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Volume 45, Number 3May/June 1994

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Vision of the Middle East

"I belong to a flying corps of light armed skirmishers," wrote W.H. Bartlett, "who, going lightly over the ground, busy themselves chiefly with its picturesque aspect."

Written by Sarah Searight
Illustrations courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

Bartlett was one of over 700 artists, writers and travelers whose works are included in my father's, Rodney Searight's, collection of "visions" of the Middle East. Many of those who trod more heavily upon the ground than Bartlett, living there over several years like Rodney Searight himself, also reveled in the picturesque of the Middle East, "those harsh, beautiful and strategic lands between Europe and India," as he described them.

Searight's enjoyment of the Middle East led in due course to his collection of watercolors, prints, drawings and books of the region, stretching in this context from Constantinople in the north to the Sudan in the south, west to the Maghrib and east to the Iranian border with Afghanistan. The Searight Collection was acquired in 1985 by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Middle East has fascinated Europeans since the days of Sir John Mandeville, a medieval weaver of imaginative oriental travel tales. An element of the fabulous has often affected European attitudes to the region, fostered in the 18th century by early translations of A Thousand and One Nights, with fashions for oriental costume stimulated by artists living in Constantinople. The mood led via such romantic poets as Lord Byron to the orientalism of the 19th century (See Aramco World, November-December 1984).

But Searight always maintained that his was not an orientalist collection, with its implication of highly colored genre scenes—"houris all over the place," as he put it. Many of his artists were amateurs and, together with the professionals, more interested in the archeology, the architecture, the landscape of the regions through which they traveled than merely in its exoticism. They also covered a far wider region than the Near East of the orientalist, areas where only the more adventurous dared to tread.

European involvement with the Middle East took a new turn in the 16th century, with the forging of direct commercial links—connections that continue to this day and which, in fact, were responsible for Searight's stay in the region and his affection for it. That development was centered on Constantinople, capital and hub of the Ottoman Empire, and on such cities of the empire as Aleppo, Smyrna (Izmir) and Antioch. It is illustrated by several early prints in the collection, such as two engravings from a French travel account of 1551. Merchants such as Alexander Drummond and Alexander Russell produced illustrated books in 1754 and 1757 respectively—copies of which are in the collection—that reflect European fascination with a little-known part of the world, its manners and customs, its flora and fauna. Traveling outside the cities was dangerous as well as arduous, and only recommended to the intrepid. Local hostility to non-Muslims was reciprocated with an anti-Muslim bias that flavors most contemporary European accounts, such as that by a chaplain to the English community in Aleppo, Henry Maundrell, whose illustrated account of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem—also in the collection—was published in 1703.

As far as Egypt was concerned, few Europeans ventured beyond Alexandria before the late 18th century, though an exception is commemorated by a group of gouache views of the journey of an unknown Venetian magnate to Cairo about 1560-65. A later traveler was James Bruce, whose magnificently illustrated Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, in the collection, was published in 1768-73. Persia was also relatively unexplored, although the Dutchman Cornelius de Bruyn produced an illustrated account, Travels in Muscovy, Persia and Part of the East Indies, in 1737. Jonas Hanway's Account of British Travel Over the Caspian Sea, published in 1753, gives enough hair-raising details of contemporary Persian anarchy to discourage any would-be traveler or trader. All these accounts are in the collection.

But from the moment of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, ostensibly to interrupt British communications with India, Egypt assumed a central strategic importance in European eyes which prevailed until the Suez crisis in 1956. Napoleon's expedition included a group of French scholars commissioned to investigate every aspect of contemporary Egypt. The impact of their investigations was captured by the artist Baron Dominique Vivant Denon, whose independent illustrated account, Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte, was published in 1802, before their 20-volume Déscription de I'Egypte (1809-1822), and alerted Europe to the splendor of Egypt's antiquities. The invasion brought Egypt into the realm of European trade and politics, and its subsequent ruler, viceroy Muhammad Ali, dedicated himself to the modernization of the country.

Many pictures in the Searight Collection reflect the "opening" of Egypt to European investment, as railway and bridge builders, cotton planters and dealers, bankers and shipping merchants flocked to that country. Behind and in front of them, reveling in this extension of the Grand Tour, came the travelers, the tourists, the antiquarians, some of them en route to and from India, others on pilgrimages to the Holy Land and most as ready with pencil, brush, paint and paper as the modern visitor with his camera. Communications with India are well illustrated in the collection by paintings of the Overland Route through Egypt, by watercolors by Robert Moresby, sent by Bombay Marine to chart the dangerous shoals of the Red Sea, as well as by paintings of the Suez Canal and its construction, including a fine watercolor by William Simpson of Ferdinand de Lesseps's steam yacht Mathilde.

By the 1930's, when Searight arrived in Egypt to work for Shell, the European community there included several thousand people. During his time in Egypt a facade of Egyptian independence disguised not only the extent of foreign control but, more important, the resentment it caused among Egyptians. It seldom disturbed the congenial pattern of life of the expatriate community, which amused itself with cricket at the Gezirah Club and picnics in the desert. The first question his new boss asked Searight, on his arriving in Cairo in 1931, was about his cricket prowess: "Do you bowl or bat?" A horse and donkey hospital founded during my father's years in Egypt by his mother, my grandmother, who was also living in Cairo, represented a real, if modest, expatriate commitment to Egyptian welfare. This endeavor, the Brooke Hospital for Animals, is stillgoing strong, a philanthropic reflection of the interest in the Arab horse shown by such artists as Henry Alken in the 19th century.

