects ranging from minute Central Asian woodslip fragments to matters of personal concern has been a source of constant inspiration to us all. We'll miss her as a member of staff, but now that she'll be free of administrative duties, we look forward to seeing the results of her future collaborations and research.

In this post, Beth McKillop, now Deputy Director at the Victoria and Albert Museum, has written an appreciation of Frances and her work. Beth was a British Council scholar with Frances in Beijing in 1975/76 and worked as her colleague at the British Library from 1981 until 2004.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections


Frances Wood
Frances Wood

Frances Wood has recently retired, after more than 30 years first as curator, and later lead curator, of the British Library’s outstanding Chinese collections. She has overseen momentous changes in the understanding and treatment of the collection for which she has been responsible, as well as the physical moves of the collection from Bloomsbury to Blackfriars to St Pancras and (in part) to Boston Spa.

As a young curator, her exceptional energy and intellectual curiosity were already apparent. While researching and writing independently, she also shouldered responsibility for collective and departmental projects, including the British Library’s substantial contribution to the 1984 British Museum exhibition ‘Buddhism Art and Faith’. In the mid-1980s, she began the long movement towards collaborative work with Chinese and Japanese scholars which, years later, led to the founding of the International Dunhuang Project. That enterprise, hosted and directed from the British Library, was visionary and truly cross-disciplinary. Its origins lie in the pre-digital age, but Frances was quick to understand the potential of digital technology to link scholars, conservators and curators who needed to share collections and expertise of various kinds. The Dunhuang and other Central Asian collections are of course much more than a Chinese concern, but the Chinese section of the Library’s Asian collections, led by Frances, pushed the work forward, establishing and later sustaining, the IDP and the numerous scholars and curators who have worked with it. From the outset, Frances enlisted colleagues from SOAS, where she had worked before joining the British Library, to help bring expertise to the library. In the 1980s, SOAS Sinologists Sarah Allan and Roderick Whitfield facilitated visits from Chinese scholars, long before such contacts were straightforward. The first big achievement from these visits by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences historians and others was the 20 volume series  Dunhuang manuscripts in British collections co-published over several years by the Sichuan People’s Publishing House and the British Library. This large-scale set incorporated previously unpublished parts of the Stein Chinese manuscripts, documents that Frances and the Chinese visiting scholars had worked on with conservation support. While stressing Frances’ readiness to collaborate with Chinese scholars, mention should also be made of the Japanese researchers who visited regularly and who also uncovered much valuable new knowledge about the Dunhuang collections.

Frances Wood with the Tangut scholar Ksenia Kepping during her last visit to the British Library
Frances Wood with the Tangut scholar Ksenia Kepping during her last visit to the British Library

Important though Frances’ work on the Dunhuang collections has been throughout her career, her China interests have encompassed many other aspects of Chinese life and society. As a sought-after lecturer and broadcaster, she has done much to take ideas and debates from scholarly circles and present them to a wider audience. Did Marco Polo go to China?  argued that Marco constructed his famous account of travels to Yuan China from other travellers’ accounts, and caused controversy and dispute. Frances’ wide-ranging interests have led her into subjects as disparate as Cultural Revolution student life, the First Emperor, Treaty Ports, and even the translation of Dai Houying’s moving novel Stones of the Wall. Other strings to Frances’ bow have included the Blue Guide to China, reflecting encyclopedic knowledge of Chinese sites and monuments, gained over decades of travel, particularly in the 1970s to 90s. At one time Frances would accompany parliamentary delegations to China, led by the indomitable Lord Rhodes of Saddleworth, the only person to have persuaded Frances to wear a suit.

All those who know Frances are in awe of her published output, but probably most people outside the British Library are unaware of the huge amount of fundamental bibliographic work she has completed during her long career. As her colleague between 1981 and 1990, and again from 1993 until 2004, I would regularly accompany Frances to Guanghwa Bookshop in Soho to select new publications for the collection. Frances had the true bibliophile’s conviction that examination of the copy was the way to buy well. Before the advent of machine-readable cataloguing, we would carry heavy boxes of catalogue cards in a taxi, checking carefully to avoid selecting duplicates. We also worked doggedly through the boxes of Hong Kong copyright publicationsthat arrived in the Library with depressing regularity until 1997. These had to be sorted into material for full cataloguing, and other publications like children’s literature and other genre publishing which was assessed and forwarded to public libraries.

After the India Office Library and Records joined the British Library in 1984, and particularly after 1992 when the former British Museum Oriental Collections left Bloomsbury to join the India Office library at Blackfriars, Frances diligently catalogued the Chinese Buddhist texts in that collection. Her contribution to the exhibition 'Chinese Printmaking Today' (2003), the first major Chinese show in the St Pancras exhibition galleries, led to continuing support for the Muban Education Trust, the lender to the exhibition. Recently, she has published an exemplary account of the history and conservation of the Diamond Sutra of 868AD, jointly with Mark Barnard who was formerly a conservation manager in the Library. Frances’ years at the British Library have been notable for curatorial interests of an exceptionally diverse nature, and for energetic and extensively networked contributions to the China field in the UK and beyond.

