Everything, in fact, was something else

Everything, in fact, was something else

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.

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