Persepolis, Minneapolis and the ‘English Adonis’

Persepolis, Minneapolis and the ‘English Adonis’

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.

A.1950.138_003914 sm
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:

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 13.49.35
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.


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