This brief note barely scratches the surface of Frances’ interests and generous contributions to Chinese studies, which are familiar to scholars and students around the world. Frances’ expertise in architecture, for example, the subject of her London University doctorate, will doubtless continue to bring a steady stream of colleagues and enquirers to her door. Her research on maps, on illustration, and on export painting has been substantial. Her 2010 interview with Kirsty Young in Desert Island Discs gives some personal recollections of her long career. Her stewardship of the collection leaves an impressive legacy.

Beth McKillop, Victoria and Albert Museum


11 June 2013

Stitched up with Silk: Naqd ʻAli Beg’s journey to London in 1626

One of the oldest oil paintings in the British Library’s collections is a massive portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg. It was commissioned by the English East India Company in 1626 and painted by Richard Greenbury (fl.1616-1651). In that year, Naqd ʻAli Beg came to London as the envoy of Shah ʻAbbas of Persia (r.1587-1629), to meet the British monarch, King Charles I (r.1625-1649).

His mission to England went so badly that he killed himself on the journey back to Iran in 1627. The circumstances behind his suicide relate to a violent quarrel that arose between him and Sir Robert Shirley at the court of Charles I. Both men claimed to be the true envoy of Shah ʻAbbas, claiming the other was an imposter, so the king ordered them to return to the Shah’s court and resolve their differences. The shame of failure was too great for Naqd ʻAli Beg to bear, hence his suicide.

It seems as if the East India Company was responsible for this terrible incident. According to a document in the British Library, Sir Robert Shirley was, in fact, the true envoy of Shah ʻAbbas, and had returned to England in 1624, two years before the arrival of Naqd ʻAli Beg. However, Shirley had angered the East India Company by trying to negotiate a monopoly for the trade in Persian silk with the King of Spain. Such an agreement would have undermined the silk trade with England. The East India Company’s response was to slander Shirley, and to put in place another envoy to the Shah of Persia, who would support trade with London.

Portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg, oil on canvas (British Library F23)
Portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg, oil on canvas (British Library F23)

The portrait reflects the importance of the silk trade. Naqd ʻAli Beg’s adornments are all made of highest quality Persian silk. He wears a magnificent iridescent gown, which contrasts with his sash and turban. His robe is intricately embroidered with human figures resembling those found in Persian miniature paintings. The only object in the darkly lit room where he stands is a Persian carpet under his feet. Posing him amongst all these silk objects is surely not a coincidence. They suggest that the entire point of Naqd ʻAli Beg’s embassy was to undermine Sir Robert Shirley’s work, and secure Persia’s silk trade with the East India Company.

Richard Greenbury was commissioned to paint two portraits of Naqd ʻAli Beg for the East India Company. One was kept in East India House, and is now part of the British Library’s permanent collections. The other portrait, now lost, was given to Naqd ʻAli Beg when he left England in 1627, along with a silver basin and ewer valued at that time for £50. Even though Naqd ʻAli Beg’s embassy was a complete disaster, the East India Company gave him these expensive gifts. But these offerings weren’t enough to assuage the humiliated Persian envoy. Rather than face the Shah, when his ship reached the coast of Western India, Naqd ʻAli Beg poisoned himself by allegedly feeding on nothing but opium for four days.

The British Library’s portrait of Naqd ʻAli Beg is about to be conserved through the support of the Friends of the British Library. In early 2014 it will be returned to its permanent position, in the British Library’s Asia & Africa Reading Room.

Further reading

Archer, Mildred. The India Office Collection of Paintings and Sculpture. London: The British Library, 1986, pp. 28-29
Leapman, Michael. Book of the British Library. London: The British Library, 2012, p. 178
Unpublished notes by William Foster, dated 7 November 1903, in the India Office Records (IOR/L/R/6/248)

Jennifer Howes, Visual Arts Curator

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09 June 2013

Over 26,000 Japanese records added to Explore The British Library

On 15 May records for 26,886 Japanese-language works were added to the British Library’s online catalogue Explore  The records cover material published between 1912 and 2010 and can be searched in both romanisation (modified Hepburn) and in Japanese script.  Since 2010 material in Japanese has been added directly to Explore.  A project to give online access to works published during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) is underway and records for these will gradually be added to Explore over the coming months.


The British Library’s holdings of Japanese-language material are also included in the following online catalogues:
UK Japanese Union Catalogue
European Union Catalogue of Japanese Books
CiNii Books (hosted by the National Institute of Informatics, Tokyo)

Hamish Todd, Lead Curator, Japanese and Korean Studies

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