Conway Photographers Archive

Sophie Buckman: the serene beauty of Robert Byron’s Isfahan

Being presented with immediate free rein in The Courtauld’s Conway photographic library was delightfully overwhelming, and I spent much of my first day flitting between folders of images of Cumbrian churches, the Callipygian Venus, and Florentine stained glass.

Eventually and unsurprisingly, I was drawn to the section of files on the architecture of Iran, and soon came across the two on Isfahan. Having visited the city a few years ago, I was curious to see the photographs of what I remember as one of the most beautiful cities in the country of my family. An ancient Silk Road city, Isfahan flourished in the Safavid period, and its skyline is still marked by the imperial sandstone of Shah Abbas’ golden age.

The domes and minarets of Isfahan’s mosques and palaces colour the city a vibrant blue, evoking memories of invading Mongols and their eastern ceramics. In The Road to Oxiana (1937), travel writer and aesthete Robert Byron (1905 – 1941) saw reflections of this dominating colour in the Zayandehrud river which cuts through the city; he describes it “catching that blue in its muddy silver… and before you know how, Isfahan has become indelible, has insinuated its image into that gallery of places which everyone privately treasures”.

Expelled from Merton College, Oxford, Robert Byron was a member of the infamously flamboyant Hypocrites Club, and in the 1920s a “bright young thing” of the London social scene. While the excess of his early years was immortalised in novels by Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, much of Byron’s life was spent travelling and soon he became a wildly successful travel writer, ahead of his death in combat in 1941.

Here at the Courtauld can be found Byron’s own photos from his Middle Eastern trip of 1933–34, taken during the writing of his most famous work, The Road to Oxiana.

Item from the Conway Library. Two images of Isfahan, Persia, showing the bridge.

CON_B02478_F001_002 Robert Byron, a view along Khaju Bridge from the imperial box in its centre. The throne from where Shah Abbas II would have enjoyed summer evenings is long gone.

Central to his view of Isfahan, is the river, “Zayandeh” literally meaning “life-giver”, and its two main bridges, Pol-e-Khaju, Khaju Bridge, and Si-o-se Pol, the Bridge of 33 Arches.

Pol-e-khaju and Si-o-se Pol were both built in the seventeenth century, and function as pedestrian bridges as well as weirs. In Byron’s photographs the Zayandehrud tears between their arches, whilst in more recent years the waterbed has been dry.

The river’s pilgrimage from the Zagros Mountains has fallen short every summer for 10 years now. Some blame bureaucratic mismanagement and the over-allocation of water to steelworks and farms upstream, whilst officials have been quoted as instead blaming the immorality of Isfahanis for the drying of the river.[1]

Item from the Conway Library, two black and white images of the bridge from different angles.

Robert Byron, Khaju Bridge, low water. CON_B02478_F001_001.

Robert Byron’s several visits to the city over those two years provide evidence of the instability of the Zayandehrud’s water levels. In one photograph of Pol-e-Khaju the water is low enough to allow locals to wash and bathe on the crumbling Safavid steps.

In one of Byron’s photos of Si-o-se pol, a group of people seem stranded in his symmetrical framing, the water rising, with several of the men staring deep into the camera’s lens, almost imploring the viewer for help. Photographing this middle section of the bridge isolates these pedestrians, eliminating any view of escape from the Zayandehrud, reframing a simple social scene into a near biblical scene of flooding.

Item from the Conway Library, two black and white images of people standing on the bridge, under the arches.

Robert Byron, high water. CON_B02478_F007_002.

The two bridges have served as meeting-places and social spaces for Isfahanis since their inception, particularly in the evenings, when the workday ends and crowds are drawn to the aureate glow of the lit arcades and arches.

Byron describes the foot passages on Si-o-se Pol being as overwhelmed as the river; “it was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory”.

Despite Byron’s poetic synonymity of crowd and water, the drought of recent years have allowed for the continued tradition of singing underneath the arches of Khaju. Groups of men drink tea, smoke shisha pipes, or “hubble-bubbles” as Byron called them, and sing in groups or unison, their voices echoing off the high, curved roof of the cavernous spaces.

The sound is haunting, and one almost feels transported to a bygone era in awe of this storied tradition.

Robert Byron, daytime under Khaju Bridge, 1933. CON_B02478_F001_005.

A photograph from my visit to Isfahan in 2017, nighttime under Khaju Bridge, with singers.

Much of Byron’s journey through Persia in The Road to Oxiana is impeded by bureaucracy and illness. Many of the entries of his many weeks stuck in Tehran start with some defeated variation of “Still here”. By contrast, the verdant splendour of Isfahan is celebrated, in what I find to be the most beautiful passage of the book:

“The bridge encloses the road by arched walls, on the outside of which runs a miniature arcade for foot passengers. This was crowded with people, and all the town was hurrying to join them; there was never such a flood in living memory. The lights came out. A little breeze stirred, and for the first time in four months I felt a wind that had no chill in it. I smelt the spring, and the rising sap. One of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine. So much it meant to have escaped from Teheran.”     Robert Byron on Si-o-se Pol, The Road to Oxiana 

For the first summer in ten years, 2019 saw the Khaju and Si-o-se bridges flushed with water once again. Through drought and flood, from their building in the 1600s, to Byron’s 1930s, to the present, the serene beauty of these “cafe-au-lait” bridges endures.

[1] The Independent, June 2016, “Iranian women’s clothing “causing rivers to run dry”, says senior cleric” https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iranian-womens-clothing-is-causing-a-river-to-run-dry-cleric-says-a7077021.html


Sophie Buckman

Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

Collecting Stories Workshop

As part of our digitisation pilot, we organised 6 brainstorming sessions to develop new ideas and harness the creativity of unselected members of the public.

