CBL Per 111.1

Part 2: The pages of the Great Mongol Shahnama, from 19th century repairs to 20th century dismantlement and dispersal

10 August, 2020

Returning to share more of her research on Chester Beatty Per 111, this week book and paper conservator, Hoa Perriguey, tells us about the 20th century modifications made to this fascinating manuscript.

The eleven folios of the Great Mongol Shahnama held at the Chester Beatty (CBL Per 111), were separated from their bound volume in the early 20th century. This exceptional 14th century Persian manuscript (discussed in my earlier blog post here) was dismembered by the Franco-Belgian art dealer Georges-Joseph Demotte (1877-1923) in the 1910s in Paris (1).

Having disbound the codex, Demotte made irreversible modifications to the loose folios, most likely in order to increase his profit from their sale. Folios with paintings on both sides were split down the middle of the sheet to create two saleable objects. For the folios most severely damaged by the splitting, the painting was cut out and pasted onto another folio (2), as can be seen in two of the Chester Beatty folios, Per 111.1 and Per 111.4. My examination of the materiality of these folios aimed to identify the work of Demotte’s restorer and distinguish his actions from both the original 14thcentury elements of the folios and the restoration done in late 19th century Tehran—the subject of my first blog post.

Image of Left: “Faridun leading Zahhak to Mount Damavand” CBL Per 111.1; right: “Zal Approaching Shah Manuchihr” CBL Per 111.4.
Left: “Faridun leading Zahhak to Mount Damavand” CBL Per 111.1; right: “Zal Approaching Shah Manuchihr” CBL Per 111.4.

Introducing the forger

In the early 1910s, the art-dealer Georges-Joseph Demotte bought the Great Mongol Shahnama from another Paris-based dealer with long-term links to Tehran. He owned several workshops in which Islamic manuscripts and medieval French sculptures were transformed to increase their aesthetic and economic value (3). In 1924, one year after his death, Demotte’s firm was the subject of a trial which revealed that his workshops forged ancient and medieval sculptures: indeed, legs, arms or heads were added to incomplete busts! In addition to this, we know now that Demotte cut pages from manuscripts and modified them dramatically.

Together with buying-partner Dikran Kelekian, Demotte reportedly paid $30,000 for the Great Mongol Shahnama (4). Having reportedly failed to sell the manuscript as a whole, he decided instead to sell the loose pages to different clients. Aware of the rising market value of Persian paintings, and for large historic examples in particular, Demotte decided to increase their number. His strategy immediately attracted private collectors in both Europe and America.

In July 1913, Henri Vever (1854-1942) bought seven pages from Demotte for 35,000 francs, and Georges Marteau (1851-1916) would buy five. The wealthy Boston collector Hervey Wetzel owned one (bequeathed to the Fogg Art Museum on his death in 1918), and the Fogg director Edward W. Forbes personally owned four. In 1922, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts bought two folios for $4,500. Demotte’s Shahnama folios were loaned to public art exhibitions (such as Philadelphia’s Sesquicentennial Exhibition in 1926, and London’s Persian Art exhibition in 1931), where critical discussions only increased wider appreciation and greater demand among collectors. By the time Alfred Chester Beatty bought his 11 pages from Demotte’s firm in 1937, he had known about them for years (5).

The dismemberment of Islamic manuscripts was common practice at the beginning of the 20th century: art dealers, as well as scholars and collectors, cut illustrated folios out of books (6). This way dealers could sell single folios to collectors who had a growing aesthetic interest in Middle Eastern paintings, but rarely read Persian. Individual book-illustrations were treated like individual artworks: they were mounted in frames and displayed in private homes (7).

