Persia’s fashion-obsessed Fath ’Ali Shah — and a few of his 250 sons

A group portrait of 24 of the 19th-century ruler’s sons and grandsons, which once adorned a Qajar royal palace, debuts at auction on 1 April. Specialists Sara Plumbly and Behnaz Atighi Moghaddam discuss the opulent era from which it emerged

‘I had never before beheld anything like such perfect majesty,’ wrote the artist-diplomat Sir Robert Ker Porter. ‘He was a blaze of jewels, which literally dazzled the sight… A lofty tiara of three elevations was on his head… composed of thickly-set diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds… His vesture was gold tissue, and crossing the shoulders were two strings of pearls, probably the largest in the world.’

The subject of Ker Porter’s awe was the Persian ruler Fath ’Ali Shah, whom he’d met in 1818 at Golestan Palace in Tehran. The Scotsman was on a drawing trip through Persia (modern Iran) and Mesopotamia (Iraq), and had arrived in Tehran for the New Year celebrations known as Norouz, held every March to mark the spring equinox.

Ker Porter, who wrote up his travel memoirs on returning to Britain, was one of a number of European visitors welcomed to Fath ’Ali Shah’s Tehran court. All of them were struck by its pomp, opulence and elaborate protocol.

The Shah had set himself the task of matching the glories of Persia’s famous ancient dynasties, the Achaemenids and the Sasanians. In the Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds sale on 1 April, one of the most remarkable glories of his reign comes to Christie’s.

Fath ’Ali Shah assumed the Persian throne in 1797, aged 24, succeeding his much-feared uncle, Agha Mohammad Shah. Agha Mohammad had been castrated as a youth by enemies in the then-ruling Afsharid dynasty and spent the rest of his life taking out bloody vengeance on anyone who crossed him. He ordered that the men of one rebellious province, for example, be blinded and their severed eyeballs brought before him. It’s said he stopped counting at 20,000.

Agha Mohammad eventually overcame the Afsharids and other rivals, founded the Qajar dynasty, and was crowned Shah of Iran in 1796. Little more than a year later, however, he was assassinated by two of his servants. Fath ’Ali Shah duly became the second Qajar ruler.

Mihr ‘Ali, Portrait of Fath ’Ali Shah Standing, 1810. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo Fine Art ImagesHeritage ImagesScala, Florence

Mihr ‘Ali, Portrait of Fath ’Ali Shah Standing, 1810. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Scala, Florence

He chose to call himself ‘Shahanshah’ (King of Kings), reviving the ancient title of Achaemenid leaders such as Darius the Great.

His 37-year reign would bring the domestic peace that had eluded Persia for most of the 18th century — as well as a cultural flowering. He himself was a capable poet and sent many books of verse to foreign royals (such as this copy of his Divan  presented to the future George IV in London).

Another British visitor to Tehran, Edward Scott Waring, observed that the Shah had ‘revived a taste for literature so scandalously neglected by his predecessors. He is a man of considerable taste and erudition.’

It is for visual art, however, that Fath ’Ali Shah’s rule is most renowned. He was well aware of its value in self-promotion.

He ended up fathering more than 250 sons, helping ensure Qajar succession long after he was gone. These sons and their descendants would form the core of the aristocracy that dominated their country until the Ayatollah’s Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Art was a way for Fath ’Ali Shah to stress that he possessed the potency and masculinity his uncle had lacked. He commissioned countless depictions of himself, including rock reliefs carved alongside earlier examples of the Sasanian rulers (from the 2nd to the 7th century AD) in places such as Taq-e Bostan.

The Shah had conventional portraits of himself executed, too: oil paintings invariably showing him as young, slim and heavily bearded. Some were placed in royal palaces; others were sent as diplomatic gifts abroad and can be found today in museums such as the Louvre, the Hermitage and the Victoria and Albert.