Predictably, Searight always said, the foundation of his collection was a painting of Cairo—a watercolor of the city by David Roberts which he bought in 1960 for the princely sum of £52 10s. Other paintings of Cairo reflect his interest in the city where he lived so long, in particular one by the Englishman J.F. Lewis, who lived in a typical Cairene house for many years and adopted a Turkish lifestyle. In due course Lewis produced some of the most magnificent genre paintings of his time; one of the finest paintings in the collection is his "Scene in a Cairo Bazaar."

The collection also contains some interesting sketches of the Middle East campaign of World War I, including James McBey's "First Sight of Jerusalem" after the British defeat of the Turks in 1918. Searight spent much of World War II in the Middle East, and after the war lived in Cairo until 1951. His later career was spent mostly in London but he remained involved with the Middle East, and from 1958 to 1960 he lived in Iraq.

His observer's experience of Iraqi politics then was a reminder of the uneasy situation that had reigned in Mesopotamia in the 19th century. One of the few depictions of Baghdad in the collection is a lithograph by Robert Clive, published as part of a series on the region between the Black Sea and the Gulf in 1851 and 1852. A rare and interesting item on the Arabian Gulf is Lieutenant Richard Temple's lithographic record of 16 locations visited by a British expedition that had been mounted from India to suppress "piracy" in the lower Gulf. And one of the most valuable paintings in the collection is William Daniell's fine early watercolor of the entrance to Muscat harbor, painted after a visit in 1793.

A career in the oil world frequently took Searight to Iran, never a particularly tranquil country in which to travel, least of all in the 19th century. Many of those who did so were Russian or British diplomats and soldiers, more interested in playing the so-called Great Game of imperial rivalry between their respective countries than in pausing to sketch or paint. Among those who did paint, however, was the Scottish artist Sir Robert Ker Porter, several of whose sketches are in the collection, as well as his Travels in Georgia, etc. published in 1821 and 1822. French artists Eugene-Napoleon Flandin and Pascal Coste accompanied a French embassy as official artists from 1839 to 1842, publishing their descriptions of Persia's ancient and Islamic monuments in eight volumes between 1843 and 1845;. these and other books of their drawings are in the collection.

Retirement in 1966 put collecting at the top of my father's list of priorities, and in 1969 he held his first exhibition at Leighton House in Kensington, London, breaking new ground in demonstrating the breadth of interest 19th-century Europe evinced in the Middle East (See Aramco World, November-December 1973). Critical acclaim gave him the courage to continue expanding the collection, including contemporary volumes of travels, many of them illustrated with engravings of which he now possessed the original watercolors.

"Being a draftsman myself often helped me to recognize an artist's hand," Searight maintained; early years in a London office had been combined with evening art classes at the Chelsea Art School, and the walls of his apartment, laid bare when his collection moved to the V&A, were covered with his own drawings, including caricatures of Cairo friends and contemporaries. "To distinguish between amateur and professional is irrelevant," he stressed; an album of sketches of Turkey, already in the V&A, by a prolific and sensitive amateur, Selina Bracebridge—a friend of Florence Nightingale and well represented in the collection was skillful enough to have been attributed to Edward Lear until Searight pointed out the error. Such gifts of recognition also helped him spot two unattributed pencil drawings of Cairo in the collection of a dealer as being by David Roberts, one of them a preliminary sketch for the finished watercolor mentioned above.

What emerges from the collection is a vivid reminder of the impact of both ancient and modern oriental culture on 19th-century Europe. Victorian coffee tables were laden with Finden's Landscape Illustrations of the Bible, a dozen volumes by Bartlett, a succession of editions of Roberts's lithographs of The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia, originally published from 1842 to 1849. Architects played with Egyptian facades, while the public poured into museum galleries to marvel at antiquities transported to the Louvre and the British Museum; the collection contains a watercolor of British traveler and self-appointed archeologist Henry Layard floating an Assyrian bull sculpture from Nimrud down the river Tigris on its way to the British Museum. Or people visited contemporary "picture palaces" to be entertained by dioramas, a kind of slide show of the Near East, often of the Overland Route.

The range of contributors grew as the collection grew—soldiers, sailors, architects, archeologists, diplomats and engineers. "History and topography caught my interest quite as much as the artistic merit of many of my quarries," Searight wrote. Most of the artists represented are British but the collection also includes French Italian, German, Swiss, Scandinavian, Spanish, Dutch, Russian and even one or two American artists. "They'd been drawn to the Middle East by the same attractions that had drawn me there, and also drew me to them—the architectural, archeological, topographical and human subjects so satisfyingly available in that part of the world."

Finding a home for so vast a collection—it comprised more than 2000 watercolors and drawings, several thousand prints and several hundred illustrated books—was a major problem, since Searight was anxious that it should be kept together. This the Victoria and Albert Museum was able to do—with help from Shell International Petroleum Company and other organizations—and there it may now be consulted, with the aid of a comprehensive microfiche catalogue compiled by Briony Llewellyn, Tanya Szrajber and Jenny Elkan. Plans are now being made for the collection to be exhibited in 1995 in the United States by the Smithsonian Institution.

Briony Llewellyn worked with my father on the collection for many years, and in her preface to the printed catalogue, published by the V&A in 1989, she calls it "unique as a pictorial record of the cultural interaction between the West and the Middle East before the widespread use of photography." It is a fine, broad view: one man's vision of many people's visions of the Middle East.

Sarah Searight, a Middle East specialist, is the author of The British in the Middle East and of Steaming East, a record of travel between Europe and India in the 19th century. She would like to express her thanks to Briony Llewellyn for her cooperation and assistance.

This article appeared on pages 32-39 of the May/June 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1994 images.