Authors: Laura-Maria Popoviciu (Government Art Collection) , Andrew Parratt (Government Art Collection)
This article will address curatorial challenges faced by the Government Art Collection in the repatriation, conservation, and selection of a new display for the British ambassador’s residence in Tehran following an attack by Iranian protesters in 2011. Drawing on the authors’ experience, the article will focus primarily on the history of George Hayter’s autograph copy of Queen Victoria’s state portrait of c. 1838–40, commissioned from the artist specifically for the new legation building in 1862–63. It will reconstruct the context of its making, the significance of its presence in nineteenth-century Tehran, its survival, and reinstatement in 2019. While uncovering new archival material that will help to situate this portrait within the wider context of Hayter’s copies of Victoria’s state portrait and to shed light on his so far unexplored connections with Iran, its examination will also explore what this work conveys about the complex history between Britain and Iran. At a time when the UK is having a profound national conversation about how it wants to engage internationally, can Victoria’s image help to build cultural relations or is it merely a relic of an imperial past?
Keywords: Queen Victoria, diplomacy, soft power, restoration, conservation, iconoclasm, curating, Iran, British Embassy, contested heritage
How to Cite: Popoviciu, L. & Parratt, A. (2022) “Enduring Victoria: Iconoclasm and Restoration at the British Embassy in Tehran”, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. 2022(33). doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.4710
On 29 November 2011 the British ambassador’s residence in Tehran was stormed by Iranian protesters in retaliation for economic sanctions imposed by the UK over Iran’s nuclear programme.1 Works of art from the Government Art Collection (GAC) on display in the residence suffered considerable damage.2 Of the six works that had been on display, it seemed clear that a form of iconoclasm had been enacted: modern works had been ignored while historical royal portraits, including an important nineteenth-century Qajar portrait of Fath ’Ali Shah by Ahmad had been slashed. The most extreme violence, however, was directed towards the British royal portraits of Victoria, her son King Edward VII, and grandson King George V.3 The damaged paintings included an autograph portrait of Queen Victoria by George Hayter.
When the crowd of protesters scaled the British compound wall in Tehran in November 2011, the first indications of the extent of the damage to the embassy building and its contents were revealed in press reports, including the publication of an arresting image of Hayter’s painting after it was torn.4 Having glimpsed the destruction, little could be achieved in the immediate aftermath. The moment British Embassy staff were safely airborne, the Foreign Secretary expelled all Iranian diplomats based in London and political ties between the two countries were cut.5 The British Embassy remained closed for the next four years. For a collection whose aim is to contribute to cultural diplomacy through works of art displayed in UK embassies and high commissions around the world, the attack on the Tehran Embassy had lasting consequences as damaged works were stranded there for several years following severance of diplomatic ties between the two countries. In 2016, following the gradual reinstatement of diplomatic relations, it became possible for GAC staff to visit Tehran and examine the damaged works of art. Fragments of the Victoria portrait, saved by local staff, were reassembled like a jigsaw from which it was possible to determine that almost all the original paint surface from the portrait was extant. This raised hopes that restoration could be successful if the damaged works could be returned to the UK for treatment.
Repatriating the art was itself challenging because continuing political sensitivities compounded the practical difficulties of safely moving the fragile pieces. Following lengthy negotiations, in early 2018 Victoria left the British Embassy for the first time in a hundred and fifty years and returned, ingloriously, to the UK.6 Over the next nine months, the portrait underwent a remarkable process of restoration and, looking beyond the immediate structural damage, the condition of the paint layer was untouched. Cleaning it was transformational (Fig. 1).7 The restoration project also provided a unique opportunity to carry out primary research on the history of this painting, the context of its making, and to establish how Hayter became involved with this commission for the British legation building in Tehran.
