More royalty required: on the al-Sabah Collection

The non-courtly manuscripts and miniatures of the al-Sabah Collection come together in a new publication


The al-Sabah Collection is noted for its glittering historic jewels and objets d’art from India and the wider Islamic world. Assembled by Kuwait’s former prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Sabah, together with Sheikha Hussah Sabah, his wife and founder of the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah collection (1983) and Dar Al Funoon gallery (1992), it might come as a surprise to know they were also concerned with the arts of the book and painting. Seventh in the Thames and Hudson series showcasing aspects of the collection, the authors, Adel Adamova and Manijeh Bayani introduce in their book, Persian Painting: the Arts of the Book and Portraiture, a total of 41 manuscripts, bindings, detached paintings and drawings representing the “long history and wide artistic scope of Persian painting”.

Persian Painting opens with Sheikh Nasser’s brief foreword, followed by acknowledgements of the contributors, including the late Basil Robinson, Sergei Tourkin, Robert Skelton and John Seyller, leading lights in the field of Persian and Indian painting, codicology and the study of seals, or sphragistics. The volume is organised into four chapters of unusually detailed essays on artefacts clustered under dynastic and periodic headings, rather than style and school.

Chapter one illustrates the cultural latitude permitted by the term “Persian”, defined as going “outside the boundaries of modern Iran”. Indeed, the first manuscript is neither Iranian, nor in the Persian language, being a lavishly illuminated Qur’an from late 11th-century Afghanistan. Along with another Qur’an (cat. 5), such manuscripts in Arabic are isolated examples.

The second chapter (cat. 5-14) moves from the “early” period, spanning almost three centuries, to the century and a half following the Mongol invasion (1219-21). Given the cosmopolitan circumstances facilitating the synthesis of local styles and Chinese motifs, the Mongol court appears not to have had a monopoly over the patronage of painting. Much of this chapter therefore focuses on provincial art from successive rival dynasties (mainly Injuid and Muzaffarid).

This decentred approach continues into the third chapter (cat. 15-21). Although named after the 14th- and 15th-century Timurids, most artefacts are attributed to their western Turkman rivals (Qara-qoyunlu and Aq-qoyunlu dynasties).

The fourth and final chapter is the lengthiest (cat. 22-41). Spanning almost four centuries, it discusses the Safavids (1501-1736) and the many dynasties that followed. Of the 20 items, little is directly attributed to Safavid royal patronage, focusing primarily on provincial and commercial production. The two centuries following the Safavids are covered by only two artefacts (cat. 40-41). Within the Safavid period, Jami’s Subhat al-Abrar (cat. 29) is identified as Uzbek, while an album painting, indifferently attributed to Mughal India, stretches the authors’ definition of Persian art to its limits.

Despite Adamova and Bayani’s efforts to explain their reliance on imperial dynastic designations, the volume is generally devoted to the non-courtly productions that give the collectors the “greatest gratification”.  While narrowly court-centred approaches can hardly be considered representative of the whole of Persian painting, the collectors’ decentred approach is equally unsuited to fulfilling professed objectives. In reality, Adamova and Bayani’s dynastic periodisation and court-centred discussions are left without appropriately refined examples to catalogue. Nevertheless, the authors do their best to supplement the collection’s lacunae with comprehensive summaries, robust analyses, and helpful citations. Their “archaeological” approach to artefacts, seen in the mass of seal and provenance data, is commendable, as are two addenda (cat. 22 and 29) and the manuscript documentation section.

On the other hand, the “Persian and Arabic Indices” might have been better formulated as a glossary of terms, rather than the present omnium gatherum for miscellaneous transcriptions. Given the Persian context, many transcriptions inexplicably Arabicise straightforward Persian inscriptions (frequently overusing ta’ marbutah), while occasionally misreading difficult numerical annotations (raqm/siyaq) and the sigla of Persian palaeography. Arguably, the volume suffers from the absence of systematic romanised transliteration, leading to the irregular rendition of names, toponyms and terms (Khamsah, nameh, al-Qazwini/Qazvini, Omid, ‘Umar, Bayg/Beg, etc).

Lacking the finer royal commissions and works by great masters found in other private and public collections, there is much scope for developing Persian art in the al-Sabah Collection further. Nonetheless, the authors have excellently presented their sensitive and erudite study in ways accessible to students and valuable for specialists.

• Saqib Baburi is the Iran Heritage Foundation curator of Persian Manuscripts at the British Library and a member of its Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project

Persian Painting: the Arts of the Book and Portraiture

Adel T. Adamova

and Manijeh Bayani

Thames and Hudson, 552pp, £40 (hb)


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