In the Collecting Stories session, we brainstormed the idea that putting the Courtauld Libraries’ images online could spark conversations not only to do with the academic appreciation of fine art and architecture, but also with personal history, community engagement, social development, and storytelling. We wanted to come up with ideas for the website’s structure, including options to collect stories and interpretation.

One of the exercises we set up to get the conversation started saw our participants roaming the Conway Library looking for one image that was personally relevant to them and writing a story to go with it. Images and stories were then passed on for someone else to write a reply and present them to the group.
We wanted to discuss what it’s like to approach an image collection with the intent to tell a personal story, whether reading someone else’s story about an image enriches it, and how it feels to have a stranger describe something personal like the photo of one’s hometown or special place.

The exercise really got our group talking and the resulting suggestions and ideas will shape the way our project will be delivered. As for the images selected and the stories generated, they were beautiful and nostalgic so some of our volunteers typed them up and wrote further responses. Here are a few.

 


Broadgate, London.

“Broadgate – close to Liverpool Street
Swiss bank – public space – Richard Serra
Demolished – redevelopment – bars, cafes etc.
1980s corporate architecture – 20th century society
Historic England
Memory – affection” Jan Peters

“Hidden behind Liverpool Street station is Broadgate. In amongst the monstrous redevelopment of this area weaves the Broadgate art trail, the most impressive art collection by acclaimed British and international artists. Accessible to all and out in the open-air my memories are of numerous school trips with teenagers interacting with fantastic sculptures, as opposed to the untouchable work in galleries and museums. We never noticed the rather sterile architecture (the students’ opinion) but marveled at the Fulcrum by Richard Serra, laughed at the Leaping Hare on Crescent and Bell by Barry Flanagan and sat drawing the Rush Hour by George Segal. It still holds its fascination today.” Lorraine Stoker

 


 

CON_B02478_F008_010 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

CON_B02478_F005_003 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

Isfahan (Persia) Shah Sultan Hussain’s Madrassa

“A painting or a ‘colourised’ photograph of the entrance to the Shah Sultan Hassain Madrassa in Isfahan, Iran. The coolness on the small pond, blue of the characteristics turquoise vaulting. Men in various uniforms stood by the doorway. A mix of clothing and styles – a young boy with cumberbund and blue shirt. Men in heavy overcoats.
Love insights into the clothing of people in the picture.” Pragya Dhitel

“As I worked my way through this box it was fascinating to look at a bygone era of a foreign country not known to me. The image to compliment this image, for me, would be CON_B02478_F005_003, a black and white image described as “looking glass niche”, which I presume would be on the vaulting of the roof.” Arun Mahajan

 


 

CON_B04383_F002_024 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

“The Image is the view out of a classroom window in Amsterdam. It is a city where everyone lives, learns or works very close to one another. Everyone can see into everywhere else, seeing people live their lives. It is both comforting & disconcerting.
I imagine being torn by what is happening outside and having to stay focused on what is inside.” Barbara Bouman

“This really helped me think about this image more deeply.
At first look, this seems cold, austere and unstimulating. A place where your mind might wonder. But then the shapes, thrown into contrast by the light, offer another perspective which is anything but dull. The light draws you inward and outward simultaneously. I suppose that’s what classrooms are supposed to do.” Stephen Lines

 


 

CON_B03339_F001_012 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

“I think a picture means a lot more if there are people in it. For this reason, I immediately decided to go straight to the Venice boxes. I found this picture inside the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari box. It depicts a lady in a white casual dress and probably dates back to the seventies. The face of the lady is not visible but her hair reminds me of my grandmother from a photo that I have seen at her home.
It means a lot to me, even if it’s not her. Imagination is better sometimes.” Giulia Antonioli

“Interesting. Feeling a connection with people, but not people whose faces or expressions we can see. It’s not a picture that appealed to me, initially, but now I sort of get it. The story brings me more into the picture.” Lucy Sharp

 


 

CON_B07582_F001_009 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

A pair of paper bags with large and small buckets (paper, galvanised steel and vinyl) by Richard Wentworth. 1982.

“Materials – tactile paper, the ephemeral throw away, everyday object. Manufacturing steel, paper “the sound of crushing paper around a steel hard bucket.” “Opposites.” The fact the bucket has no water in it. Water and paper do not mix. Thinking of conservation. Archives – conservation. Situated on concrete near Haywood Gallery – Modernist building. Wentworth went to Hornsey Art College the year I was born.” Veronica Bailey

“I love that you have added sound to the image.” Barbara Bouman

 


CON_B04300_F001_021 – The Courtauld Institute of Art – CC-BY-NC

Miss Cranston’s tea rooms Louise Campbell

“Finding this collection of photos brings back lots of good memories and a fuzzy warm nostalgia.
I grew up in Glasgow, I really enjoyed getting to visit the tea rooms if I was good. They were always the first choice of place to lunch; even as a child. I love the Mackintosh decor even though in the 80s and 90s it was dated and not very cool. I even enjoyed lunched there with my mum, and the staff fussing over me and happily making me (something) complicated off the new orders.
Looking back at the photos, they stand up and I now still love the Art Nouveau period and would happily decorate my whole house as Art Nouveau as it brings back such happy memories.”

“Childhood memories triggered by architecture interiors of the Art Nouveau period/Mackintosh. An interest in interior design now. How the past influences future space.” Veronica Bailey

“Looking back at the photographs and reading the others’ description you can imagine the noise and sounds of the Mackintosh tearooms. The hustle and bustle of people’s voices, sounds of children sitting patiently waiting with parents, the smell of cakes and brewed tea.
The architecture is amazing to look at, especially the Art Nouveau period. I particularly like the design of the fireplace and black and white chequered tiled floor.” Saffron Saidi