Sunday, 23 September 2018

To Bath and Beyond

Having visited our older daughter in Bristol, we stopped in Bath the other day, to see a tiny exhibition at the Holburne Museum. I did not know, last time I went there, that the Holburne Museum used to be a hotel. It is a lovely building and some say that Jane Austen could see it from her window in Great Pulteney Street (a street on which William Wilberforce also stayed, although the Bath portrayed in Austen's waspish novels doesn't allow the presence of such well-intentioned souls as he).

The exhibition we went to see is being shown in a small upstairs room. It displays things a woman called Ellen Tanner brought back from what essentially seems to have been a series of shopping trips to the Middle East in the late 1890s.

Miss Tanner, who was born in Frenchay, near Bristol, cared for her father - who was a "wealthy attorney-at-law with shipping interests" - for many years, as her mother had died when she was still a child. When Miss Tanner's father eventually died, she was left with an inheritance of £18,000. She was in her late 40s and she "discovered a love of travel", as the catalogue puts it. 

According to the museum, in 1894 she set off from Victoria Station for Marseilles, from whence she took a merchant steamer through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf  to Baghdad and then rode a horse across country into Persia, accompanied by local guides and staying in caravenserais (what are caravanserais?) on the way. Apparently she used as a guide a book called "Persia and the Persian Question", written by George Curzon and published in 1892. Although this meant she had to carry two large volumes, she did so for her whole 7000-mile journey.

This photograph, taken by Herbert Sykes, (a friend of Miss Tanner's, I seem to remember??) in 1903, is called The Europeans at Yazd, and Miss Tanner is sitting at the little table covered with a white cloth, talking to the man in white shoes (she is fifth from the left). Compared to the giggling Gerties to her right, she strikes me as rather fine. I wonder if the dogs belonged to the Europeans or were local strays.

Tea at Nasrullah Khan's house, with Miss Tanner on the left. While here Miss Tanner is dressed as a westerner, the catalogue explains that quite a lot of the time while travelling she adopted the Persian chador, a head-to-foot cover of black silk or black glazed calico. She describes putting "on my disguising Persian clothes, as I wanted to explore Yezdikhast without being crowded round by the curious inhabitants ... doubtless the people perceived I was a Ferringhee -foreigner- from the walk, as I cannot attain to the Persian shuffle; but being veiled duly, and bundled up in the chador, and full baggy trousers all Persian women wear, I presented nothing to shock and astonish their eyes, and passed unimpeded on my way". When she was dressed in a Western manner, as in this photograph, Miss Tanner's own appearance did not go unremarked; she describes "women .. chattering among themselves and pointing to the fashion of my garments as a marvel, and as I doubt not, a scandal, for I was in a cotton shirt and dark skirt, and on my head had a rather battered old sailor hat, with a blue gossamer veil to protect my eyes from the sun and dust." She in turn when taken by a hospitable hostess into the anderuns (women's area of the house) was shocked by "the anderun dress of Persian women of the upper class", which she deemed "ugly, and indecent, being an exaggerated ballet costume." I don't know at what stage in Miss Tanner's travels this picture was taken but by the time she had finished her wanderings she had apparently lost three stone.

Miss Tanner did not always travel alone but also with friends. She knew people in the Foreign Office and was therefore able to stay at British delegations from time to time - but she was also happy to stay in a tent. She kept a diary, which is held in the Bristol Museum. My favourite quote from it is her description of Baghdad:

" we came in sight of Baghdad, it looked like a fairy city with the palm-fringed river, orange gardens, the houses on the waterside like Venice, and all her mosques and minarets gleaming in the yellow evening sunlight."

Talk about poignant. She also wrote:

"The palm-fringed banks, the shipping, the creeks and above all the dazzling sun-light of Bussorah (Basra) charmed me."

Of course, the museum curators want to observe the current pieties and point out that the things Miss Tanner brought back are not just things but:

1. "reminders of Britain's less than exemplary past involvement in international affairs" and "the fragility of "cultural heritage; and

2. objects that give us a chance to "celebrate" (dreaded word) the "extraordinary artistic and cultural output of the Islamic world".