This article will explore the longer history of the painting from its making, through the significance of its presence in nineteenth-century Tehran, to the 2011 attack and its reinstatement in 2019. While uncovering new archival material that will help to situate this portrait within the wider context of Hayter’s corpus of autograph copies of Queen Victoria’s state portrait, and to shed light on his so far unexplored connections with Iran, its examination will also explore what this work conveys about the complex history of British and Iranian diplomatic relations.8 Moreover, the account of the conservation and reinstallation of the painting will emphasize its continued significance; that this is not just an historical artefact but one, like Victoria’s image more generally, that has a dynamic and evolving connection with contemporary politics and diplomacy (Fig. 2).9
The son of miniaturist Charles Hayter, George Hayter (1792–1871) studied painting at the Royal Academy Schools and in Rome, specializing in portraiture and history painting. Admired and held in the highest regard by Victoria as ‘the best portrait painter’, Hayter secured an official position within the royal household which allowed him to undertake significant commissions.10 In a diary note from 9 August 1857, he recounted: ‘On this day 1837, I was appointed Principal Painter of Portraits and History to the Queen, but had to wait till the death of Sir David Wilkie for the enjoyment of my office.’11 Scottish artist David Wilkie had been a favourite of George IV and continued his role as official painter through to Victoria’s accession. However, he fell out of favour with the Crown over two commissions: The First Council of Queen Victoria, a painting that the Queen subsequently referred to as ‘one of the worst pictures I had ever seen, both as to painting & likeness’; and her state portrait which she described as ‘atrocious’.12 Consequently, she decided to entrust the commission for a new state portrait to Hayter. Painted c. 1838–40 and now on display at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, it depicts the 19-year-old Victoria as she appeared on her coronation day at Westminster Abbey on 28 June 1838. She wears coronation robes and the Imperial State Crown, carries the sceptre and the cross, and is seated in her homage chair.13 Following an established artistic tradition of constructing and disseminating the image of an emblematic British ruler, this portrait was the subject of numerous autograph copies, some of which were sent to British diplomatic missions abroad.14 A note drawn up after Hayter’s death in 1871 indicates that the state portraits made between 1859 and 1863 were sent to India, China, Turkey, Japan, Austria, Russia, and Iran.15 Four of these copies are still in the Government Art Collection and on display in the countries they were originally sent to.16 While these copies and their purpose are yet to receive further critical attention and assessment, the late art historian and surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, Sir Oliver Millar, noted that a number of documents in the National Archives reference these works, allowing a partial reconstruction of their history and their respective destinations (I, 106). Despite never having travelled outside Europe, Victoria’s presence was palpable internationally through the global dissemination of her image. She was aware of the potential impact of her portraits and that their circulation and display would serve both as a symbolic substitute for her presence and an indication of Britain’s political sphere of influence and international engagements throughout her reign.17 Hayter’s autograph copy that was intended specifically for the new British legation building in Tehran (completed in 1876) has been on continuous display ever since.18 The unique feature of this painting is that at the bottom left is an inscription in Persian which translates as: ‘Artwork made by George Hayter 1863. Holder of the Order of the Lion and the Sun’ (Fig. 3).19
This imperial order was established by the second Qajar ruler, Fath ’Ali Shah (1722–1834) in 1808 and was usually conferred on foreign officials who distinguished themselves through their services to Persia.20 Given this prerequisite, it is necessary to clarify the circumstances in which Hayter came by this honour and to establish why a Persian inscription featured on a British royal portrait. It was Sir Denis Wright, the British ambassador to Tehran from 1963 to 1971, who first signalled the presence of the inscription as an exception to Hayter’s usual practice. He was curious about the reference to the noble order because, as he noted, ‘Hayter neither visited Iran nor painted any portraits of Iranian royalty.’21 However, Christie’s catalogue compiled for the studio sale in April 1871, following the death of the artist, reveals compelling evidence that Hayter had taken a great interest in Iran, both as an artist and as a collector.22 For example, among the lots offered for sale were a number of sketches titled The Shah of Persia Defending Himself against Brigands, and Two Persians Carrying away Circassian