Mirza Abu'l Hassan Khan was sent to the Court of King George III by Fath Ali, Shah of Persia, in 1809, to ensure the smooth passage of a treaty of alliance between the two countries. During his seven months in London, between December 1809 and July 1810, Abu'l Hassan aroused considerable fascination and his portrait was painted by some of the leading artists of the day. Among the artists for whom he sat were Sir Thomas Lawrence (Fogg Art Museum, Harvard Museum, Cambridge, Mass.) and Sir William Beechey. These portraits evoke a fascinating episode in Britain's early relations with the Middle East.
Beechey is recorded to have painted two portraits of the sitter. The first a full-length, commissioned by the East India Company (29 January 1810, cited in M.M. Cloake, op.cit, p.121) and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1810 (no.42). It hung in the Finance Committee Room of East India House and was subsequently transferred to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the India Office, Whitehall. It now hangs on loan in a private office of the Ministry of Defence. The present picture seems likely to be the previously untraced second portrait by Beechey exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1811 (no.99), which is thought to be the 'half-length' format portrait that appeared in the Beechey sale at Christie's on 11 June 1836 (lot 60), and was last recorded in the Beechey sale at Rainy's on 19 July 1836 (lot 28).
The present portrait, in contrast to the full-length, was the result of a personal request from Beechey for a portrait to exhibit at the Royal Academy; as Abu'l Hassan makes explicit in his diplomatic diary:
'his [Beechey's] own reward would be my coming to the studio so that he could paint my portrait for the exhibition. He hoped that the public would be so pleased with an Iranian figure that they would increase their donations - and at the same time increase his reputation ... So I stayed for a while and that skilful artist made a rapid sketch.' (8 March 1810, cited in M.M. Cloake, op.cit, p.162).
Abu'l Hassan had recorded his delight at visiting Beechey's studio at 13 Harley Street, one street west of Abu'l Hassan's house in Mansfield Street, for the sitting for the full-length earlier that year:
'the walls were hung with paintings of animals and birds and fairy creatures, and with canvases of all sizes portraying men of distinction. The house was decorated with mirrors and furniture of ebony: truly, it was a charming and cheerful home. Sir William Beechey received us with great courtesy and hospitality. He introduced his thirteen children, pretty as shining stars, and each one modestly greeted me in the English fashion...He [Beechey] said he would be delighted to have the opportunity of conversing with me while he painted. The rooms pleased me so much that I readily agreed' (29 January 1810, cited in M.M. Cloake, op.cit, p.121).
Roberts referred to the full-length portrait as 'the original' (W. Roberts, op.cit, p.116) and Millard, in turn, supposed that the 'half-length' was 'presumably copied after the full-length... and the dress in both would have been the same' (C.W. Millard, op.cit, p.121). It is clear from the above diary entry, however, that Beechey requested a second sitting for the 'half-length', the full-length already having been delivered to the East India Company. Interestingly, the costume and the pose of the sitter in the present portrait are close to that in a miniature portrait of Abu'l Hassan by Lady Beechey (Private Collection; C.W. Millard, op.cit, p.120, fig.5) (fig.1), who seems likely to have based her portrait on her husband's 'half-length' portrait.
As early as 1804, Persia had sought help from Great Britain against continuous encroachments from Russia. Denied Britain's support, she had turned to France and, in 1807, secured help from Napoleon's government in the Treaty of Finkenstein. Alert to the potential dangers posed by an alliance between Persia and France, the British Foreign Office sent Sir Harford Jones to meet with the Persian Government. The Shah of Persia, who had come to the realisation of France's powerlessness to fulfil its pledges, willingly accepted assistance from Great Britain and, early in 1809, renounced the Treaty of Finkenstein and entered into negotiations with Britain. Among other things, it was agreed that a British Ambassador would be sent to Persia. Abu'l Hassan was appointed by the Shah to travel to Great Britain to assist with negotiations and ensure the final sanctioning of an Anglo-Persian Treaty. While receiving the privileges and honours of an ambassador, Abu'l Hassan was in fact appointed as Vakil (deputy, Charge d'Affairés). James Morier (1782-1849), Secretary to Sir Harford Jones, who accompanied Abu'l Hassan from Tehran, referred to him as an 'Envoy Extraordinary' (J. Morier, Journey, p.viii, cited in C.W. Millard, op.cit, p.121), while the English Government gave him the title of 'Minister Plenipotentiary'. Sir Gore Ouseley (1770-1840) was assigned his mehmander, combining the functions of host, guide and translator.
As the first Persian of ambassadorial status to visit London in almost two hundred years, Abu'l Hassan quickly became a source of fascination. In addition to his official meetings with Government Ministers and East India Company officials, Abu'l Hassan was entertained by many leading figures of the day; parties were thrown in his honour by the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Royal Dukes. Morier commented that Abu'l Hassan was 'distinguished, during his stay in England, by attentions more marked and continued than, perhaps, were ever paid to any foreigner' (J. Morier, Journey, p.viii, cited in C.W. Millard, op.cit, p.115). Another contemporary, Charles Lamb, noted that 'The Persian Ambassador is the principal thing talked of now' (Charles Lamb writing to Thomas Manning, 2 January 1810, cited in C.W. Millard, op.cit, p.115). Hassan's movements and 'peculiar' foreign habits were reported in social columns in daily newspapers.
The Foreign Office finally agreed to the terms of the Treaty in March 1810 and chose Sir Gore Ouseley as the first British Ambassador to the Court of the Shah of Persia. He and Abu'l Hassan, along with James Morier, as Secretary to the Embassy, set off for Persia in July 1810, arriving in November of the following year. On arrival in Tehran, Abu'l Hassan was honoured with the title of Khan by the Shah, in recognition of the crucial role that he had played in negotiating the Treaty.
On his return to Persia, Abu'l Hassan Khan was appointed signatory to the Treaty of Gulistan and then ambassador to Russia, a post held between 1815 and 1817. He made a second trip to Great Britain from 1819 to 1820 and, on his return to Persia, became first Persian Minister of Foreign Affairs. As Millard makes clear, however: 'The highest peak of his career, by far, in adventure if not in importance, was his visit to London in 1809-10' (C.W. Millard, op.cit, p.119).
Sir William Beechey, who had trained at the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, first exhibited at the Academy in 1776, becoming an Associate in 1793 and a full Academician in 1798. Beechey was patronised by the royal family and received a knighthood for his painting A Review of the Horse Guard with King George III and the Prince of Wales (London, Royal Academy) in 1798. He went on to paint The Prince of Wales (1798, London, Royal Academy) and Queen Adelaide (c.1831, London, National Portrait Gallery). By the time of Abu'l Hassan's sitting in 1810, Beechey had established a reputation as one of the foremost portraitists of the day.