So restless the English are, with the waves at their very door.

Virginia Woolf Street Haunting: A London Adventure*

Over the last year I have been testing the bounds of my Persepolis diaspora project, in which I chart the worldwide dissemination of broken stone taken from the Iranian ruins.  I’ve been tidying the chronology of what I euphemistically (for now) call ‘fragmentation events’ at the site, following up lost objects and missing links.  New pieces have turned up, some that need an explanation, some that do not: a lump of lintel in Philadelphia (needs an explanation), a delicate moulding with an eighteenth century label in Copenhagen (does not).  I’ve raided new archives, and scheduled the most far-flung of my museum research itineraries (to India and Japan).  Fold and splice together the buildings worldwide that contain Persepolis, Inception-style, and you may imagine pacing down one, long, multinational museum corridor. (While the political weather blows outside; there are howling draughts).

A fragment of dark limestone relief sculpture labelled ‘marmor’ from Persepolis, collected by Carsten Niebuhr in 1765 and now in the National Museum of Denmark

At this stage, it’s rare that I find a signpost to an unknown fragment in print (rather than, say, a manuscript archive), or one that points to anywhere other than an institutional store-room.  But here’s the story of a tiny piece that I came across close to hand, in more or less plain sight, in Kent.  This one has no label, but was so surrounded by texts that it almost doesn’t need one.  The stone is small, dark and blank, but for two lifetimes it was a physical link with a heightened moment, both national and personal, in the 1920s: the start of a new political era in Iran, and Vita Sackville-West’s travels there.

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Fragment NT 803183 Sissinghurst Castle (C) National Trust / Charles Thomas

Vita’s son, Nigel Nicolson, mentions the fragment in a description of his mother’s study in the restored Elizabethan tower at Sissinghurst (Nicolson 1992).  Vita bought the ruined Tudor palace in the spring of 1930 as a substitute ‘ancestral’ estate in place of Knole, the childhood home that, as a daughter, she could not inherit.  Knole had been, ’a private coral reef of accumulated riches,’ in the words of her grandson Adam (Nicolson 2009, 260).

‘A ruin, in these circumstances, was better than anything gilded and complete.  The disintegrated Sissinghurst could stand in for a ruined inheritance.’ (Nicolson 2009, 267)

From 1931, the tower became her lifelong, solitary refuge.  After Vita’s death in 1962, amid the books and the peeling wallpaper, Nicholson described three of the personal mementoes in the room:

‘A stone from Persepolis, a photograph of Virginia, one of Pepita’s dancing slippers’

The last two objects represent women important to Vita’s intellectual identity: her onetime lover Virginia Woolf and her maternal grandmother, the Spanish dancer Josefa de la Oliva, ‘Pepita’.  The first is ostensibly the opposite of the personal: a fragment from ruins that Sackville-West imagined in 1927 to be unchanging relics of the distant past, ‘tumbled and desolate they lie to-day, as they lay after the might of Alexander had pushed them over.’

Vita must have picked up her souvenir at the Persian New Year in March 1927 en route south from Tehran, where her husband Harold Nicolson was serving as Chargé d’affaires.  Her account of her first journey in 1925, A Passenger to Teheran, is well-known for its portrayal of the coronation of Reza Khan as Shah of Iran in the spring of 1926, following his military-led takeover of the country.  Her 1927 publication Twelve Days, meanwhile, is a more impressionistic series of travel vignettes, the last two of which focus on the ruins of Persepolis and Palmyra, respectively.  It turns out that Vita cannot resist alluding to the portability of fragments from the fissured column bases of the Hall of the Hundred Columns, which had been left exposed to weathering following an early attempt at excavation by the Governor of Shiraz in the late 1870s.

[The] ruins…in their broken detail testify to the richness of the order that once was here: fallen capitals; fragments of carving small enough to go into a pocket, but whorled with the curls of an Assyrian beard; wars and dynasties roll their forgotten drums, as the fragment is balanced for a moment in the palm of the hand.