Women (today known as Banditti of Kurdistan Assisting Georgians in Surprising and Carrying off Circassian Women), as well as three silk Persian coats, an Astrakhan cap, two Persian cloths embroidered with gold lace, and a Persian dagger (lots 663, 688, 689, 692). More relevant to our purposes is lot 628, Heads of Three Persians, identified as an oil sketch signed by Hayter and dated 1831, which is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (Fig. 4). As indicated by Hayter through an inscription underneath the portrait, the sitters are one Saith Satoor and Ali Hassan Bey. Satoor, a bearded figure wearing an Astrakhan hat, is depicted twice, once in full face and again in profile. Before its acquisition by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the work was owned by Rodney Searight, a director at the petrochemical company Shell and a notable twentieth-century collector of Middle Eastern art.23 The Searight Archive includes the collector’s notes on Hayter’s sketch, which reveals his unsuccessful attempts at unearthing evidence about how the painter came by his decoration, as well as references to two earlier sketches by Hayter, showing the same bearded sitter, which are now in the collection of the Museum and Art Gallery, Bolton, Lancashire. These sketches, made between 1824 and 1826, are part of an album of pen and ink drawings by Hayter and show Saith Satoor seated with the artist at his easel, on horseback, and either in profile or full face (Figs. 5, 6).24 The latter appears to be a preparatory sketch for Satoor’s portrait in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Saith Satoor, also known as Sedak Beg or Said Khan, was the son of an Armenian trader from Bushire and was educated in Bombay. He was a protégé of Abbas Mirza (1789–1833), the Qajar crown prince of Persia. From 1818 to 1819 Saith Satoor travelled with the Scottish painter and diplomat Sir Robert Ker Porter in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.25 In his diary Ker Porter recounted that Abbas Mirza ‘provided me with a young Persian, called Sedak, of uncommon natural endowments, and still rarer advantages of education, to be with me constantly, as my interpreter.’26 From 1820 to 1835 Satoor was engaged in commercial enterprises between London, Turkey, and Iran, and it was on his recommendation that Hayter received the Persian decoration.27 The National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum holds a French translation of the original Persian documentation — termed a firman — which accompanied the order and indicates that it was bestowed by Abbas Mirza upon George Hayter in February 1828 (Figs. 7, 8). The translation made in 1830 by Joseph Marie Jouannin, first secretary and interpreter to the French king for Oriental languages, reads:
On his return from England, Said Khan one of our most distinguished Christian subjects, conveyed the most sincere attachment and purity of intentions of Mr George Hayter, most honourable English painter, distinguished both for his knowledge and skill; Said Khan brought with him our portrait which Mr Hayter painted most delicately and with affection. By having this portrait displayed before our eyes, it made us approve of such a great homage. It therefore seemed necessary to manifest our great satisfaction for such a beautiful work by presenting him a testimony of our benevolence. As a glorious mark of our satisfaction and kindness, we offer the honourable gentleman, the decoration of the Lion and the Sun.28
In two self-portraits Hayter depicted himself wearing his Persian decoration and was evidently proud of it.29 On 30 August 1851 he recorded in his diary, ‘Called on the Persian Ambassador, showed him my Firman from Abbas Mirza, as a knight of the Sun and Lion.’30 Furthermore, in a letter dated 1852, Melkum Khan, the first secretary to the Persian Embassy in London, informed Hayter that, upon reading the firman from Abbas Mirza, the new Qajar emperor Nasser al-din Shah (1831–1896) had asked him to paint his state portrait.31
It is important to note that during the nineteenth century it was more common for foreign diplomats to be honoured with this order, so the fact that Hayter received it for his artistic achievements must have constituted an exceptional recognition of his talent. Moreover, Hayter was the only British portrait painter to have been presented with this order and it is noteworthy that he received it even before he was appointed principal painter in ordinary to Victoria.32 Therefore, the presence of the Persian inscription on the portrait of Queen Victoria should be read in multiple ways. Firstly, it was meant to impress his audience, the official and diplomatic community in Tehran. The British diplomats and their guests at the legation would have understood the inscription and appreciated the prestige of the award. Secondly, having a portrait of the reigning monarch on display in any British embassy of the late Victorian period, then as now, was something that would be expected. An inscription on the portrait in the local language was a sign of respect for the host country and would have reinforced diplomatic ties.
