Dr. Moya Carey
IHF Curator for the Iranian Collections, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
The British Embassy to Iran, located on Firdausi Avenue in central Tehran, was designed from the South Kensington Museum (today the Victoria and Albert Museum) in London, in 1869. The architect, James Wild, had a strong reputation as a specialist in Middle Eastern architectural design, which he had studied and extensively drawn while living in Egypt between 1842 and 1848. His Tehran “Mission Buildings” are representative of the “controlled eclecticism” typical of the Design Reform movement broadcast from South Kensington. However, Wild’s first proposal for the State Rooms was rejected, apparently because he had selected a “Persian” style: this was not considered workable for Britain’s official profile in Iran, where Britain and Russia struggled for political influence and status at the Qajar court. After a long hiatus, Wild’s second (more conservative) scheme for the State Rooms was approved: this also offered a British assimilation of a “foreign” style, echoing the eighteenth-century British assimilation of Greek and Roman architecture exemplified by neo-classical practitioners such as Robert Adam.
During the long wait for James Wild’s re-design for the State Rooms, a small domed area leading into the embassy garden was decorated as an “Arabesque Hallway”. Its decorative plasterwork features somewhat incongruous foliate interlace designs from Mamluk Cairo and Nasrid Granada - mediated through the chromolithograph plates published in Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament (1856). The scheme is probably based on Wild’s initial design which the site superintendent had refused for the main reception rooms, but later decided to retain in this subaltern space.