Lot 63
  • 63

Portrait of Fath 'Ali Shah Qajar Seated Against a Jewelled Bolster on a Pearl Edged Rug, Attributable to Mirza Baba and the Court Workshop, Qajar, Persia, Circa 1798

400,000 - 600,000 GBP
468,500 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Attributable to Mirza Baba and the Court Workshop
  • 199.3 by 127cm.
oil on canvas, framed

Catalogue Note

'al-Sultan Fath 'Ali Shah Qajar'

Of the small number of large-scale portraits of this monarch, only four are present in Western museum collections: one is in the British Library, London (Oriental and India Office Collections), one in the Musée Nationale de Versailles, Paris (on loan at the Louvre), and two are in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. In addition, a standing portrait of Fath 'Ali Shah signed by Mihr 'Ali is presently on loan to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C from the Art and History Trust Collection.

As well as the aforementioned portraits, five others of a related type and size are extant. A total of thirteen monumental portraits of Fath 'Ali Shah are recorded and published as follows:

1. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, 1810-1820, sold in these rooms 11 October 2006, lot 50.
2. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, circa 1805, sold in these rooms 12 October 2004, lot 21.
3. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, dated 1798-99: British Library, London, Oriental and India Office collections, inv.no.F116 (formerly in the commonwealth Relations Office); Raby, 1999, no.110, pp.38-39.
4. Fath 'Ali Shah seated on a chair, circa 1800-1806; Musée du Louvre, Paris, MV638 (on loan from the Musée National de Versailles); Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.38, pp.181-2.
5. Fath 'Ali Shah standing, dated 1809-10; State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, VR-1108; Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.39, p.183.
6. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, dated 1813-14; State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, VR-1108; Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.40, pp.184-5.
7. Fath 'Ali Shah standing, dated 1813; Sadabad Museum of Fine Arts, Tehran (formerly in the Negaristan Museum); Falk 1972, no.15, Keikavusi, no.8, 8a.
8. Fath 'Ali Shah standing in armour, dated 1814-15; Art and History Trust Collection, on loan at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington D.C., LTS1995.2.122; Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.41. pp.185-186, Soudavar, 1992, no.158, pp.388-9.
9. Fath 'Ali Shah seated on a chair, dated 1815; sold in these rooms London, 3 May 2001, lot 69.
10. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, dated 1810; private collection; Sotheby's, London 26 April 1991, lot 186.
11. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, circa 1810; private collection; Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.42. pp.187-8.
12. Fath 'Ali Shah seated against a bolster, circa 1810; private collection; Robinson, 1964, pl.XXXVI.
13. Fath 'Ali Shah seated, circa 1798; private collection; Sotheby's, New York, 30 May 1986, lot 118, Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, no.37, pp.180-1.

It is interesting to observe the common features in these portraits. In eight portraits Fath 'Ali Shah is seated on the ground on a jewelled rug against a jewelled bolster; in two he is seated on a chair; in three he is standing. In eleven he is dressed in state ceremonial regalia, and in two he is dressed in a martial costume of jewelled armour. In nine his headdress is of the familiar pointed jewelled crown (as in the present example); in two he wears a jewelled metal helmet, and in two he wears a cloth turban in Zandi style with jewelled features (these are both by Mirza Baba and are the earliest of the group). Several objects depicted in the present example are common to other portraits. A jewelled sword (a symbol of state) appears in nine others. A jewelled mace (another symbol of state) appears in six others. A jewelled orb (a further symbol of state) appears in only one other. A jewelled dagger, fastened behind his girdle, appears in all twelve others. A short jewelled bottle (at lower right in the present portrait) appears in four others. A tall jewelled bottle is unique to one portrait. The pose and costume of Fath 'Ali Shah in the present work closely resembles that in a manuscript of the Diwan-i Khaqan, painted by Mirza Baba in 1802 (Royal Library, Windsor (Holmes Ms.A/4 RCIN1005020), see Raby, 1999, no.111, pp.40, 42).

Many of these objects, and much of his dress and other accoutrements, were symbols of power and were obvious visual aspects of the iconography of royal authority. Their repeated use in this series of portraits was part of the political message that these images carried. The compositions and royal iconography bring to mind earlier traditions of royal portraiture, both oriental, including Sassanian rock-cut reliefs at Taq-i Bustan and other sites, medieval Persian miniature painting, early seventeenth century Mughal royal portraiture (see Beach, 1981, cat.nos. 17a, 17b, 17c, pp.74,78,78), and western, such as the large-scale oil portraits of the English monarchs Queen Elizabeth I (see Hearn, nos.43, 45) and Charles I (Hearn, no.142), all of whom were intensely occupied by ideas of empire and the politics of foreign affairs.