Although there is no evidence that Hayter had any knowledge of Persian, he could have either copied the text directly from the original firman or asked for help with a translation. It was not uncommon for him to call upon diplomats for this sort of assistance. On 19 April 1856, for instance, he called on the Turkish ambassador to sketch for him the crescent and star for a Peace Medal.33 Hayter corresponded regularly with representatives of the Persian Embassy in London, especially with Melkum Khan with whom he had ‘tea with lemon and smoked cigars of Persian tobacco’.34 Hayter could have enlisted his help during one of their encounters. While the Persian inscription on the portrait of Queen Victoria, and Hayter’s strong connections with the Iranian diplomatic circles, may seem sufficient as a justification for the presence of the portrait at the British Embassy in Tehran today, it is essential, nonetheless, to understand the wider context in which this portrait was placed there.35
In 1863, the date of Hayter’s portrait, Iranian officials and the director of the Persian Telegraph Service, Robert Murdoch Smith, signed the first Telegraph Convention, which would link the land telegraph systems of Europe and India by a line through Iran.36 With the new infrastructure in place, Murdoch Smith, followed by Lieutenant Henry Pierson, oversaw the shipment of the equipment needed for a new British legation building in Tehran, a necessary move given the continuing expansion of the old city and the dilapidated state of the first legation building.37 Balancing practical requirements with a desire to impress, James Wild proposed an Indo-Saracenic design for the new embassy building that would incorporate Mughal, Persian, Gothic, and classical elements (Stourton, pp. 88–103). Upon completion, it was regarded as ‘the finest of all the legation enclosures. The reception rooms and hall of the minister’s residence are very handsome and a byzantine clock tower gives the building a striking air of distinction.’38 Wild’s intricate design for the vault in the central hall and the interlacing ornamentation were integrated with the royal coat of arms and the gilded Latin initials: VR [Victoria Regina].39 For the decoration of the State Room, Caspar Clarke proposed a neoclassical template. It was in this room that Hayter’s portrait would be displayed. The Foreign Office papers inform us that he had received £210 for the portrait and that the cost of the frame was £60 (Millar, I, 106). On Hayter’s death in 1871 his son Angelo announced to the Foreign Office that there was a state portrait ordered for Persia, and paid for, remaining in the studio. This suggests that the portrait was sent to Tehran after 1871 but before 1876, when the new legation building was finished. The painting would have travelled in its frame, which was originally constructed with a view to protect it on the long overland journey from the Persian Gulf. Frames of this period would typically use gesso ornamentation. However, the gesso would have been too fragile in this instance, and it was decided that this frame would be fully carved in relief.40
It was around this time, in 1873, that Nasser al-din Shah also undertook the first of his three European grand tours as part of an exercise to raise Iran’s international profile and to attract investors. He was the first modern Iranian monarch to visit England, which he reached on 19 June. During his eighteen days in the country, he admired Buckingham Palace with its ‘peacocks, and a crane […] walking about on the lawn’; he marvelled at the sea lions and acrobatic monkeys at London Zoo, and strolled through a ‘very cloudy and foggy’ Hyde Park.41 He went to the theatre one evening to hear performances by Adelina Patti, an Italian soprano greatly admired by Giuseppe Verdi, and Emma Albani, the first Canadian soprano to become an international star, a favourite of Victoria’s (Diary, p. 158). What could have been more flattering for an Iranian ruler than to hear the opening aria from Handel’s opera Xerxes, ‘Ombra mai fù’, in which the great ancient Persian king of the Achaemenid Empire admires the tender and sweet shadow of a plane tree? Another memorable event was a state banquet held by the Lord Mayor at the Guildhall where the Shah feasted on salmon, lamb cutlets with peas, salad, pineapple compote, jellies, and cakes (pp. 151–55).
The Shah was also received at Windsor Castle by Queen Victoria and recounted in his diary this encounter depicted in a watercolour (1874) by Nicholas Chevalier:
Her most Exalted Majesty the Sovereign advanced to meet us at the foot of the staircase. We got down, took her hand, gave our arm, went up stairs, passed through pretty rooms and corridors hung with beautiful portraits, and entering a private apartment, took our seat. (p. 147)
The Queen endeavoured to make a lasting impression on Nasser al-din Shah: ‘The age of the Sovereign is fifty, but she looks no more than forty. She is very cheerful and pleasant of countenance’ (p. 151).
