I n the spring of 1846, 33-year-old aspiring artist Jules Laurens – who had trained in Paris under Paul Delaroche – was given the break of a lifetime. He was offered the chance to join a geographical expedition to Persia. The endeavour was to be led by the renowned (and, as it would transpire, ominously named) geographer and engineer Xavier Hommaire de Hell. Hommaire de Hell had previous knowledge of the Middle East, having overseen the construction of a bridge in Constantinople and a lighthouse on the Black Sea coast. Now, he had secured funding from the French government to turn his dream of an expedition to Tehran via Anatolia into a reality.
Laurens was duly invited to Hommaire de Hell's home to be interviewed. ‘Have you ever mounted a horse?’ asked Mme de Hell. ‘No’ replied Laurens. ‘Do you suffer from sea sickness?’ she continued. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Are you afraid of heights?’ 'Yes I am.’ Despite this inauspicious start, Laurens was hired. The trip would last three years. Hommaire de Hell and Laurens travelled to Constantinople, before embarking by sea for Anatolia in June 1847.
On 24 August the pair reached Trebizond, the first stage on their long journey overland to Tehran by way of Erzeroum, Vann, and Tabriz. Their trek was long and arduous: despite spending up to fourteen hours a day in the saddle, overnighting in uncomfortable carevanserais, and battling cholera, fever, freezing temperatures, and snow blindness, Laurens assiduously recorded his impressions in his sketchbook at every stop. When they finally reached Tabriz, in north-west Iran, they were received in the house of a banker by the name of Railly. Delighted at the sight of civilisation after the travails of their journey, Laurens wrote: ‘I have found the charming streets, the irrigation canals, the culture, the bustle of Europe. Moreover, its population is intelligent, and lively!’.
In February 1848 the explorers reached Tehran. Here, they were greeted by Comte Étienne de Sartiges, French envoy to Persia, who introduced them to the court of King Mohammad Shah Qajar. On 2 March Laurens and Hommaire de Hell left Tehran on foot for Isfahan. It would be their last journey together. To escape the unbearable heat they walked by night. Upon their arrival, Hommaire de Hell’s health deteriorated. He died on 30 August and was buried at the Armenian cemetery in Julfa, in present day Azerbaijan. Returning to Tehran alone, Laurens finally left the city on 8 February 1849, setting foot in Marseille on 25 June.
Of the hundreds of sketches Laurens made during the journey, many were turned in lithographs for popular magazines and publications, including the fourth volume of Voyage en Turquie et en Perse exécuté par ordre du gouvernement français pendant les années 1846, 1847 et 1848, based on Hommaire de Hell's journal and published by his widow. A portion of the original watercolours and drawings were given to the library of the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris.