Bonhams next sale of Indian and Islamic Art on 25th October includes a fascinating portrait of His Imperial Majesty Nasr al-Din Shah Qajar, the Persian Shah from 1848 to 1896 – painted during a State visit to England in 1889.

Ironically, it was this association with Great Britain and its numerous business interests within Persia, that led to domestic unrest, culminating in the Shah’s assassination on the eve of the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of his accession.

Estimated to sell for £15,000 to £25,000, the image painted by the British artist, John Vinter (1828-1905), a favourite artist of Queen Victoria, recalls an age when Britain s relations with Persia (later Iran) were extremely cordial. This painting, commissioned at the time of the opening of The Imperial Bank of Persia (which became the Imperial Bank of Iran in 1935), remained the property of the bank, which was later known as HSBC Middle East, and hung in their Mayfair-based headquarters.

The Imperial Bank of Persia was established in London in 1889 and in the same year opened its doors in Tehran. It had obtained a 60 year banking concession from the Shah and was granted a monopoly for issuing Persias first bank notes as well as acting as the state bank of Persia. Unusually, it was also granted a Royal charter by the British government.

Diamonds As Big As Walnuts
Nasr al-Din Shah was the first of the Persian Shahs to visit the West and came to England in 1873. On this first visit, Queen Victoria awarded the Shah the British Order of The Knight of the Garter and in return he presented her with the Persian Order of the Imperial Effigy.

According to observers of his visit, the Shah’s uniform was sometimes covered with precious stones from shoulder to waist, ‘a glittering breastplate’ in the words of his French physician who added that diamonds as big as walnuts were used for buttons.

In Vinter’s portrait of the Shah, apart from a display of large diamonds, we are able to identify the gold woven belt with its heart-shaped cabochon-cut emerald buckle (estimated at 175 carats). It has been suggested that this emerald was in fact the one that once adorned the Mughal Emperor of India and was plundered by the Persian ruler Nadir Shah during the Siege of Delhi in 1739 and taken back to Persia. Also, the diamond medallion the Shah is wearing around his neck could well be the Darja-i Nur, the Nur al-Aui or the Taj-i Mah, three fabled Golconda diamonds which were mined during the Mughal reign.

Many of the royal portraits in Persia were based on photographs which were taken by the chief photographer Mirza Ahmad Khan, Sani’ al-Sattanah. He became one of the most illustrious Persian photographers of the Qajar period. He accompanied the Shah on his visit to England in 1889 as the official court photographer. It is most likely that Vinter would have been supplied with photographs of the Shah on which this portrait is based