During their imperial encounter, the Shah was appointed a Knight of the Order of the Garter while the Queen received from him the Order of the Sun created especially for her. The Shah noted in his diary: ‘I too presented to the English Sovereign the “Order of the Sun,” set in diamonds, with its ribbon, and also the Order of my own Portrait’ (p. 149). Queen Victoria chose to wear it when she became Empress of India in 1876, a moment considered by John Plunkett to embody the ‘imperial reinvention of the monarchy’.42
It is in this context that we should revisit Hayter’s autograph portrait of Victoria, its intended location for display in the nineteenth century, and the wider story of diplomatic relations between the two countries. If the portrait initially represented cordial diplomatic relations, in time Victoria’s presence came to stand for a more complex and troubled relationship between Iran and British imperial power. While Iran was never part of the British Empire, it was used as a buffer state to protect British-ruled India from Russian expansionism during the nineteenth century. The empire and its slow end in the twentieth century casts a long shadow during which Victoria’s portrait has remained a silent witness at the embassy. The Tehran Conference in 1943 is an emblematic moment to reflect upon Britain’s changing status and a pivotal moment for relations between Britain and Iran. Anticipating the end of World War II, Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin met in Iran to plan the shape of the post-war world. In his memoirs Churchill described his sixty-ninth birthday at the British legation as
a memorable occasion in my life. On my right sat the President of the United States, on my left the master of Russia. Together we controlled practically all naval and three quarters of all air forces in the world, and directed armies of nearly 20 millions of men, engaged in the most terrible of wars that had yet occurred in human history.43
Churchill’s birthday was celebrated at the British legation, but Roosevelt stayed at the nearby Russian Embassy where negotiations occurred. Churchill’s daughter Mary also attended the conference and spoke of her father as ‘the odd man out’.44
For generations before the conference, Britain wielded great military and economic power, and this is where Hayter’s coronation portrait of Victoria is rooted. After the conference, Britain’s power diminished. Tehran was among the last occasions that Britain sat on equal terms with the two rising powers. More recently, flashpoints between the countries have occurred around regime change, commercial control of Iranian oil, the 1979 Revolution, and the fatwa for blasphemy pronounced on Salman Rushdie in 1989 for publishing The Satanic Verses.45 As we have seen, this came to a head in the 2011 attack on the embassy and Victoria as a persistent image of British power.
In the wake of this turbulent period and the reopening of the embassy in 2016, the restored paintings had to be rehung. The display had to address the position of Victoria both literally and symbolically, reinstating her in the embassy while acknowledging this longer, difficult history of Anglo-Iranian relations. It was important that any new display of works of art embraced both the longevity of the relationship but also the difficulty inherent in that relationship. At the same time it illustrates a curatorial responsibility to preserve and recount shared stories and explore their complexities through art.46 While it seemed natural to reinstate the original hang based on historical photographs from the early 1930s, it was essential to allow space for a more in-depth exploration of the relationship between the two countries by introducing new works of art and raising new questions about the efficacy of art to create soft power.47 By tradition, the portraits of Queen Victoria and Fath ’Ali Shah were hung at opposite ends of an enfilade of four representational rooms: the Dining Room, the Breakfast Room, the Drawing Room, and the Fath ’Ali Shah Room. In 2011 the only other two works on display in the Dining Room apart from Victoria were the portraits of Edward VII and George V after Sir Samuel Luke Fildes. This reflected a narrow view of Anglo-Iranian relations, covering a particular period of British ascendancy, and an exclusively royal one, within a modern Islamic republic.
The first curatorial decision was to gather the images of Victoria and her immediate descendants in the Dining Room, including reinstating a portrait of Mary of Teck that had previously been hung there. This arrangement served to illuminate that particular imperial passage of British royal history into a single space and strengthened the associations with the Tehran Conference where these portraits provided a backdrop to the talks (Fig. 9).48
Continuing the theme of hosting as part of the ceremonial process in diplomacy, two paintings of Qajar entertainers were chosen for the Drawing Room (Figs. 10, 11).49 These works confer a playful note to the display and introduce a familiar sight in a domestic interior during the Qajar period, with the activities one might expect of a nineteenth-century gathering of women at court: dancing, playing music, smoking, and drinking tea.50 They also guide the visitors along an imaginary journey of rituals at the Qajar court and prepare them for a majestic encounter. Gradually approaching the next room, one has the impression of entering a presence chamber. Set against a deep yellow background, echoing the golden tiles of Golestan Palace, the Qajar residence in Tehran, Fath ’Ali Shah is poised to receive his visitors (Fig. 12).51 Seeing Ahmad’s regal portrait offers a similar experience to that described by Robert Ker Porter when he encountered and drew the Qajar ruler during a public audience in 1818:
He was one blaze of jewels, which literally dazzled the sight on first looking at him; but the details of the dress were these: A lofty tiara of three elevations was on his head, which shape appears to have been long peculiar to the crown of the Great King. It was entirely composed of thickly-set diamonds, pearls, rubies, and emeralds so exquisitely disposed, as to form a mixture of the most beautiful colours, in the brilliant light reflected from its surface. Several black feathers, like the heron-plume were intermixed with the resplendent aigrettes of this truly imperial diadem, whose bending points were finished with pear-formed pearls, of an immense size. His vesture was of gold tissue, nearly covered with a similar disposition of jewellery; and, crossing the shoulders, were two strings of pearls, probably the largest in the world. I call his dress a vesture, because it sat close to his person, from the neck to the bottom of the waist, showing a shape as noble as his air. (I, 325)
An embassy building is a space for diplomatic encounters, where displays of art can embody narratives about the past, present, and future. The Fath ’Ali Shah Room recreates encounters and diplomatic gift exchanges from the early modern period when Iran was at the heart of interactions between cultures, and European missionaries, artists, merchants, and curious travellers began to circulate, explore, and trade with Safavid Iran.
