Pen Box

Location: Isfahan, Iran

Materials: papier-mâché body with lift-off lid, painted and varnished

Dimensions: 30 x 7.1 x 5.7cm

Accession Number: LAQ 39

Other Notes:

The main surfaces of this pen box – the top of the lid and the sides of the body – were painted by Isma‘il with crowded scenes in which the principal actor is the eunuch  Manuchihr Khan Mu‘tamad al-Dawlah (d 1847), who rose to be one of the most powerful men in Iran under Fath ‘Ali Shah and Muhammad Shah.

The top of the lid shows a battle in progress. On the left Persian troops are drawn up in a square around their camp, in the middle of which Mu‘tamad al-Dawlah is seated on a throne. The battle is in progress around the square, and on the right the enemy camp lies among irrigation canals and palm trees, outside the walls of a city. These events, which took place in 1257 AH (1841–2 AD), are described in the verses inscribed in white nasta‘liq around the edges of the lid. The painting is a tour de force, fitting the maximum of figures into an extremely confined space.

The sides of the box illustrate other incidents involving Mu‘tamad al-Dawlah: on one side he smokes a kalian on horseback, with his troops behind and hunting scenes on either side; and on the other he rides to war through a landscape with palm trees. The inside of the lid is finely painted with a large-scale flower-and-bird design. The gold interior of the box is decorated in a far less competent manner with three medallions on a background of birds among floral scrolls. The medallions contain the heads of an Indian youth, a Persian youth, and, in the centre, a Persian girl. The base has conventional gold scrollwork on a red ground.

The decoration is signed within the verses, ‘By command of the just [king] as splendid as the sun – him who is like a son to Mu‘tamad – that tale was depicted upon this surface by a man from the line of Mani, Isma‘il by name’.


N.D. Khalili, B.W. Robinson & T. Stanley, Lacquer of the Islamic Lands, The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, volume XXII, Part Two, London 1997, cat.243, pp. 50–53.
J.M. Rogers, The Arts of Islam. Masterpieces from the Khalili Collection, London 2010, cat.468, p.385.