Introduction: James Justinian Morier and Nineteenth-Century Persia
Frédérique Baumgartner and Roberto C. Ferrari
Persia, that imaginary seat of Oriental splendour! that land of poets and roses! that cradle of mankind! that uncontaminated source of Eastern manners lay before me, and I was delighted with the opportunities which would be afforded me of pursuing my favourite subject.1
The fictional British character Peregrine Persic writes these words in his introductory epistle to the Rev. Dr. Fundgruben, which opens James Justinian Morier’s best-known novel The Adventures of Hajji Baba, of Ispahan, first published in London in 1824 as a three-volume set. With this letter, Persic introduces the tale that follows – an autobiographical manuscript written by Hajji Baba, whom he had met during his travels through the Middle East and cured of an illness, agreeing thereafter to bring the Persian man’s story to others. Indeed, Hajji Baba’s tale is a Bildungsroman with all the highs and lows one expects in such a novel. After writing the words above, however, Persic notes in immediate opposition that “perhaps no country in the world less comes up to one’s expectation than Persia, whether in the beauties of nature, or the riches and magnificence of its inhabitants.”2
With phrasing such as this, the Westerner’s dream of “the Orient” quickly debases to prejudice and discrimination against the East and its people for failing to live up to that dream. It is understandable, then, that today’s post-colonialist reader may critique Morier’s swashbuckling novel as a product of Western imperialism, exemplifying what Edward Said identified in his groundbreaking book Orientalism as “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”3
Morier’s novel was inspired by his first-hand experience of living in Persia, where he served from 1807 to 1816 as part of the British diplomatic service to the Qajar court under Fath ‘Ali Shah. His service also involved him traveling from Tehran to London and back again with the Mirza Abul Hasan Khan from 1809 to 1811, to help negotiate and ratify the peace treaty between the British government and the Qajar court. Morier authored and illustrated two travelogues, published in 1812 and 1818, based on his time in Persia. During these years, he sat for the portrait, from the Columbia University art collection, showing him wearing Qajar Persian clothing. This portrait is featured in the exhibition Looking East: James Justinian Morier and Nineteenth-Century Persia, alongside editions of his novels and travelogues deposited in the Columbia University Libraries.
The essays that follow were written by the MA students, with our editorial support, as part of their work on Looking East, offering them an opportunity to conduct the type of research that accompanies the making of an exhibition, therefore expanding the scope of what can be achieved within the exhibition space. Significantly, the research that the students conducted on their specific topics—historical context, Orientalist literature, painting attribution, provenance, book illustration, book conservation, etc.—allowed for a more thoughtful interpretation and display of the objects on view. The methodology varies from one essay to the next, as some topics involved archival research or working with primary sources, while others relied more heavily on visual analysis, secondary literature, or the insights of experts at Columbia and beyond. However, as a collection, the essays strive to engage critically with the Orientalist discourse as analyzed by Said, which also served as the theoretical foundation for the exhibition. The first two essays, focusing respectively on the historical context for Morier’s diplomatic missions and on the literary tradition of narratives of the East written by the West, set the stage for the eight subsequent essays, which follow two main axes: the portrait of Morier from Columbia on the one hand, and the literary output of Morier on the other. In this respect, the essays mirror the exhibition’s two components, “Portrayals of Persia” and “Narratives of Persia,” thus serving as an immediate complement to Looking East, with the ultimate hope of stimulating further research on the broad range of topics approached here.
Part 1: Context
Part 2: The Portrait of James Justinian Morier in the Columbia University Art Collection
“Between Fact and Fiction: Qajar Costume in the Portrait of James Justinian Morier”
Cydney Wilhelmina Williams
“The Plimpton Family and Their Collection of Portraits”
Part 3: James Justinian Morier, Author of Travelogues and Novels
- 1James Justinian Morier, The Adventures of Hajji Baba, of Ispahan (London: John Murray, 1824), I:xxxvi.
- 2Morier, Hajji Baba, I:xxxviii.
- 3Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 3. In 1935, the Iranian government requested that, in all global diplomacy, other countries refer to their country as Iran, which is the more accurate way Iranians designate their country in the Persian language. In the nineteenth century, Iran and its people were generally referred to by most Europeans as Persia/Persians, reflecting the biased perception of this broad region in opposition to the classical Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian world. The exhibition and essays presented here use the terminology “Persia” and “Persian” as they were employed by Morier and his British contemporaries, in an historical context.