In similar vein, while grudgingly admitting that Miss Tanner did not actively steal what she brought home, ("Although Tanner paid for the items she acquired"), they label her "an appropriator of Persian artistic culture", as they think that she bought some tiles that may have been removed from historic buildings Iran. Leaving aside the question of whether she herself had any idea of the possibly dodgy provenance of the tiles she bought, there is also a debate to be had over whether whatever she brought home would have survived in situ or whether it might long since have been plundered or destroyed in the Iranian revolution and the years since then. On the one occasion when she did souvenir some tiles without payment, it does appear from her account that, had she not done so, they would have been lost to posterity anyway:

"...from the ruined palace adjoining the Aineh-Khaneh", she writes, "I abstracted three tiles from a small inner chamber leading into the bath. I was ashamed of myself for this act of vandalism, but it seemed to me, seeing how these beautiful tiles were suffered to fall off and lie neglected on the ground, that they would be better appreciated by me than the Persians."

Of course, the Englishwoman is making quite a few assumptions there, but our current tendency to rush to judgment on our predecessors does seem to me to be very one-sided. It is possible that she has a point, that the culture that produced the tiles had, at the moment when she was visiting, run down to the extent that the fine things created in earlier times were no longer being appreciated or cared for. While her action was still wrong, it is not quite as reprehensible as the curators want us to believe - more human error than imperial pillaging, I would say.

The curators also highlight what they call Miss Tanner's "extraordinarily superior and dismissive" attitude to the foreign cultures she observes, providing the following examples to support their case:

1. She referred to "the terrible immorality of the Persians";

2. "When being taken around Kermanshah by Hadji Adur Rhamann, a cultured ex-diplomat who served in London and Europe, she writes:

'I really pitied the poor man, trotting me round in this manner. Of course to the oriental mind one is mad to move about in the heat of the day, and go hither and thither looking at antiquities and places of no interest to the native'"

To my eye there is nothing at all superior or dismissive in this, apart from a sense of self-dismissive shame that such an eminent person should have to bother with her. Miss Tanner expresses embarrassment because she, with her trivial pursuits, is wasting the time of such a distinguished figure - but I suppose the phrase 'oriental mind' and mention of the word 'native' are enough to set off hypersensitive alarm bells. The curators mention elsewhere in the catalogue that Miss Tanner also was swept away by the kindness and hospitality of all she met, but somehow her appreciative words are no kind of mitigation for her sin of being western:

"Never by any possibility could I experience greater or more delightful hospitality and kindness than I met with in Persia"

3. "She describes with typical frankness her attitude to religions she is not fully engaged with:

'I am told it is far better to profess Christianity in Persia than to be a Suni Mahommedan, as the Persians are bigoted Shiahs, and regard the Sunis much as an extreme ritualist of the Anglican Church does an evangelical or a dissenter'".

Surely drawing a direct analogy with her own religious culture is actually a sign of egalitarianism - Miss Tanner does not describe the religious traditions in the countries through which she travels as being lower than her own, but parallel with. But the trigger word for the sensitive curators here is probably 'bigoted', even though I think it would be hard to argue that there are no sectarian divisions between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims in the area about which she writes. The truth is that she was an enthusiastic admirer of the beauty produced by Islamic culture, which is why she collected so many things to take home. As she notes in her diary, while in Baghdad "an enlightened Mahomedan gentleman close by [took me to] his roof top from [where] we looked over the Mosque, which for beauty I still think the finest I have ever seen, so exquisite are its proportions." You don't describe the product of a civilisation you despise as "exquisite".

But sadly, as happens so often these days, the people in charge of the exhibition see the world from a very particular contemporary perspective, wherein cultures other than their own Judaeo Christian one are to be praised, while their own cannot be condemned firmly enough. If, by chance, some aspect of a foreign culture is impossible to frame as positive, any criticism will ideally be couched in an understanding that the unacceptable cultural flaw is somehow the result of the pernicious earlier interventions of the west. In this way of looking at things, Judaeo- Christian culture has done almost nothing positive but has trampled and damaged other cultures wherever it has gone. I think sometimes of the impressive and highly original essay about living in Saudi Arabia with which Hilary Mantel won the inaugural Shiva Naipaul prize; in it, Mantel describes her attempts to embrace the culture in which she found herself living and her final acceptance that she could not, that some cultures are not worth embracing. I wonder if it would still be a prizewinner - or even published - in today's climate.

As for the concept of autre temps, autre moeurs, that has evaporated into thin air. Modern preoccupations elbow out any allowances for earlier, different perspectives.