The painting depicting “Khusrau Anushirvan writing to the Khaqan of Chin”, CBL Per 111.7, was probably exhibited. The paper has been folded all around the painting, and similar folds are visible on the pages that belonged to the collector Georges Marteau, which are now held in the Louvre Museum, Paris (8). Aside from the corrosion of the silvery metal and several vertical folds, the painting of Per 111.7 is in particularly good condition. There are no losses or significant cracks, which may explain why it was selected for display during this period.

image of Left: “Khusrau Anushirvan writing to Khaqan” CBL Per 111.7; right: CBL Per 111.7 recto, folds visible under transmitted light.
Left: “Khusrau Anushirvan writing to Khaqan” CBL Per 111.7; right: CBL Per 111.7 recto, folds visible under transmitted light.

The technical art of deception

Material examination allows us to reconstitute the different steps of splitting, shaving, and assembling the folios that occurred in Demotte’s workshop.

To separate each side of the folios, Demotte’s restorer used a method which appeared in Europe in the 1850s (9). First, he adhered a sheet of paper to either side of the original folio with gelatine. This ‘sandwich’ was then put in a press for several minutes, to let the moisture from the gelatine penetrate to the core of the sheet. Finally, he pulled the two adhered sheets apart to split the original folio and obtain two new separate pieces. This process was first used by restorers to split engravings. However, as the media of printed engravings is usually very stable, the separated halves could be washed to remove the exterior sheets and excess gelatine. As washing would have destroyed the fugitive painted media of the Shahnama manuscript, the spliting and removal of the exterior lining sheets must have taken place with very little moisture. This may explain some of the deep and disfiguring cracks which are visible in the split paintings. Today, the technique of splitting is very rarely used in conservation to strengthen very weak papers damaged by mould and water: a thin and strong paper is inserted between the two halves.

Process of splitting, fig.2 and fig.3 in BRÜCKLE Irene, DAMBROGIO Jana, 'Paper splitting: History and Modern Technology,' Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, fall/winter 2000, vol.39, n°3, Washington, 2000, pp. 295-325.
Process of splitting, fig.2 and fig.3 in BRÜCKLE Irene, DAMBROGIO Jana, 'Paper splitting: History and Modern Technology,' Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, fall/winter 2000, vol.39, n°3, Washington, 2000, pp. 295-325.

The pages of Per 111.1 and Per 111.4 were both damaged by this splitting process. The weakened paintings were cut out and pasted on to another folio. The restorer chose a 19th century text folio produced in Qajar Iran that was in good condition, rather than an original 14th century one. The textual content was completely ignored in this process: both paintings now accompany irrelevant sections of the Shahnama. The width of the Qajar text columns is slightly narrower than those of the original 14th century text folios, hence, the illustration of Per 111.4 is larger than the columns and overlaps the golden ruling lines and infringes on the text. The absence of text or rulings beneath the adhered image indicates that the Qajar folio was prepared by shaving or splitting before the image was attached. The evidence for this became apparent during my examination of the folios with transmitted light.

Image of Left: “Faridun Capturing the Palace of Zahhak”, original recto © Museum of Islamic Art of Doha; right: “Faridun leading Zahhak to Mount Damavand”, original verso, CBL Per 111.1.
Left: “Faridun Capturing the Palace of Zahhak”, original recto © Museum of Islamic Art of Doha; right: “Faridun leading Zahhak to Mount Damavand”, original verso, CBL Per 111.1.

Per 111.1 and Per 111.4 are the result of several modifications made by Demotte’s restorer. These paintings were originally painted back-to-back with another illustration, on a single sheet of paper. “Faridun leading Zahhak to Mount Damavand,” CBL Per 111.1, was the verso of “Faridun Capturing the Palace of Zahhak” (Museum of Islamic Art Doha. MS 200), and “Zal Approaching Shah Manuchihr,” CBL Per 111.4, was the recto of “The Mobads interrogating Zal” (Museum of Fine Arts of Boston). Oleg Grabar and Sheila Blair reconstituted the first pair with the help of a conservator (10). The scholars observed the perfect correlation of losses and tears. For example, the vertical cracks on the left side of Per 111.1 correlate precisely with the cracks that are present on the right side of “Faridun Capturing the Palace of Zahhak.”

