Image of CBL In 07B.28 detail.

Part 3: The Nasir al-Din Shah Album, construction

4 March, 2021

We’re posting the third part of this blog on World Book Day! We hope you will enjoy more details of Julia’s closer look at the Chester Beatty’s Nasir al-Din Shah Album folios and take the opportunity to explore some of the objects mentioned on our newly updated Collections Viewer.

Inner borders

When looking in detail at the construction of muraqqa’ folios, the inner borders framing the central text or painting are extremely important to study. Understanding their practical purpose, as well as their visual aesthetic role, will help the viewer to understand the folio construction process.  

For all the Chester Beatty Nasir al-Din Shah Album folios, the inner borders are made of dyed paper. [1] These were prepared with a soluble colourant (a ‘dyestuff’) which was either painted on the surface of the paper or saturated the sheet when it was dipped into a bath. The process of dying paper has been described in artists’ treatises in the Islamic world since at least the 1400’s. [2] Dyed papers were widely used in 17th century Mughal workshops in India. The most common colours of the Mughal inner borders are various tones of peach and deep blue, but variations of green are also seen. 

Dyed papers were also used in the mid-16th century Ruzbihan Qur’an from Safavid-era Shiraz (CBL Is 1558 was the subject of a dedicated exhibition at Chester Beatty in 2016, and a 2018 publication). During close investigation of the manuscript, safflower dye was identified as the peach tone on one of the manuscripts’ vertical side panels. [3] Dr. Elaine Wright, former curator of the museum’s Islamic Collections also noted that the inner borders of seventeenth-century Mughal album folios had the same overall palette as the dyed paper panels overpainted with gold designs, found in the Ruzbihan Qur’an. [4] This seems to suggest the continuation of a Persian tradition in Mughal India. 

Image of Left: CBL In 07B.28 recto; Right: Detail of the overlapping inner borders.
Left: CBL In 07B.28 recto; Right: Detail of the overlapping inner borders.

The construction of CBL In 07B.28 recto is believed to be original to the album’s formation in Mughal India. The single innermost border is assembled from four narrow cut paper strips, overlapped to form a rectangular frame around the central panel. In this specific example, the two vertical strips are the full length of the frame, while the horizontal strips are the same width as the central panel. The horizontal strips were adhered first, and the vertical ones overlap them. 

The assembled pieces of papers used to form the inner borders are almost always decorated with painted shell gold (finely ground gold mixed with a binder) floral designs. These designs were applied after the paper was adhered to the folio, as the gold decoration is continuous across the joins. The decoration process helped to hide the paper overlaps. However, this was not the sole function of the gold highlights, as full frames were occasionally cut from a single piece of paper and painted afterwards, as can be seen in the Late Shah Jahan album (e.g., CBL In 07B. 20-27; CBL In 07B. 29-39; CBL In 62.3&5; CBL In 50.2).  

Folio CBL In 50.5 from the Nasir al-Din Shah Album, has inner borders that are made up of a patchwork of nine pieces of paper. The vertical and horizontal strips are the same height and width as the central image (the bottom strip is made of two pieces), and the four corners are covered with additional small square patches.  

Each of these examples shows us that the use of dyed papers was carefully controlled, probably because the material was expensive. Nothing was wasted unnecessarily, and older material was possibly salvaged, hence the use of very small pieces to fill in gaps.

Image of Left: CBL In 50.5, recto, Yusuf Tending Sheep; Right: Detail of overlapping inner borders.
Left: CBL In 50.5, recto, Yusuf Tending Sheep; Right: Detail of overlapping inner borders.

The light pink inner borders of folio CBL In 50.4 are uneven, with thin side borders and much wider upper and lower borders. This is a sign that the inner borders are framing a painting that is not original to the album. Indeed, this portrait of Aurangzeb dates to c.1660 and was probably added to the folio soon after Shah Jahan’s death in 1658. [5] The new inner borders, up to three frames wide, allowed the use of smaller paintings or panels within the original outer border space.

Image of Left CBL In 50.4; Right: Details of pink inner borders of different sizes.
Left CBL In 50.4; Right: Details of pink inner borders of different sizes.

Of course, as I have discussed in my previous blog posts, this manuscript was modified in 19th century Iran, and it is likely that many inner borders were added at this time. Some of these inner borders may have replaced damaged original inner borders, or perhaps “refreshed” the overall aesthetic of the folios. Brightly gilded vines in two tones of gold, painted Qajar flowers, and colourful undecorated dyed papers are amongst the new inner border types found framing the central panels.

Image of Left: CBL In 50.12, painted floral inner borders; Centre: CBL In 07B.28, detail of a Qajar flower; Right: CBL In 11A.1, inner borders with two tones of gold vines.
Left: CBL In 50.12, painted floral inner borders; Centre: CBL In 07B.28, detail of a Qajar flower; Right: CBL In 11A.1, inner borders with two tones of gold vines.

Assembly

Originally, as I discussed in my second blog post, it is likely that the outer borders were used as the base paper to which the central panels and inner borders were adhered. However, with the exception of CBL In 07B.28 recto, none of the Nasir al-Din Shah album folios at the Chester Beatty are in their original state. Instead, what we now see are folios that have been cut up and re-assembled over time. Research indicates that such re-formatting was a normal if not inevitable part of the life cycle of an album. 

