Tilework of the Qajar period (1779–1925) was the dominant form of architectural decoration in Iran and is seen in the spectacular and colorful mosques, palaces, opulent private houses, bathhouses, bazaars and city gates which have survived from the reigns of Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834) and his great grandson Nasiruddin Shah (r. 1848–1896) in the capital Tehran and regional cities such as Isfahan and Shiraz. Three soundly based traditional techniques were used: mosaic, overglaze painting and underglaze painting. The collections of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art (DDFIA) illustrate these techniques and also their survival and development in the Pahlavi period (1925–1979), during which descendants of Qajar tilemakers continued to practice the craft skills of their families.
Tile mosaic is a slow and meticulous technique in which shaped units are cut from monochrome-glazed tiles and interlocked into complex designs of geometrical and foliate motifs. While the DDFIA has a large collection of tile mosaics that function as both external and internal decoration, a remarkable example of the technique is seen in a doorway of late-nineteenth-century date (48.454) which was acquired in 1941 in Tehran and is now located on the east wall of the dining room lanai. This doorway consists of two symmetrical panels which frame a central lintel. They are all covered with an intricate tile mosaic of small geometrical units of turquoise, blue, yellow, black and white worked into continuous repetitive designs of stars linked to pentagonal motifs and bands of radiating clusters. Spandrels in shallow relief create surface texture. Reserved against the mosaic background are inscriptions in different styles of calligraphy. The name of Ali is written in yellow in angular Kufic script shaped as a square motif at the top of each panel. Within the lintel is a central star-shaped medallion inscribed with the bismillah (“In the name of God, the merciful the compassionate”) in white curved nastaliq script. This is surrounded by half and quarter medallions with Arabic inscriptions from the Qur’an written in the vertical naskh script. The spandrels framing these inscriptions are decorated with spirals of foliate stems and tendrils. The use of small units of tiles is comparable to the equally meticulous technique of khatamkari, a technique of wood and ivory inlay, traditionally associated with Shiraz but also found now in Isfahan and Tehran.
Overglaze painting was first extensively developed in the Safavid period to decorate the many buildings of Isfahan of early seventeenth century date. It is relatively quick, as the design is divided into squares which are then painted in colored glazes and fired. The colors are kept separate by outlines painted in a greasy substance which burns to a matt-textured black cuerda seca “dry cord” during the second firing. Overglaze painting soon became the principal technique of Qajar tilework when a wide range of colors—turquoise, blue, green, yellow, pink, and purple—was used for fluent designs based on figural subjects and narrative themes. Two late Qajar tile compositions located at Shangri La illustrate this versatile technique well. A panel (48.15) located on the wall of the foyer is decorated with a narrative scene from one of the most famous romantic poems of Iran: the story of the star-crossed lovers Layla and Majnun composed by the eleventh-century poet Nizami. Here against a bright yellow landscape filled with flowering trees, Layla visits Majnun where he sits lost to the world, surrounded by animals and birds. The treatment of the theme shows the influence of Safavid manuscript illustration in the placing of the figures within an asymmetrical composition. The second example is a semicircular panel (48.429) which functioned as the surround of a fireplace located in the living room of the separate Playhouse pavilion. Here the theme is exuberantly pictorial, with figures painted in bright clear colors—turquoise, blue, green, yellow, rose pink, purple, brown and black—interacting against a white ground. The subject is based on a large oil painting in the Chehel Sutun of a ruler entertaining a distinguished visitor to a display of dance and music. Dancing girls whirl around and stand on their hands among seated musicians who play a range of stringed and percussion instruments. A row of guards at the base of the panel talk among themselves. Any available space is filled with tables loaded with bowls of fruit, while bottles of wine, pomegranates, melons and apples are scattered among the figures.
The technique of underglaze painting was used continuously in Iranian ceramics since the ninth century but was only fully exploited in tilework during the nineteenth century and may therefore be regarded here as a Qajar innovation. Designs were painted in either opaque colors or transparent washes of blue, turquoise, green, purple and yellow. Black was used for fine outlines and shading to create perspective and volume and also to imitate the effect of photography, which had been introduced to Iran in the 1840s and was later enthusiastically practised by Nasiruddin Shah and his courtiers. The technique was popular in Tehran during the 1880s. The panels and friezes which decorate the walls of the Gulestan Palace depict a wealth of themes: Nasiruddin Shah reviewing his troops, hunting, listening to piano recitals (all copied from the court newspaper), imaginary portraits of eminent rulers, religious scenes with Christian subjects, episodes from Persian narrative poetry and much more. Tiles were also signed and dated. A panel of underglaze painted tiles (48.351)is located between the Mihrab Room and the dining room at Shangri La. It is formed of a continuous pattern of interlocking cruciform and star-shaped tiles painted respectively with motifs of flying ducks and flower sprays in blue, turquoise and purple and detail outlined in black. The panel is a nostalgic interpretation of forms and motifs used in tilework decoration of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Jennifer M. Scarce, Honorary Lecturer, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee, April 2013.
Mosaic tile panel (48.454) in the form of a gateway on the dining room lanai. Iran, late nineteenth century. (Photo: Tim Street-Porter, 2011.)
Tile panel (48.15) with a scene from Layla and Majnun. Iran, nineteenth century. Stonepaste: underglaze-painted. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2005.)
Tile panel (48.351). Iran, nineteenth century. Stonepaste: molded and underglaze-painted. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2009.)
Jennifer M. Scarce, “Qajar Iran: Tilework,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, April 2013, www.shangrilahawaii.org.
Wheeler Thackston, “Shangri La Highlights in Translation,” Shangri La Working Papers in Islamic Art, no. 1 (February 2012), 1–22.
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, “Commissions and Recreations, 1935–1938: Iran,” Collection Highlights, Shangri La: A Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, November 2012.
Jennifer M. Scarce, “Art in Iran x. Qajar 1. General,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, December 15, 1986.
Keelan Overton, “From Pahlavi Isfahan to Pacific Shangri La: Reviving, Restoring and Reinventing Safavid Aesthetics, ca. 1920–40,” West 86th :A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 19, no. 1 (Spring–Summer 2012), 61–87.
“Search the Collections: Qajar,” Victoria and Albert Museum.
Arthur Lane, A Guide to the Collection of Tiles in the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 1960).
Béla Kelényi and Iván Szántó, Artisans at the Crossroads: Persian Arts of the Qajar Period (1796–1925) (Budapest: Ferenc Hopp Museum of Eastern Asiatic Arts,2010).
Jennifer M. Scarce, “Ali Muhammad Isfahani; Tilemaker of Tehran,”Oriental Art 3 (1976): 278–288.
Jennifer M. Scarce, “Function and decoration in Qajar Tilework,”in Islam in the Balkans, Persian Art and Culture of the 18th and 19th centuries, ed. Jennifer M. Scarce (Edinburgh: Royal Scottish Museum, 1979), 75–86.
Jennifer M. Scarce, “Tilework” in The Arts of Persia, ed. R. W. Ferrier (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989): 271–294.
Jennifer M. Scarce, “The Role of Colour in the Themes and Techniques of the Tilework in Qajar Iran,” Qajar Studies: Journal of the International Qajar Studies Association IX (2009): 57–66.
Venetia Porter, Islamic Tiles (London: British Museum Press, 1995).
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