Image of Left: “Zal Approaching Shah Manuchihr,” CBL Per 111.4, original recto; right: “The Mobads interrogating Zal”, original verso © Museum of Fine Arts of Boston.
Left: “Zal Approaching Shah Manuchihr,” CBL Per 111.4, original recto; right: “The Mobads interrogating Zal”, original verso © Museum of Fine Arts of Boston.

The painting of Per 111.1 is severely damaged and must have been particularly difficult to paste. Its right edge is skewed and reveals a white paper. Under transmitted light, the composition of the folio is more clearly visible, underscoring the different thicknesses of the paper support:

Image of CBL Per 111.1 observed in transmitted light.
CBL Per 111.1 observed in transmitted light.

The white paper exposed on the right edge, allows more light to pass through it, showing that it is thinner. This indicates that the Qajar folio the illustration was adhered to was pared or shaved down before the painting was attached, in order to avoid an excessive thickness. The text visible in the losses corresponds to the writing on the verso of the folio, which strikes-through the deliberately thinned paper (11). Observation under the microscope confirms that the fibres of the paper are exposed by the shaving and missing the characteristic hard burnished surface of the surrounding paper. This treatment also explains the absence of the original text that one would expect to discover hidden beneath the pasted-on image: it had been scraped off by Demotte’s restorer. This also shows that the relatively modern text-folio was not a new forgery commissioned by Demotte, as has been suggested, but was indeed a Qajar-era folio created for the earlier restoration done in Tehran (12). Transmitted light reveals that the image-caption in thuluth script also belongs to the original folio. As with the painting, the cartouche is pasted on to a shaved paper surface. The continuity of the cracks between the cartouche and the painting demonstrates that they were part of the same leaf and that they both belong to the same original folio.

Image of CBL Per 111.1 detail of the “shaved” paper under magnification.
CBL Per 111.1 detail of the “shaved” paper under magnification.

In the same way, an observation of Per 111.4 reveals that the paper was shaved to facilitate the placement of the painting and the title cartouche.

Image of CBL Per 111.4, gap between the Qajar folio and the inserted original cartouche of title under magnification.
CBL Per 111.4, gap between the Qajar folio and the inserted original cartouche of title under magnification.

Examination of these folios allows us to identify the different steps used by Demotte’s restorer to assemble new folios: first, the folios with paintings on both sides were split; next the painting and title cartouche were cut out from the most severely damaged split folios; a Qajar text folio was shaved to assist the smooth and even integration of the fourteenth-century paper elements; before the split paintings and headings were pasted on to the text folio. The Qajar folios were chosen for their good condition but the text that they contain is completely irrelevant to the painting.

Unsurprisingly, tension has appeared in these collages where the splitting and gluing has caused undulations in the Qajar text folios all around the adhered panels. Demotte’s clients were not always pleased with the evidence of this reworking: in October 1937, Beatty refused to buy two folios because one only had a “half miniature” and the other was “stuck down” (13).

My examination of this manuscript also gave me the occasion to highlight the care of these folios during the later 20th century. The Chester Beatty folios were conserved by conservator Gaia Petrella in 2009/10 in advance of the exhibition Heroes and Kings of the Shahnama (17 Nov 2010 – 3 Apr 2011). The media on all folios was checked for areas of flaking and powdering, before being consolidated as necessary. In a small number of cases Gaia also undertook delicate paper repairs using Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

The paint layer of Per 111.1 was in poor condition and has been carefully repaired, prior to Gaia’s work in 2010. 16 small pieces of adhesive tape have been pasted to prevent further crack of the paint layer. The long vertical loss at the centre of the upper side has been infilled with a piece of paper and toned. The holes left by other losses have been retouched directly on the support, in this case the shaved paper of the Qajar folio, during the mid-20th century. Per 111.4 was in better condition, nevertheless the lower edge of the painting, lifted from its support, was torn throughout the full length. A strip of paper has been pasted underneath the painting. It has been toned at several points.

