A portrait of Mirza 'Ali Asghar Khan (Amin al-Mulk al-Sultan, Atabeg-i Azam), signed by Isma’il Jalayir, Persia, Qajar, circa 1880
- gouache on paper
- painting: 66.5 by 51cm.
with frame: 87 by 70.5cm.
Collection of Count Jan Karszo-Siedlewski, former Ambassador of the Republic of Poland to Iran, 1938-41.
Count Karszo-Siedlewski was subsequently posted to London, where he must have had the picture put on to its current stretcher, for there is a label on the reverse of J.J.Patrickson, Framers, of 120 Fulham Road, South Kensington. According to the records of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, J.J. Patrickson were in business at this address from 1920-56.
The portrait is of Mirza Ali Asghar Khan, a politician and courtier who, during the 1870s and 1880s, became progressively more powerful until he controlled most of the government offices and was the Shah’s closest advisor. He is depicted here in a patterned woollen coat with a sashand medal of state and holding a cane in his hands. He is sitting on a European-style chair, which however, is heavily carved and ornamented in a Persian manner (the face of a Persian maiden is just visible behind the sitter’s right shoulder). On the floor is a floral carpet and around him in the room are two low circular tables bearing trays of fruit, glass decanters, a dish and bowl and what appears to be a qalamdan. Two vases of flowers are placed in front of him. Behind him is a window-frame on which are painted a variety of abstract and figurative designs. Along the horizontal sill are repeating floral patterns and on the vertical frames are animals, birds and human beings as follows: (downwards from the top)
Right frame: A seated Persian dignitary (resembling Mirza Ali Asghar again); a kneeling holy man wearing a white turban; a cat; a kneeling youth playing a musical instrument; a peacock; a dancing maiden; a kneeling maiden.
Left frame: birds among bushes; a portrait of a kneeling man smoking a huqqa (resembling the Mughal Emperor Jahangir); a hawk taking a rabbit; a hawk on a perch; a hawk taking a duck.
Beyond the window is a landscape with large fruit trees in the foreground and in the background:
(to the right of the sitter, from right to left)
Huntsmen on horseback attacking their quarry with swords; above which are sheep, a leopard and a cockerel in a rocky landscape; a hunter on horseback with a musket, accompanied by hounds, in front of a villa with pavilions;
(to the left of the sitter, right to left)
A lion confronting a buffalo; an elephant and a giant rhinoceros; a snake attacking a lion.
the signature and date
The painting is signed on the window-sill at the far left. The signature is as follows:
raqimihi al-haqir Isma’il al-musavvir al-k[atib] 12?
'its draughtsman the poor Isma’il the painter, the scribe 12..'
The final part of the word al-katib and the final two digits of the date have been damaged and only partially repaired, leaving us to guess at the exact date of execution. The first two digits of the date are certainly 1 and 2, so the date must have been no later than 1299 AH/1881 AD. Given the timing of Mirza Ali Asghar’s career developments it is unlikely to have been executed before 1875 (see below for biography of the sitter).
Isma’il Jalayir was the son of Haki Muhammad Zaman Khan Jalayir of Khurasan. He was one of the most gifted artists and teachers at the School of Arts of the Dar al-Funun, the academy established in Tehran in 1851 by Nasir al-Din Shah (the School of Arts was established in 1861), but it is likely that he was known as a painter before he entered the Dar. Jalayir’s individualistic manner is known to have caught the eye of Nasir al-Din Shah, with whom he was a favourite, and other senior figures in the Qajar court. By 1862-63 he had produced a portrait of the ruler and was to continue his royal association throughout his career. His patronage by the all-powerful vizier Mirza Ali Asghar Khan seems to have come about in an unusual way. It is said that Jalayir was a perfectionist and was often dissatisfied with the final result of his endeavours. Apparently he was in the habit of taking a long and thoughtful examination of his finished works and, if they did not satisfy his high personal standards, he would tear them up or destroy them in some way. Mirza Ali Asghar heard about this habit and invited Jalayir to his house, indicating that the artist was welcome to come and go, enjoying the peace and protection that a senior courtier’s residence afforded. At the same time, he ordered his servants to watch Jalayir very carefully, and as soon as he began to examine his completed work in a certain way the servants were to take the work away and hide it. In this way Mirza Ali Asghar is said to have saved several pieces. In this context it is not surprising that Jalayir would have painted a portrait of Mirza Ali Asghar during his visits.
