Not many years ago a young couple in our family received a present from Iran. It came in two special postal deliveries and created quite a stir in the small flat where they were living at the time. The wife is a British Iranian, so it was no surprise that her Iranian relatives wanted to give her a special wedding present. It would be a carpet, an Iranian painting or wall tapestry. I was coming down the stairs and witnessed them opening the two parcels. One contained a large wall tapestry, the other a huge elaborate frame with gilded baroque flourishes. They were quickly repacked and I never saw them again. But I could not forget the painting. I expected it to be an Iranian landscape with bare mountains, a tree or two and figures in the foreground, probably conversing around a fountain in a walled Persian garden. Instead, it showed a very un-Iranian rutted track leading through an open gate into a shadowy green and brown woodland scene. Just tree trunks, leaves and mud. Not even a rustic cottage, a trail of smoke, or a cow or sheep with a human being herding them, even a child. It was rather large for their flat.
Some years later I was surprised to see the same scene on the wall of a cafe in a provincial Iranian city north-west of Tabriz. It seemed so incongruous. Our Iranian guide saw me staring at it and explained that it was still a popular painting in Iran. In the late 19th century, Victorian painters of landscape like Gainsborough and Constable were much admired by Iranian artists. The one I was looking at was a very popular subject, widely copied. It reminded me of the landscape described by Thomas Hardy in his novels. He could walk out of his house straight into woodland.
Last Sunday we drove through woods in search of a tree tunnel like the one in this strangely compelling painting by an anonymous Iranian artist. In vain. The tracks were wider, mostly asphalted and the trees a lighter green. No pattern of ruts or thickly interlaced trees. No animals or birds in the Iranian version of a Gainsborough or Constable woodland. Just trees and track. The thick trees were growing thanks to a bountiful rainfall, a rarity in Iran except for the far north near Russia. Did this painting of an unexciting woodland scene to us represent an Iranian dream of a plentiful rainfall and shady forests evoked by 19th-century Iranian artists who managed to study in Paris or London?
I wonder how images were carried then from one continent to another across the land and sea paths of merchandise. What would be in the bulging saddlebags? Not paintings, but sketchbooks. I like to imagine that somewhere about 1860 an Iranian merchant travelled to London and happened to be invited to one of the Royal Academy exhibitions. There he found the swirls of colour in Turner’s paintings disturbing. Instead, he spent a long time immersing himself in the saturated greens and browns of Constable’s landscapes, making quick notes and daubs for colour reference in his sketchbook.
What’s familiar to one nation may be unfamiliar and exotic to another. Was this painting as exotic to Iranians as Persian miniatures and paintings of India were to the West until the current internet medley of images that now constitutes our everyday visual fodder?