Image of Left: pieces of tape highlighted in red on CBL Per 111.1; right: detail of the retouched strip of paper consolidating the lower edge of CBL Per 111.4.
Left: pieces of tape highlighted in red on CBL Per 111.1; right: detail of the retouched strip of paper consolidating the lower edge of CBL Per 111.4.

As discussed in my previous post, these paintings were modified before their arrival in Paris, in workshops in Qajar Tehran, and probably by other earlier owners too. The faces of Per 111.1 have been retouched and an entire column has been added on the left side of Per 111.4. These modifications and the complexity of these fascinating folios could easily provide the subject of another study. I hope I will have the opportunity to return to them in the future.

Hoa Perriguey, Conservator

Footnotes

(1) LOWRY Glenn, A Jeweler’s Eye. Islamic Arts of the Book from the Vever Collection, Washington, D.C., 1988

(2) BLAIR Sheila, ‘Rewriting the History of the Great Mongol Shahnama,’ in HILLENBRAND Robert (éd.) Shahnama: the visual language of the Persian Book of Kings, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, pp. 35-50

(3) FENEON Félix, JANNEAU Guillaume, ‘Les disparus,’ Le bulletin de la vie artistique, Paris: Bernheim-Jeune, 1923, p. 385 ; ‘Comptabilité et statues truquées,’ La lanterne, samedi 15 novembre 1924, Strasbourg, 1924, p.2 ; ‘Les démélés Vigouroux-Demotte,’ Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, samedi 15 novembre 1924, Paris, 1924, p.2.

(4) BLAIR Sheila, ‘On the Track of the Demotte Shāhnāma Manuscript,’ in Les manuscrits du Moyen-Orient, Varia Turcica 8, op.cit., 1989; p.128.

(5) The folios were acquired by Alfred Chester Beatty in October 1937, from Demotte Inc.

(6) Frederik R. Martin was a scholar who put his knowledge at the service of his commercial activity, and Walter Philipp Schulz, an erudite collector, did the same, LOWRY Glenn, A Jeweler’s Eye. Islamic Arts of the Book from the Vever Collection, Washington, D.C., 1988

(7) MAURY Charlotte, Le goût de l’Orient : Georges Marteau collectionneur [catalogue of exhibition Louvre Museum 26/06/2019 to 6/01/2020], Musée du Louvre: Louvre Editions, 2019

(8) OA 7094OA 7095OA 7096.

(9) BRÜCKLE Irene, DAMBROGIO Jana, ‘Paper splitting: History and Modern Technology,’ Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, fall/winter 2000, vol.39, n°3, Washington, 2000, pp. 295-325.

(10) BLAIR Sheila, GRABAR Oleg, Epic Images of Contemporary History: the illustrations of the Great Mongol Shahnama, Chicago, 1980. They reconstituted a pair for the first time with the help of a conservator, by the observation of “Faramarz kills Mihr-i Nush” and “Combat between Rustam and Isfandyiar,” n°19-20 of the catalogue, pp.2-4.

(11) BLAIR Sheila, ‘Rewriting the History of the Great Mongol Shahnama,’ in HILLENBRAND Robert (éd.) Shahnama: the visual language of the Persian Book of Kings, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004, pp. 48.

(12) In their 1980 publication, Grabar and Blair formulate an hypothesis for these text folios with a blank window in their centre. They suggest that Demotte would have commissioned new pages of text, asking the calligrapher to avoid the copy of the future blank window (p.8). Blair later corrects this “unlikely scenario” in her 2004 publication and explains that the 19th century folios were “dug out” to fit the placement of the miniatures (p.48).

(13) CB Archive, CBP/B/03/049 (14 October 1937).

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