Pen Box

papier-mâché cover and sliding compartment with rounded ends, painted over gold leaf and varnished

23.3 x 3.9 x 3.5cm

This pen box is an outstanding example of its type, both for its technical quality and the careful way in which the design was worked out. The top and sides of the cover were prepared with a sparkling red ground by a three-fold process. First the surface was covered with gold leaf, which was coated with varnish. While the varnish was still damp ground fragments of a scintillating material such as mother-of-pearl or pyrites were sprinkled on to it. Finally, a layer of red varnish was applied over the whole surface. The motifs were then painted over this ground, as slight damage to one of the flowers on the side shows.

The design on the top of the cover consists of five stumps which have burst back to life: a flowering rose bush, a hazel with nuts, and three tint fruit trees in blossom. A violet plant in flower pokes above the base line, but otherwise the smaller flowering plants that grow close to the earth are restricted to the sides. Here we find violets, carnations, tulips, primroses, poppies and others.

The base of the cover is plain olive-green, with a frame ruled in gold. The exterior of the sliding compartment is red and has been stippled to imitate leather. The sides are painted with a running pattern of trumpet-like flowers.

The signature, which is in gold shikastah and is on the top of the cover, reads, Zi ba‘d-i Muhammad ‘Ali ashraf-ast (‘After Muhammad ‘Ali is the most noble’). This is a crypto-signature used by ‘Ali Ashraf.

N.D. Khalili, B.W. Robinson & T. Stanley, Lacquer of the Islamic Lands, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, volume XXII, Part One, London 1996, cat.62, pp.94–5.