Never mind: plundered or purchased fairly and squarely, here are the things I particularly want to "celebrate" from my visit to the exhibition:

These tiles are displayed at the entrance to the exhibition. They are 17th century and the label tells us that "the design with simplified carnations and cypress trees is a provincial version of Ottoman Iznik patterns". They bear inscriptions related to Islam. I don't find them especially beautiful but they make me sad as they were made in Damascus, and I doubt today's situation would allow such civilised pursuits as decorative ceramic tile making, more is the pity.

I think the chief appeal of this box for me is the fact that it is made of pear wood, although I do appreciate of course that the carving is exquisite, if you like that kind of thing.
Box, carved pear wood, Iran (Abadeh) 19th century - the decoration copies bas-reliefs at Persepolis

I did not note down what this was but, as the scene looks faintly saucy, I wonder if it is from Shiraz, as Miss Tanner noted in her diary "The regulation length of a fashionable woman's skirt in Shiraz is the span of the wearer's hand and the width of her four fingers laid together and judging from those I saw, I quite believed it. The amount of bare skin visible was great". On the other hand, Miss Tanner goes on to point out that, "No male eyes behold them, except those of their own husbands of course", and I'm not sure that this picture is one of mere conjugal bliss.

This is a hawk, made of steel with inlaid gold and silver decoration (although I couldn't spot it). It comes from Isfahan and was made in the 19th century. The following picture is of the same object, plus a peacock made in the same place at the same time. 
Animal figures like these, the catalogue tells us, were "often attached to the 'alam, or standard, carried in the mourning processions of Muharram, the Iranian New Year and Miss Tanner watched one of these processions when she was staying in Gulahek, near Teheran, in the summer of 1895

These teacups and saucers are very small. They are enamel on copper and were made in the 19th century in Iran
I love blue glass but I find this bottle rather ugly, unlike all the other visitors the day I was at the Holburne. Made between 1700 and 1800, it is thought to be a rosewater sprinkler, although the word for it in Persian is ashktan, which means, apparently, container for tears, leading to fanciful (?) speculation that the bottle was made for collecting the tears of women separated from their husbands. While that is somehow an intriguing image, I can't help asking what a sub-Zsa Zsa Gabor woman I met when I first moved to Budapest asked me, when I said I might try to learn Hungarian: "But, darling, votever for?"

Now we come to the meat of the exhibition's interest for me - the textiles. I ought really to have headed this piece, "If you love textiles, this is for you", as essentially textiles form the best part of Miss Tanner's collection. I do love textiles, so I found the next few things thrilling, but, if textiles bore you, I should look away now.

This seemed an oddly racy item for a woman of Miss Tanner's age, although the label claims that it "would have been worn with a ... chemise". 

This is a needlework box, made of silk and wool in Iran in the 19th century. It is fashioned from an elaborately embroidered fabric normally used for women's trousers (see later picture with corner folded down for the same kind of textile). The examples of embroidery it contains came from Kashan in what was then Persia.

Trouser panel, silk and wool, Iran, 19th century. This type of embroidery known as naqšeh, is characterised by diagonal lines framing dense floral patterns. These panels were so popular the there were stories of men unpicking their wives outfits to sell in the bazaars. The reverse shows how bright the trouser panel would have been when Miss Tanner bought it - the colours have faded from light exposure

Now we come to the thing that I loved more than anything else in the exhibition. It is 19th century embroidery, silk on muslin and comes from Kashan. In her journal, Miss Tanner describes viewing textiles in Kashan, writing, "I bought some of the white silk embroidered squares of a species of fine silk canvas used by the women as head coverings or veils after the bath. They are as far as I know only worked here and are beautiful and uncommon."

It is worth clicking on the photographs to enlarge them, so that you can see how lovely the stitching is:

19th century silk and wool embroidered bags from Iran
These are silk and wool, 19th century embroidered panels from Iran that Miss Tanner described as hand warmers. The museum label explains that Persian embroidery designs were often geometric and repeated, taking inspiration from nature, religious symbolism and the history of the region. 

