“lure of the east” at Tate Britain

Evacuated from the British Museum; finding Muscat at Tate Britain – via the Victoria Line

The “lure of the east” exhibition dragged me down to the Tate Britain. The building is much like the Tardis– larger inside than outside and it does make me wonder at the expansive and educational vision of the Victorian wealthy compared to those today.

Lure of the East
Lure of the East

The exhibition, perhaps inspired by Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’, certainly makes the visitor an observer, not a participant. It perhaps argues against his overriding viewpoint. Sir Robert Shirley, who became an Ambassador for Shah Abbas, and the various British merchants who lived in the great trading cities of the Near East dressed in the current style of the country they lived in, speak volumes about their viewpoint. Details such as an artist, John Lewis, creating what could be a self-portrait of him at prayer in a Mosque and Shirley’s wife, Teresia, holding a pistol add to an alternative view.
Sir Robert Shirley, who was 19 when he started his work for the Persian Shah Abbas, stands well shaved, enrobed in Persian style garments. His cape could have been the inspiration for the floral design within the dramatic Safavid carpet in the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat.

Cock Fight Muscat Oman
Cock Fight Muscat Oman

Elsewhere, in the gallery, I came across more reminders of Muscat; a watercolour by the Victorian artist Arthur Melville cited as being inspired by a cockfight in Muscat. The cocks have been lost to history and the vast Iwan framing the scene also been lost within the sands of Muscat, if it were more than an architectural frame for the birds fight in front.

While at the Tate, apart from enjoying the extraordinary collection of British art, people were running through the Duveen Galleries (empty of art incidentally) – perhaps referencing the Chinese Olympics.
Along the Victoria Line, I wanted to meet with Jessica Harrison-Hall who curates Chinese Ceramics at the British Museum. Regularly in Oman I come across a surprising quantity of Chinese Ceramic , and needed some advice. Up the stairs of the Great Court, flooded with visitors, and across to room 90. Press on the curator’s doorbell and was greeted with “we need to evacuate the building” . The slightly irritating tone in the background had been an evacuation signal! Fortunately, after extensive checking, the all clear was sounded and Jessica almost trumped the evacuation notice with “these are easy”; and of course, that’s why I knew she would be the ideal person to answer my queries.
Not all ceramic shards have a shiny glaze on both sides and today mine did not – I missed my opening into the Hadrian Exhibition – another day will be needed I think

Author: Tony Walsh

Book author including the current Bradt guide to Oman