The stone in her study is indeed the right size for both hand and pocket.  Sackville-West described Persepolis as ‘midway between the Bakhtiari country and the outposts of England’ at the oil fields of Abadan, locating it both literally and metaphorically between nomadic antiquity and Western modernisation, and the future of Persepolis itself was indeed hanging in the balance.  With the grand (and inaccurate) claim that ‘the hand of man has never desecrated these ruins’, Vita presented Persepolis as a memorial, ‘a dead world… the sepulchre of an imperial race’.

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A survey panorama of the Persepolis terrace published by Ernst Herzfeld in 1929, discussing its potential for investigation and restoration. He reconstructed the ‘andarun’ or (imagined) private quarters, to the lower left as his dig house and the site museum.

In contemporary Iranian discourse, the site was a key strut in the fragile new imaginary of nationalist renaissance, its restoration an objective already articulated by Ernst Herzfeld in a report to the government.  His extensive surveys and politicking underpinned, three years later, the granting of a excavation permit to the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.  As a seasonal visitor to Iran, Sackville-West seems to have received no hint of this movement, and her letters to Woolf reek of alienation.  From Tehran, she wrote:

And still the strange meaningless conversations continue, and I wonder more and more at the fabric which nets the world together, so that anything which I do finally incubate out of my system into words will quite certainly be about solitude.  Solitude and the desirability of it, if one is to achieve anything like continuity in life, is the one idea I find in the resounding vacancy which is my head.

(4th March 1927)

Ironically, she and Herzfeld seem to have been in search of more or less the same thing. The creation of living quarters in Persepolis, on the plan of an ancient palace, a place to accumulate both relics and books, began in early 1931.  Despite drastic differences in setting, the personal drive for a historic home created in both cases a fluid heritage environment composed of landscape, ruins, a library and walled garden.

Meanwhile, between Vita and Virginia, the stimulation of months-long exile and intense correspondence created a dialogue on loneliness and literary aspiration refracted through architecture and landscape.  In a letter begun (as so many visitors’ letters were) at Persepolis, Vita wrote to Virginia on literary competition and shared themes, concluding: ‘Yes, let’s write about solitude.’ In her first picture of the site from across the plain, the site embodies both apartness and movement on a grand scale.

Persepolis gains in splendour from its isolation… As a ship launching out on an expanse of sea, the great terrace drives forward on to the plain, breasting it, the columns rising like naked spars into the clear blue of the sky.

In her first year there, Vita played with the thought of a visit from Virginia and Leonard, wishing that she could be, ‘faced with the task of communicating Persia’.

How I wish I could bring you here.. No, of course you won’t: what, leave the press?  I don’t believe Isfahan and Persepolis are any temptation to you.  I wish life was three times as long, and every day of it 48 hours instead of 24.

(9th March 1926)

Virginia playfully created a literal fulfilment of this in Vita’s fictional shadow, Orlando, whose five-hundred-year, time-slipping life she began to write in October 1927.  Geographically confined to Europe and a vaguely imagined edge of Asia, Orlando’s story echoed the eighteenth-century literary stylings and habits of Vita’s Persian journey.  Anatolia is the turning point, where Woolf recalls her protagonist to England by (as with every plot development in Orlando) enchantment.  A paradisiacal vision of her Tudor ancestral home; damp, heavy timber, violet shade and snow-covered roofs emerges from the bare Asian earth in a midsummer haze.  Writing from Tehran in spring 1926, Vita had boasted, ‘I have got England in wonderful focus here… [and] I can visualise you as a matter of fact surprisingly well, – but always as you stood on your door-step that last evening, when the lamps were lit and the trees misty, and I drove away.’  Virginia got her own back with a satirical rendition of Orlando’s rhapsodical reaction to the Asian landscape: ‘She compared the flowers to enamel and the turf to Turkey rugs worn thin. Everything, in fact, was something else.’

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Orlando or Vita? Vita talking about travelling in Iran, in 1926.