Now we come to another couple of astonishing pieces of embroidery. I admire their rich craftsmanship, while preferring the delicacy of the white muslin and silk piece and the subtlety of it. They probably come from Shiraz and are made of wool and silk. The dense stitching is marvellous; one of the things I especially love about textiles is imagining women working away in domestic settings day after day, probably in their spare time, creating these things: 

Embroidered shawl (although probably used as a tablecloth), Kerman, Iran, 19th century

This is a tent panel made of printed cotton, from Iran, made in the 19th century. In her diary Miss Tanner describes how travelling tents were set up: "to secure privacy the plan is to hammer a large nail or tent peg into one of the holes left by previous travellers each side the open doorway, and hang a carpet, shawl or any sort of curtain one might possess just above the level of one's head, and there was one's bedroom." If they were all made with textiles like this one, a campsite would have been a very splendid sight.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Don't Forget the Gemstones

There is a picture book we used to have about a small boy being sent to the shops to buy some things for his mother. As the boy walks along, he tries to recall the various things his mother has asked for.

"Six farm eggs, a pound of pears, a cake for tea  - and don't forget the bacon", she tells him at the beginning, but these items all get garbled, except, so far as I remember, the bit about the bacon. 

Perhaps it was the reading of this text over and over again that gave me an interest in shopping lists. Certainly I have a habit of picking up any I see - and you'd be surprised how many one does see, dropped in car parks, forgotten on cafe chairs, or simply fallen from pockets. 

Sometimes people incorporate their ideas for a whole week of meals on their list, with notes of who will be attending and which day and what time. I love these lists most, because they provide a glimpse into someone else's life, (without wishing to sound extremely creepy, I get the same pleasure from walking along streets after dark and seeing lit interiors where people are talking or reading, watching television, talking on the telephone, working or preparing meals).  

I sometimes wonder whether the lists where people write down what exactly they are planning to cook and who will eat it could, with the application of time and a bit of imagination, provide the basis of a series of short stories or perhaps a novel, (I have a memory of a rather brilliant story by Faye Weldon, made entirely from lists - but that is not quite the same as what I have in mind).  

Although the list I picked up this morning has nothing to do with meals - at least I hope not - I definitely think that it could be worked up by some clever person into a piece of fantasy literature, perhaps a tale of suburban witchcraft. It is certainly the most exotic list that I've discovered thus far:

Red jasper
(Ruby bloodstone

I don't know why, given that nothing on this list is mentioned in the play, but an image of a heath and a cauldron and three wild female figures comes to mind. I just hope the other members of the trio have their own lists and one of them remembers to bring along some fenny snake and tongue of dog.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Food in Books - The Island of Sheep

To join other literary meals I have enjoyed devouring - here and here and here and here and here - here is some lovely sounding - or perhaps, in the style of the narrative, I should say "some splendid" - food that I found described in John Buchan's final Richard Hannay novel The Island of Sheep. 

To being with, there is a lunch that takes place after shearing, (called "clipping" by Buchan) in Scotland:

"There was beer for all, but whisky only for the older men. There were crates of mutton-pies for which the Hangingshaw baker was famous, and baskets of buttered scones and oatcakes and skim-milk cheese. The company were mighty trenchermen, and I observed the herd of the Back Hill of the Cludden, to who this was a memorable occasion, put away six pies and enough cakes and cheese to last me for a week."

Towards the end of the book, when the action moves to a Scandinavian island, there is a description of the arrangements that his host makes to ensure his and his guests' nourishment:

"He had his own cows for milk, the mutton was about the best in the world, and he cured his own hams and bacon; he grew all the simpler vegetables, including superb potatoes: the sea yielded the fish he wanted, not to speak of lobsters, and there were sea-trout and brown trout to be had from the lochs. Indeed, I never ate better food in my life - simple food, but perfect basic material perfectly cooked. In two things only it deviated into luxury. There was a wonderful cellar in which the sherry and madeira in particular were things to dream of, and following the Northern fashion, our meals began with a preposterous variety of hors d'oeuvre."

Ah, memories of the hors d'oeuvre trollies that used to be a normal feature of English hotel dining rooms in my childhood dance briefly in my mind's eye.

Monday, 3 September 2018

In Praise of Twitter - an Occasional Series - 18th Century Students

Once again a whole world has been opened up to me thanks to Twitter. This time it is the very funny world of 18th century students and the things they got up to, plus the discipline they were then subjected to. I learnt about this via a thread from a Twitter user called Jenny Bann; she decided to share her knowledge of 18th century student disciplinary records, in order to counter the view being expressed by the Times Higher Education supplement that millennials are the worst generation yet.

This is what she revealed (there is also an interesting side trip into the history of the sedan chair in Glasgow, plus some interesting replies, including one quoting Shakespeare's view of the young):