Fath ’Ali Shah and his sons, central group, reduced copy of the great mural by Abdallah Khan formerly in the Negaristan Palace, 1816-1820. Watercolour and gold on paper. Photo © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved  Bridgeman Images

Fath ’Ali Shah and his sons, central group, reduced copy of the great mural by Abdallah Khan formerly in the Negaristan Palace, 1816-1820. Watercolour and gold on paper. Photo: © British Library Board. All Rights Reserved / Bridgeman Images

More striking still was another type of portraiture altogether.

Fath ’Ali Shah commissioned a number of murals for his palaces in and around Tehran. These consisted of battle, enthronement or hunting scenes, all featuring the life-size ruler at the centre.

Sadly, most of those palaces would be pulled down by the turn of the 20th century, meaning that precious few of their murals survive — and those that do are only in fragments or copies.

In 1812-13, for example, the Shah’s naqqash-bashi (painter in chief), Abdallah Khan, produced a magnificent enthronement scene for the reception hall of Negarestan Palace. It depicted a Norouz gathering at the Persian court. An enthroned Fath ’Ali Shah dominated the central wall, attended by 12 of his sons, while long lines of nobles, courtiers, guards and others were depicted on two flanking walls.

The original work is now lost, but a full-scale copy hangs in Golestan Palace Museum in Tehran.

The highly esteemed Abdallah Khan was also responsible for the work coming to Christie’s: a panel from another tripartite mural that decorated the main hall of a Qajar palace. Like the example from Negarestan, it depicted a Norouz ceremony with an enthroned Fath ’Ali Shah at the centre.

Abdallah Khan and his assistants painted it in an unknown palace shortly after 1810. The main image of the Shah (probably surrounded by his eldest sons) has been lost, though panels from the left- and right-hand walls came to the art market in 1973 and 1975 respectively. The former is now part of a private collection, the latter owned by the Saadabad Museum in Tehran.

It’s a second panel from the right-hand wall that is being offered at Christie’s. It depicts 24 of Fath ’Ali Shah’s sons and grandsons, arranged by age and rank into three rows of eight.

Their features are idealised, intended to complement the handsome figure of the Shah. The more mature princes (on the top row) are bearded and wear crowns, while the younger princes (on the bottom two rows) are clean-shaven and wear turbans. All 24 are dressed in exquisitely rendered, brilliantly coloured ceremonial attire, with rich gold detailing of the armlets, epaulettes, crowns, daggers and swords.

‘The painting is of outstanding quality and a discovery of huge importance… You stand in sheer awe before these majestic figures looking down on you’ — specialist Sara Plumbly

This imparts an air of luxury, evoking the splendours of the Shah’s court. The princes stand to attention, arms crossed in a gesture of allegiance and submission, their gaze directed towards the great patriarch on the wall to their right.

‘The painting is of outstanding quality and a discovery of huge importance,’ says Sara Plumbly, head of the Islamic & Indian Art department at Christie’s. ‘The huge Qajar masterpiece of which it formed part was painted by the great artist of his day for one of his ruler’s great palaces. You stand in sheer awe before these majestic figures looking down on you.’

The panel comes to the market for the first time in 100 years. It was last purchased exactly a century ago, in 1921 at auction in New York, by the US painter and collector Frederic Clay Bartlett. Like many royal treasures, it had been sent for sale in the West after the destruction of Persian palaces in the second half of the 19th century.

Bartlett’s main interest was actually Post-Impressionist art, and the Qajar painting seems to have been something of an outlier in his collection. It’s believed that part of its attraction was that, in his own art, he often worked on murals.

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He installed the work in Bonnet House, his newly built home on the South Florida oceanfront in Fort Lauderdale, alongside his own paintings and others by his third wife, Evelyn. It was given pride of place in his studio for the rest of his life.

Bartlett died in 1953, and his widow Evelyn gave the property to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation 30 years later.

Today it is maintained for the enjoyment and education of the public as Bonnet House Museum & Gardens. The sale of the Qajar painting is part of a bid to secure the institution’s future. Though long admired by visitors, the work was unknown to experts in Persian art — until now.