I visited Sissinghurst in November 2016, so that I could turn over a dark and anonymous fragment from the study windowsill in my hand, and confirm that it was what I suspected when I found a ‘slate’ moulding on the online database: the ‘stone from Persepolis’ described by Nicolson.  In the gatehouse, there is an album of Harold and Vita journeying by mule and horse in the summer of 1927 on ‘the Bakhtiari Road’, but nothing of Persepolis, Shiraz or Tehran.  Vita’s study still has cut squares of Persian carpet on floors and tables, and shelves full of a nineteenth-century English print reflections on Iran.  It was a cold afternoon, and with the next morning came the first proper frost of the year.  In this dense, limestone shard from Persepolis, time and space are compressed.  While its origin was remembered in family memory, the stone stood for ‘the vast green plain, encircled by mountains and the open sky’, a crucible for those few years, between 1926 and 1931, of multiple identities in formation.


References / quotations from:

Sackville-West, Vita 1926 Passenger to Teheran

 1927 Twelve Days

Woolf, Virginia          1927 Street Haunting: a London Adventure

1928 A Room of One’s Own                                       

1928 Orlando : a biography


Desalvo, Louise (ed.) 1984 The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf    Hutchinson

Nagel, Rebecca 2008 ‘The Classical Tradition in Vita Sackville-West’s Solitude’ International Journal of the Classical Tradition 15, 3: 407-427

Nicolson, Nigel 1973 Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson 

  • This packing up and going off, exploring deserts and catching fevers, settling in India for a lifetime, penetrating even to China and then returning to lead a parochial life at Edmonton, tumbles and tosses upon the dusty floor like an uneasy sea, so restless the English are, with the waves at their very door.  The waters of travel and adventure seem to break upon little islands of serious effort and lifelong industry stood in jagged column upon the floor.

I wrote last from Shirauz, which city we left on the fourth of September. On the sixth we reached the plain of Merdasht, where we encamped, about a mile from the ruins of Persepolis.  That day and the next were entirely taken up in exploring this celebrated spot, the grandeur of which far exceeded every expectation I had formed of it. (Strachey, R. 1803 ‘Extract of a Letter from Richard Strachey, Esq. in the Suite of Captain Malcolm, Ambassador from India to the King of Persia, dated Ispahan, Oct. 9, 1800’ Archaeologia 14:282-3)

This text, published in the early journal of the Society of Antiquities in 1803, purported to be a letter written by Richard Strachey in Isfahan to his father Sir Henry on October 9th 1800.  In fact, when I read Strachey’s manuscript letters at the Somerset Heritage Centre, where the family archive is held, I found that he had written something slightly different:

We marched from Shiraz on the 4th instant, and camped yesterday [5th August] near the famous Ruins of Persepolis – we are halted here today & I am sorry to say march tomorrow – I should like much to spend a few days more in exploring these deservedly celebrated Ruins. I will not attempt to give you any Idea of their Grand Appearance & will only say that I should think it worth any one’s while even to travel from Europe for the sake of visiting them. (S.R.O. Papers of Richard Charles Strachey, DD/SH\44\6: Richard Strachey to Sir Henry Strachey, ‘near the Ruins of Persepolis’ 5th-7th August 1800).

The party, a British East India Company embassy led by Sir John Malcolm, ended up lingering until the 7th, and Strachey accordingly took the opportunity to carve his name on a couple of monuments.  He also carried off a fragment he said he had dug up near the north façade of the monumental columned hall now known as the apadana.  On this façade, lines of representatives of the peoples subject to the Persian king originally converged on a central audience scene with the enthroned monarch, just as Strachey and his colleagues were voyaging towards the Persian court at Tehran.  Richard’s father Sir Henry described this same fragment to the Society of Antiquaries a couple of years later, using a carefully edited amalgam of more than one of his son’s letters from Iran and India.  