In 1626 Charles I sent a first embassy led by Dodmore Cotton to the court of Shah Abbas I in Isfahan to negotiate the opening of the silk trade.52 Two portraits in the Fath ’Ali Shah Room are a reminder of this early transitory diplomatic engagement: a print showing English traveller and adventurer Robert Shirley wearing his robe of honour received from Shah Abbas, and a seventeenth-century painted portrait of Thomas Herbert, courtier and historian to Charles I who was part of Cotton’s envoy.53
A more permanent British diplomatic presence in Iran started to take shape in the nineteenth century, when King George III appointed Sir Gore Ouseley as the first resident British ambassador to the court of Fath ’Ali Shah in 1810.54 On arrival in the new Qajar capital, Tehran, Ouseley established a base to encourage British diplomacy and new delegations began to arrive, often accompanied by artists. One of them was Robert Ker Porter who had the rare distinction of painting both George III and Fath ’Ali Shah. As depicted by Ker Porter, George III is represented in the display through a painting en grisaille.55 Although the two rulers never met in life and communicated only through diplomatic exchanges conveyed by their respective ambassadors, their portraits in the British residence in Tehran weave together the diplomatic story of Britain and Iran of the period.56
A final reminder of the diplomatic encounter that took place between Queen Victoria and Nasser al-din Shah in London in 1873 is suggested through an invisible axis that connects Hayter’s portrait of Victoria in the Dining Room to a painting by Nasser al-din Shah in the Fath ’Ali Shah Room (Fig. 13). Just like Hayter’s painting, that by the Shah features a Persian inscription, which translates as follows: ‘A view of the city of Venice in Italy. Painted in oil colours on canvas by me from a small watercolour picture. In the year 1274 [1857–58] at Tehran. Nasir ud din Shah Qajar.’57
Viewed together as a coherent display, these works begin to tell multiple stories of diplomatic engagements and exchanges, recreating a sense of the historical interactions between representatives and agents of both countries. While they evoke narratives of the past, displays are also about the present and the future. To balance and complement the historical hang, modern and contemporary works were introduced in the Study Room. Among them are a series of prints by Derek Hirst, titled Paradox (1975), that drew inspiration from the architectural motifs found in the interior of the celebrated Jameh Mosque of Isfahan.58 Also on display are the Round Dance series by Shirazeh Houshiary, an artist whose work combines elements derived from Iranian culture and Western art traditions. Her etchings intricately and densely overlay Islamic calligraphy on illegible abstraction to describe an indivisible universality. Each of the images are inspired by the poems of Jajal al-Din al-Rumi, the thirteenth-century poet, scholar, and mystic who influenced the spiritual philosophy of Sufism.59 Houshiary was born in Shiraz, Iran, in 1955 and moved to London in 1973, a migration of talent in itself a manifestation of soft power. Displaying her works in the same building as Hayter’s portrait sends a powerful message about changes in British society and its geopolitical role.
Each of the works selected for the newly curated display speak in a respectful way to a cultural encounter that extended long before and long after the reign of Queen Victoria. Her portrait is a relic of an imperial past, yet when placed within the wider context of an enduring political and diplomatic relationship, it still has value today. Portraits of powerful women remain uncommon in Iran, then as now.
Victoria has changed, and not just physically. Attacked as a symbol of imperial power, her restoration and return as part of a renewal of diplomatic ties carries a hopeful symbolism. Diplomacy is not merely transactional. It also hinges on personal relationships and trust between diplomats and their interlocutors. Art can speak directly to us to tell stories, to start conversations, and to build trust. Nobody reading this article would want Victoria’s portrait to be violently attacked as it was in 2011, and yet in the scars it has allowed new tales to be told (Fig. 14).