27 November 2013
Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, the ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ from Persia
One of London’s most prominent celebrities in 1810 was Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, the ‘Envoy Extraordinary’ who was dispatched by Fath Ali Shah of Persia to the Court of King George III. He arrived in London in 1809, and the portrait shown here was commissioned by the East India Company soon after his arrival.
Portrait of Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, Envoy Extraordinary from the King of Persia to the Court of King George III, by William Beechey, 1809. British Library, F26.
For a catalogue record of this painting, click here.
The purpose of Mirza Abul Hasan Khan’s trip to London was to generate British interest in the Persian silk trade. In the portrait, he is dressed in a full length gold brocade gown and a cape woven with flowers. On the table next to him, there are two bundles of fabric. These garments and effects were symbolic of Mirza Abul Hasan Khan’s mission in London. He was one of a long line of Persian ambassadors who travelled to London to secure the silk trade with the East India Company. But Mirza Abul Hasan Khan was more widely regarded by the British public as an exotic foreigner.
On 2 January 1810, Charles Lamb wrote the following about Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan, to his friend, Thomas Manning. ‘The Persian Ambassador is the principal thing talked of now. I sent some people to see him worship the sun on Primrose Hill at half past six in the morning, 28th November; but he did not come, which makes me think the old fire-worshippers are a sect almost extinct in Persia. The Persian Ambassador’s name is Shaw Ali Mirza. The common people call him Shaw Nonsense’.
Perhaps the Persian envoy didn’t show up that morning because he was tired of being stared at all the time! He must have been a man of strong character, because he came to London a second time, in 1819. On that occasion, he presented a solid gold dish to the East India Company’s Court of Directors. Today, it is part the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collections.
Of course, there was a lot more to Mirza Abu'l Hasan Khan than his celebrity status. He had many high ranking friends and acquaintances in England, became a freemason, and in Persia, he worked closely with the British Ambassador to the court of Fath ʻAli Shah. The British Library holds a manuscript copy of his Persian diary (Add.23,546: Khayratnamah-yi sufara) in which he recorded his day-to-day activities in London. The portrait of Mirza Abu’l Hasan Khan (pictured above) is on permanent display in the Asia & African Studies Reading Room, so all our readers are welcome to come in and have a really good look at him.
Diba, Layla (ed.), 'Royal Persian Paintings, The Qajar Epoch 1785- 1925', Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1998, fig XVII, p. 197.
Howes, Jennifer. “British Library”. Pages 52-87 in Ellis, L. (editor) Oil Paintings in Public Ownership in Camden, Volume 2. London: The Public Catalogue Foundation, 2013. (Full page reproduction of the painting on page 169.)
H. Javadi, 'Abulʼl-Ḥasan Khan Īlčī: Persian diplomat, b. 1190/1776 in Šīrāz', in Encyclopædia Iranica (http://www.iranicaonline.org)
Langer, Axel. The Fascination of Persia. Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2013.
Jennifer Howes, Curator of Visual Arts