Strachey head

The Strachey head was the earliest Persepolitan fragment to arrive in Britain that I have so far traced, and its evocative publication was influential; in the next thirty years, during a cluster of diplomatic journeys overland from Bushehr, those British visitors who could afford the transport costs sent a series of stone sculptures back across the Zagros mountains to the Persian Gulf.  They were shipped back to the UK on Royal Navy or East India Company vessels.

Over the course of the next century, the majority of these wound up in the British Museum, with a handful in other UK collections.  This piece, below, was taken during Sir John Malcolm’s second visit to Persepolis, in 1810, and sent back to his family home in Dumfriesshire where it stayed until 1950, when it was sold to the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh.

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Fragment from the east wing of the north facade of the apadana at Persepolis, National Museum of Scotland 1950.138 (picture copyright National Museums Scotland).

I wrote up a history of these fragments in a 2013 article in the journal IRAN, arguing that they functioned as part of societal gift exchange within the East India Company and diplomatic hierarchy.  This traffic of luxury goods has been illuminated recently by a series of studies published by the East India Company at Home team at UCL, whose input also enhanced and influenced my research.

At the time of writing, I did not know the current whereabouts of the Strachey head.  It had stayed in the Strachey family through the nineteenth century, being loaned out twice for London exhibitions of ‘Persian art’; this 1885 image of an exhibit at the Burlington Fine Arts Club shows the fragment in a frame displayed alongside Islamic metalware.

Illustration from Wallis, H. 1885 Catalogue of Specimens Illustrative of Persian and Arab Art Exhibited in the Burlington Fine Arts Club London, photograph courtesy of Moya Carey.

Also in the frame, at the left, is a smaller object; I have not been able to work out what this is, beyond wondering whether it is a late antique stamp seal or earlier sealing.  At this period, visitors to the vicinity of the Babylonian cities tended to take seals, small tablets and bits of ancient mud brick as souvenirs.  In the account Richard sent to his father along with the relief itself (and which formed part of the published composite letter), he mentioned that he had:

…intended to have sent you with the head some other reliques [sic] of Antiquity, from the ruins of Babylon, but they are gone, by mistake, amongst some other things to Midnapoor … [where he would ask his older to brother to send them on].

(S.R.O. Papers of Richard Charles Strachey, DD/SH\44\6: Richard Strachey to Sir Henry Strachey, from ‘On the river’ 11th July 1801).

After being exhibited again in 1931, the fragment, now removed from the frame, surfaced in a Paris auction in 1986; thereafter it passed through the hands of several dealers.  Thanks to a couple of curator colleagues, more information has now emerged.

First, Alexander Nagel at the Smithsonian, who also works on Persepolis and ancient Iran, pointed out to me that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts database showed an Achaemenid relief that we had not previously spotted.  It looked very familiar…

Minneapolis Institute of Art 2000.88 (photograph courtesy of & copyright Mia)

The head has undergone restoration since his arrival in the United States, his face and gaze made complete, but it is recognisably the Strachey fragment.  I got in touch with the museum and requested some extra photographs which they kindly supplied.  Although the piece arrived at the museum in 2000 with none of the provenance I had reconstructed, one fragment of its biography had stuck to it through its transatlantic transfer: a paper label naming its hometown pasted over the crown of the figure’s head.

Strachey original label
2000.88 top right edge; photograph courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art

The fragment is not currently on display, although the museum does have another piece of ancient Near Eastern relief sculpture, an Assyrian winged figure from Nimrud (fragments from the neo-Assyrian cities are often modern gallery-companions to Persepolis – older and younger representatives of Near Eastern civilisation).  The donors of our Persepolitan guard were Ruth and Bruce Dayton; so this onetime subject of the Achaemenid king is linked by its ownership history to a New World empire, the Dayton’s and Target retail chains.