It is difficult to attribute this portrait to a particular artist, however there is a close comparison between this and one attributed to Mirza Baba by Diba and Ekhtiar (see Diba and Ekhtiar 1998, no.37, p.180). In both portraits the artist exhibits virtuoso tendencies that break from the artistic norm. In Diba and Ekhtiar's portrait Fath 'Ali Shah is most unusually depicted casting a shadow, a feature that is not found in any of his other portraits. The salient shared detail here is the foreshortening of the figure itself, with broad shoulders and wide arms; this apparently mannerist treatment is infact a trompe l'oueil to be seen from below, an unusual and original trait for a Qajar painting. Other, later, portraits tend to show the Shah with almost disproportionately narrow shoulders and elongated arms and torso. Another feature that suggests an early date for this painting is the crown Fath 'Ali wears, with its three feathers in line with the court fashion early in his reign. Further indication of an early date is the high detail in the jewel studs of the Shah's robe, the faceted diamonds are modelled in light and shade in the manner of Mirza Baba and the early Qajar style. In addition, a practical rather than aesthetic indication is the visible line of stitching down the left hand section of the painting. There are areas of enormous artistic strength, the sensitively rendered hands, the facetted jewels, the foreshoretening of the body, all these point to the hand of a master. Yet there are admittedly areas of weakness in the painting, the sketchy background for instance; suggesting a collaboration of artists, in this case, it is likely to be Mirza Baba and an anonymous artist, or artists, of the court workshop; providing a fascinating insight into the production of court portraits.

The large-scale court portraits of Fath 'Ali Shah were produced for a definite political purpose. The intention must have been to actively demonstrate to the Iranians, and especially to foreign ambassadors, monarchs and governments, the majesty, wealth, grandeur and power of the Iranian monarch and, by extension, Iran. To this end, many of these portraits were sent abroad with emissaries who had visited the Persian court, to be presented to their respective rulers to convey the superiority of the Persian emperor. The majority were sent westwards to European nations and this reflected the international political situation in Iran at the time, with Britain, France and Russia all competing for influence at Fath 'Ali Shah's court. The portrait now in the British Library was presented via Lord Wellesley to the Court of the Directors of the East India Company in 1806; another was sent to the Prince Regent (later King George IV) in 1812 along with an illustrated manuscript of the Diwan-i Khaqan (Fath 'Ali Shah's own poetry), which is now in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle (see Raby, 1999, p.40); the portrait now in the Musée  Nationale de Versailles was sent to Napoleon via the French envoy Amédée Jaubert in 1806; the two portraits in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, were formerly in the Gatchina Palace Museum and were almost certainly sent as politically loaded gifts to the Tsar.

Fath 'Ali Shah was the second ruler of the Qajar dynasty.  Born in 1771, he succeeded his uncle Agha Muhammad in 1797, and reigned until his death in 1834. This was a time of enormous change both at home and abroad. The European powers were competing for the riches of the east and associated trade, and were keen to foster political and commercial ties in the Middle East and South and East Asia. Furthermore, Britain, France and almost all the other countries of Europe were engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, which lent a military and strategic significance to their potential alliances in the East. The competition among the foreign powers for influence at Fath 'Ali's court is illustrated by the case of the envoy Sir Harford Jones's visit to Iran in 1809-11. The Persians, having received no support from the British in repelling Russian attacks in the Caucasus, concluded the treaty of Finkenstein with the French in 1807. The British reacted with alarm and simultaeneously sent two envoys to Persia - Sir Harford Jones from London and General Sir John Malcolm from India. These two, and subsequent envoys, managed to repair most of the damage caused by earlier neglect, and thereafter the competition between France and Britain in Iran was more evenly balanced. The attentions that the foreign powers paid to Fath 'Ali Shah were highly flattering to him, as well as being politically necessary, and they fanned the flames of his vanity. They were a welcome contrast to some of the domestic failures of his reign, which saw him lose a good deal of territory to the Russians in the Caucasus, and most of the eastern dominions in Central Asia.  The present portrait and the others in the series are a result, both politically and artistically, of this combination of factors: his vanity, which led to artistic patronage and especially to portraiture of his own image; the local political scene, for which he needed to convey the image of unquestionable power, strength, majesty and the glory of the monarchy to his own people; the international political situation, for which he needed to project a similar official image, and also his representation of the nation of Persia and its monarch in the international arena. However, vanity and politics aside, it is worth remembering that these portraits of Fath 'Ali Shah were also accurate representations of the person and splendour of the king; of how he actually looked and what he actually wore. The following account is interesting in relation to these portraits:

"The court of Persia is one of the most magnificent and splendid in the world, and the greatest ceremony is used on the presentation of a person of rank to his majesty Futteh Ali Shah, the Shadow of God upon Earth...the king, covered with jewels of a costly description, wearing on his head the Taj or crown...sitting on a throne richly carved and studded with precious stones, and his back supported by an embroidered pillow. His beard, the admiration and delight of his people, descends to his girdle; on his arms he wears two large diamonds called the Mountain of Light and the Sea of Splendour, and when the sun's rays fall upon him it is impossible to look on the Threshold of the World's Glory with any steadiness." (From the caption to The Court of Persia, printed in 1834 by Robert Havell, London).

Further discussions:

Diba and Ekhtiar, 1998, pp.30-49, 174-188
Falk, 1972, pp.22-24, 34-39
Guadalupi (ed.), 1990, pp.67-71