As well as the work that took place under Nasir al-Din Shah in 19th century Iran, a number of the album folios were split. It is unclear whether these folios were left “unfinished” after the reformatting work in 19th century Tehran [6] or whether they were split from reformatted folios at a later date in early 20th century Paris, [7] perhaps by the art-dealer Georges Demotte who is known for this practice.  For more about Demotte’s heavy hand in manuscript restoration, have a look at Hoa Perriguey’s blog here. 

Some of the split Nasir al-Din Shah folios were subsequently lined with a plain backing paper, but three of the Chester Beatty folios remain unlined (CBL In 50. 10, CBL In 50.11, CBL In 50.12), revealing precisely how they were assembled in the atelier of Nasir al-Din Shah.

Image of Left: In 50.11 recto; Centre: In 50.11 verso, viewed in transmitted light; Right: calligraphy panel construction.
Left: CBL In 50.11 recto; Centre: CBL In 50.11 verso, viewed in transmitted light; Right: calligraphy panel construction.

Looking closely at CBL In 50.11 we can tell a lot about the composition of the folio. The previous central panel was cut out completely from the decorated outer borders, leaving an empty frame. 

In order to fill the existing Mughal frame, a new 19th century text panel was constructed from three separate pieces of paper: a rectangle at the bottom; one larger piece filling the rest of the panel; and a small rectangular vignette inserted in the upper part of the panel. This newly formed text panel was adhered to inner borders—possibly also Mughal—which were themselves formed of three frames: the first innermost border, closest to the central panel, is made of six separate pieces of peach-coloured paper; the second (middle) border is made of four dark blue strips; and the outermost border is cut from a single piece of red paper creating a full frame.

Finally, the newly assembled central text panel and borders were adhered to the original Mughal album folio with an overlap of about two millimetres on each edge. The paper was probably thinned at the joins to remove any bulk that would have been created by the build-up of salvaged and new paper layers. 

Image of Left: In 50.11 verso; Centre: In 50.11 detail; Right: In 50.11 transmitted light, detail showing the overlapping borders.
Left: CBL In 50.11 verso; Centre: CBL In 50.11 detail; Right: CBL In 50.11 transmitted light, detail showing the overlapping borders.

Whether original or newly constructed, each prepared page was finally adhered to the verso of another fully prepared page to form a complete double-sided folio. Because of their construction in two separate stages, such folios were easily split in half, dismantled, or reformatted. The addition of new inner borders allowed for central panels of different sizes to be inserted, as we have seen.

Ruling

Following the Persian tradition of framing the manuscript folios with coloured ruled lines, the Mughal artists also framed the muraqqa’ central artwork with ruling or jadval. [8] The palette of the ruled lines on CBL In 07B.28 is red, green, red-orange and blue, interspaced with thin black ink outlines and gold paint.  

The ingenious Mughal artists used ruling lines to further disguise the paper overlaps, using black ink, different thicknesses of painted line, and blank spaces to distract the eye. These painted ruling lines helped to create a seamless work of art, on a seemingly continuous sheet of paper.

Image of CBL In 07B.28, detail of ruled lines or jadval.
CBL In 07B.28, detail of ruled lines or jadval.

By looking at the example of the Nasir al-Din Shah album and its many stages of remodelling, we can understand the construction of these folios in more detail. Each component plays a role, which eventually unites the folio. Although the word muraqqa’ means “patched,” these folios present to the viewer a very cohesive and versatile design.  

Julia Poirier, Book & Paper Conservator 

 

Many thanks again to Moya Carey, Curator of Islamic Collections, for her help and advice on this post. 

References

[1] Sheila Blair, ‘Color and Gold: The Decorated Papers Used in Manuscripts in Later Islamic Times,’ Muqarnas, vol. 17, 2000, pp. 24–36. 

[2] Wheeler Thackston, ‘Treatise on Calligraphic Arts: A Disquisition on Paper, Colours, Inks, and Pens by Simi of Nishapur’, in Michel Mazzaoui and Vera Moreen (eds), Intellectual Studies on Islam: Essays written in Honour of Martin B. Dickson, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990, pp. 221-23. 

[3] Kristine Rose-Beers, ‘Investigating the Palette of the Ruzbihan Qur’an,’ in Lapis and Gold: Exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an, London: Ad Ilissum/Paul Holberton Publishing, 2018, p. 258. 

[4] Elaine Wright, Lapis and Gold: Exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an, London: Ad Ilissum/Paul Holberton Publishing, 2018, p. 140. 

[5] Linda Leach, Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library, London: Scorpion Cavendish, 1995, p. 415. 

[6] Wright, ‘Nasir al-Din Shah Album,’ Muraqqa p. 147. 

[7] Leach, ‘Mughal…’, p. 415. 

[8] Yves Porter,  Peintures et Art du Livre: Essai sur la literature technique indo-persane, Paris/ Teheran: Institut Français de recheche en Iran, 1992, pp. 63-65. 

Closed today

Monday to Friday 9:45am - 5:30pm
Wednesday 9:45am - 8:00pm
Saturday 9:45am - 5:30pm
Sunday 12:00pm - 5:30pm


Closed Mondays: Nov - Feb
Closed 1 Jan; Good Friday; 24-26 Dec


Admission is Free
Suggested donation €5

Map

Chester Beatty
Dublin Castle
Dublin 2
D02 AD92