PROPERTY FROM A PERSIAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
The following is a translation of de Hell's account:
"Today we were visited by the most celebrated painter of Persia, who has been deaf and dumb for about forty years. As an example of his work he brought us a pen-box covered with paintings; the subject was Hell and Paradise. The execution was extremely fine, and the composition gave evidence of a somewhat erotic imagination. Paradise is represented by a group of men and women abandoning themselves to the eternal delights which await the true believers in Muhammed’s paradise, whilst Hell shows numerous devils and serpents tormenting the damned in the midst of a whirlpool of flame. So far as their fineness of execution goes, these are true miniatures. This pen-box is unfinished, and will eventually bear on one of its sides a scene from the life of Napoleon I, after a French picture."
This description is too full and detailed to leave any doubt of identification with the present penbox. It was exhibited in Cairo in 1935, from the collection of Naus Bey, a Belgian resident in 1935, and is described under P.87 in Gaston Wiet’s catalogue of the exhibition. Wiet did not connect the piece the piece with Hommaire de Hell.
The original artist has painted the scenes of Heaven and Hell on the top and the Napoleonic battle on one side. The second artist, Ism’ail Jalayir, has painted the scene of the battle of Herat on one side and the two youths and massed flowers on the base, which are typical of his very individual style. The inscription on the base reads:
'This penbox is known as the work of the late beloved Painter Laureate; two of its surfaces, representing Heaven and Hell, and Napoleon in battle, are his; the remainder he left unfinished. This remainder, on which the Herat campaign is depicted, is on this surface, and a further target has been achieved. Painted by the slave, the painter recorded as Jalayir (this name is in very small writing, just above the main text) on Sunday 8th of the month of Sha’ban.'
No year is given, but the most likely one, in which the 8 Sha’ban fell on a Sunday, is 1296, and the date corresponds to 17 May 1853. No other painted lacquer by Jalayir is recorded, and this must be an early work. He is well known as a painter in oils and miniature during the 1860s (see Schulz, Miniaturemalerie, Vol I, Taf.F; Ataba’I, Gulistan Imperial Library Catalogue: Albums, p.386; Victoria and Albert Museum, no.P.56-1941). See also his painting of Mirza 'Ali Asghar Khan, included in this sale as lot 127.
The identity of the deaf and dumb Painter Laureate (naqqash-bashi) who showed the pen-box to Hommaire de Hell has long been a mystery. Until relatively recently it was thought possible to be Mulla Najaf, perhaps added by Isma’il Jalayir, may have been a clue. But the style of this painting is quite unlike Najaf’s usual work and he is not known to have borne the title naqqash-bashi. However, Robinson identified the Painter Laureate as Muhammed Hasan Ashfar (Robinson 1989, p.142), so that the inscription Mulla Najaf is not relevant to the identity. A point worth noting is that it is inscribed on the part of the design representing Hell, just above a figure dressed as a mulla, who is receiving particularly unpleasant attentions from the attendant demons. It may thus be a topical illusion, and so, insoluble to us.
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