Jalayir’s style was unique. Both his portraits and his calligraphic works are marked by a charming and almost surreal contrast between large-scale forms in the foreground (i.e. the sitter or the calligraphy itself) and the microscopic world of the background, which was inhabited by strange animals, birds, flowers, trees, fruit, human beings (shepherds, hunters, ladies of the harem, children), buildings, townscapes and abstract patterning. This combination of the real and the unreal, the microscopic detail and the broad sweep, creates an other-worldly, almost hallucinatory atmosphere in some of his works. B.W. Robinson summed up his style succinctly:
“…His style was meticulous, thoroughly Europeanised on the surface, but fundamentally Persian, and tinged with a sort of gentle melancholy”. (Robinson 1991, p.887).
Mirza Ali Asghar Khan was the son of Aqa Muhammad Ibrahim Amin al-Sultan and was born in Tehran in 1858. At the age of fifteen he joined his father’s staff and in 1871 both he and his father were among Nasir al-Din Shah’s entourage during his pilgrimage to ‘atabat. On his return to Tehran Mirza Ali Asghar was promoted to sarhang and given command of the royal mounted escort. In 1873-74 he succeeded his father as saheh-e jam (head of the royal transport) and in 1878, while still only 20 years old, he deputised for his father in all the relevant offices of state while the latter was away in Europe with the Shah. In 1881 he was given the title Amin al-Mulk, and in 1883 he inherited his father’s title Amin al-Sultan and his functions. He continued his career as the Grand Vizier in the late 1880s and served Nasir al-Din Shah until his death in 1896, being responsible in large part for the calm transition of power to Muzaffar al-Din Shah.
As mentioned above, the partial date on the portrait of ’12..’ means that it must have been painted at the latest in 1299 (1881-2). This particular year saw Mirza Ali Asghar’s promotion to Amin al-Mulk, and it is possible that he commissioned the present portrait from Jalayir in celebration of this event.
Works signed by or confidently attributed to Isma’il Jalyir are as follows:
1. Portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah, Qajar, dated 1279 AH/1862-63 AD, (location unknown).
2. Ladies around a samovar, Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Diba and Ekhtiar, no.86).
3. Portrait of Nur 'Ali Shah (I), private collection (Diba and Ekhtiar, no.85).
4. Portrait of Nur 'Ali Shah (II), private collection (Diba and Ekhtiar, fig.XXXII; Robinson 1991, pl.37).
5. Portrait of Nur 'Ali Shah (III), Sadabad Museum of Fine Arts, Tehran (Promenade, 19).
6. Portrait of Nur 'Ali Shah (VI), Leipzig Museum (Diba and Ekhtiar, p.267, footnote no.37).
7. Album of portraits of The Seven Sufis, dated 1286 AH/1869-70 AD, Gulistan Palace Library, Tehran (Atabey 1353, cat.171, p.386).
8. ‘The Sacrifice of Isma’il’, formerly in the collection of P.W Schulz (Schulz 1914, vol.I, pl.F).
9. A qalamdan, by the artist Muhammad Hassan Afshar, completed by Isma’il Jalayir: private collection (Sotheby’s London, 12 October 2000, lot 89 and 9 October 1978, lot 187; Wiet 1935, P.87; Robinson 1989, figs.16a-c, pp.141-2; Karimzadeh Tabrizi 2000, p.370; lot 126 in this sale).
10. Portrait of Mirza Ali Asghar Khan, Sotheby's London, 18 October 2001, lot 74 (the present portrait).
11. Sheet of decorated calligraphic work with interlinear painting (Geneva 1985, no.178; Geneva 1988, no.34; Raby 1999, no.138, Sotheby's London, 12 October 2004, lot 30).
13. Sheet of decorated calligraphy: private collection (Geneva 1985, no.177; Sotheby's London, 12 October 2004, lot 31).
14. Life-size portrait of Mirza Ali Asghar Khan, (Sotheby's London, 11 October 2006, lot 55).
15. Portrait of 'Ali, Hassan and Husayn, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Sotheby's London, 7 October 2009, lot 69).
16. Portrait of a Nobleman (Christie's London, 13 April 2010, lot 150).
17. Calligraphic panel, private collection (Christie's London, 7 April 2011, lot 177).