The second great find I owe to Moya Carey, the IHF Curator for Iranian Collections at the V&A, who, after providing the image of the 1885 exhibition from the V&A’s Asia department holdings, said, “wasn’t Strachey famously handsome?”  This was news to me, but as it turns out, he made such a large impression that they were still talking about him sixty years later.  In 1860, a new British Charge d’Affaires explored the grounds of the early nineteenth-century Qasr-i Qajar palace north of Tehran, and in a garden pavilion viewed:

…pictures of several princes and the renowned English Adonis, Mr. Strachey, called by the Persians, Istarji, to whom Fath Ali Shah addressed an ode, so celebrated in the East, that the instant Dost Muhammad was introduced to a Mr. Strachey, he began to repeat it.  Istarji is in the court-dress of the last century, with sword and knee-breeches, and is really very good-looking. (Edward B. Eastwick 1864 Journal of a Diplomate’s Three Years’ Residence in Persia vol. 1 p. 237f.)

According to Lord Curzon, who visited the same building in 1889, this “‘Beau Brummel’ of Persia, Istarji… was framed between the mythic heroes Zal and Afrasiab – an apotheosis which I am not aware that any other Englishman has every attained.” (Curzon, G.N. 1892 Persia and the Persian Question vol. 1 p.340).

The Qasr-i Qajar drawn by Flandin, from Flandin & Coste 1851 Voyage en Perse (Public Domain

Unfortunately the structure has not survived, and travellers’ drawings seem only to show the exterior.  Nor have I been able to find any portrait of Richard; in this report at least, the face of his onetime Persepolitan hostage must serve as stand-in for his own.  However it may be that these ‘portraits’ of Istarji were as idealised and generic as the population of Persepolis.  The ‘erotic’ or ‘exotic’ foreigner, including young Persian men in European dress, had been a subject in painting since the Safavid period.*  The Qajar court may have feted young Strachey partly because he fit an established, idealised, Occidentalist category in the representation of the exotic West.  This idea may find some support in the account of James Ussher of Qajar paintings he viewed in the Safavid-era Hasht Behesht palace in Isfahan:

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Ussher, J. 1865 A Journey from London to Persepolis London, p.584

If Ussher accurately recognised the fashions of William III (1650-1702), he was either looking at earlier, generic paintings of the exotic foreign young man, or at Qajar-era images of Strachey cast in that archaic guise.  Strachey may not even have recognised himself in such retrospectively named ‘portraits’, since his letters in Somerset indicate that he placed some importance on the latest trends.  Richard’s dapper outfits were supplied by his parents, to whom he wrote with requests and thanks for their regular care packages.  In exchange he sent the rarities of Persia: plant seeds, ‘Shirawz wine’ and antiquities for his father, feathers and personalised calligraphic seals for his sisters.  As he wrote to his mother just after promising the Persepolitan fragment to his father, he wanted no more footwear, as the boots she had sent were too small and “they make such good ones in Calcutta”; however, he said would appreciate more silk stockings and a coat, advising “Staines is the best taylor to employ as he always knows the fashion.”

In all this busy traffic of symbols, treasures and (self-)representation, Strachey was playing the “ever affectionate and dutiful son” to his parents while being received as a timeless model of exotic beauty in the Qajar court.  The face of ancient Persia that manifested Strachey’s status in London represented age, “an old man’s head” (notably the adjective, in print, was Sir Henry’s addition to Richard’s manuscript description), while in Iran itself, Strachey became an equally fetishised incarnation of Western youth.

Persepolis – Calcutta – London – Somerset – London – Paris – [New York?] – Minneapolis.

Further reading:

Allen, L. 2013 ‘”Come then ye classic Thieves of each degree”: the social context of the Persepolis diaspora in the early nineteenth century’, in IRAN vol. LI, 207-34.

and, linked to above* on

Langer, A. 2013 ‘European Influence on Seventeenth-Century Persian Painting: Of Handsome Europeans, Naked Ladies, and Parisian Timepieces’, in Langer (ed.) The Fascination of Persia: the Persian-European Dialogue in Seventeenth-Century Art and Contemporary Art of Tehran, Chicago, pp. 170-237.

Lindsay Allen, February 2016.