Although considerable public interest in Persia (as Iran was officially known in the West until 1935) was stimulated by Nasir ud-Din Shah’s State Visit to Britain in 1873 and by G.N. (later Lord) Curzon’s monumental two volumes on Persia published in 1892 it was not until 1909 that British friends of the country formed two Persia Committees – Parliamentary and non-Parliamentary – as pressure groups to support the Constitutionalists in Persia in their struggle against despotism. With the encouragement of the Persian Minister in London, Mirza Mehdi Khan, Mushir-ul-Mulk, these same men – Professor E.G. Browne, Lord Lamington, the Earl of Ronaldshay and Mr. H.F.B. Lynch MP – followed this up in November 1911 by forming the Persia Society of 22, Albemarle Street, London W1 as a non-political body designed “to promote the sympathy existing between the British and Persian nations”. Lord Lamington was the President with a Council of seven – Sir Thomas Barclay, Rt. Hon. Sayed Ameer Ali PC, Professor E. G. Browne, W. A. Buchanan, General T. E. Gordon, H. F. B. Lynch and Sir Frederick Pollock. Lectures were given, some of them being published1, but in 1929 largely owing to the Persian Legation’s lack of interest (Mirza Mehdi Khan, having left London in 1920), the Society was wound up and amalgamated with the Central Asian Society (now The Royal Society for Asian Affairs). The balance of the Persia Society’s funds, totalling some £375, was placed in special trust to be used to promote the cause of Anglo-Persian friendship.
The success of The British Academy’s 1931 Summer Exhibition of Persian Art at Burlington House stimulated public interest in Persia and played a part in the creation in 1935 of The Iran Society by a number of those who had been closely associated with the Exhibition. The choice of Lord Lamington, an old Oxford friend of Lord Curzon under whom he had served in India, as President, provided a link with the old Persia Society. Another important factor in the Society’s foundation was the appointment in 1934 of Hussein Ala as Iranian Minister to the Court of St. James. Ala, whose eldest brother, Mirza Mehdi Khan helped create the Persia Society, had been educated at Westminster School and the Inner Temple, spoke excellent English, and provided much of the inspiration and drive that launched the new Society.
In this short history of the Society it is well to remember that its fortunes during the past sixty-five years have, from time to time, been affected by events beyond its control – World War II, the nationalisation of the British-owned oil industry in 1951, the consequent break in diplomatic relations in 1952-53, the fall of the Shah in 1979 and the souring of relations that followed.
According to the surviving Minute Books, the Society came into being on 19 November 1935 when a seemingly self-appointed Council meeting was held at the Iranian Legation, 10 Princes Gate, London2, under the chairmanship of H. E. Hussein Ala. The others present were H.E. Ali Ashgar Zarrinkafsh, Lord Lamington, Professor R. A. Nicholson and Messrs. Laurence Binyon, Alfred Bossom, E.H. Keeling and Basil Gray. They decided that Lamington should be the Society’s first President, that a sub-committee should draw up a constitution and £1 charged for annual membership.
Further meetings of this group in December 1935 and February 1936 at the Iranian Legation led to the adoption of the Society’s Rules under three headings, Objects, Activities and Constitution, in the following terms:
- To bring together those who are interested in Iran, her culture and art, past and present, and thereby to help the peoples of Great Britain and Iran to understand each other.
- To foster intercourse between the two countries and to establish and maintain close relations with institutions in Iran and elsewhere working in the same fields, such as Andjomane Athare Melli, Andjomane Adabi, Société des Etudes Iraniennes, American Institute of Persian Art and Archæology.
- To help Iranian Students in England to study Iranian culture, according to European methods.
- To give members of the Iranian colony in England opportunities to meet one another and their English friends at social and intellectual gatherings.
- Political problems will not fall within the province of the Iran Society.
- To carry out its purpose the Iran Society will organize lectures and visits to public and private collections, and, in general, take any opportunity of making known the art and culture of Iran to the English public.
- It is hoped that means will be found of publishing, from time to time, some of the lectures delivered before the Society, for distribution among members of that Society and for sale.
- The Society will do all in its power to facilitate travel in Iran by its members.
- The Society will arrange social gatherings for its members.
- Membership of the Society shall be by election at meetings of the Council. The annual subscription shall be £1. Life membership may be obtained by payment of £10. Joint membership of husbands and wives may be obtained by annual payment of £1 10s.
- The officers of the Society shall consist of (a) a President, (b) an Honorary President, (c) three Vice-Presidents, (d) an Honorary Treasurer, (e) two Honorary Secretaries.
- There shall be a Council consisting of the Officers and nine other members.
- The Representative of Iran shall be ex officio Honorary President.
- The Chairman shall be elected annually by the Council.
- The Treasurer and Secretaries shall be elected at a General Meeting, on the nomination of the Council.
- Of the nine members of the Council, three shall retire annually, but shall be eligible for re-election.
- Nominations to the vacancies thus caused shall be made by the Council, and the names submitted to the Annual General Meeting.
- Four regular Meetings of the Council shall be held each year for the purpose of arranging programmes.
- Special Meetings of the Council may be summoned at the discretion of the Chairman.
- Three members of the Council shall constitute a quorum.
- The accounts shall be audited annually by an auditor nominated by the Council.
- The address of the Society will be, until further notice, 50, Kensington Court, W83.
The Minutes of the Society’s first Annual General Meeting (AGM) are missing but we know from The Times of 15 June 1936 that it took place on 10 June 1936 at Lancaster House, then the home of the London Museum, that Lord Lamington was in the chair and that among those present were Lord Curzon’s eldest daughter Lady Ravensdale, Sir Percy Sykes and Arthur Upham Pope. This was followed in November by the Inaugural Lecture, also at Lancaster House, delivered by the Agha Khan on Hafez and the Place of Iranian Culture in the World Today4. It was printed along with the names of the Society’s first Officers and Council
Officers and Council Presidents
The Right Hon. Lord Lamington GCMG, GCIE
H.E. The Iranian Minister to the Court of St. James
Hussein Ala CMG
Laurence Binyon CH
Alfred Bossom MP
N. S. Gulbenkian
E. H. Keeling MP
Laurence Lockhart PHD
Professor R A Nicholson LLD FBA
Professor D. Talbot-Rice
Sir E. Denison Ross CIE
E. Wilkinson, Hazelbury, Ascot.
S. F. Shadman
Nicholson, Talbot-Rice and Denison Ross were academics and well known orientalists, as were Binyon and Gray, his son-in-law, both of the British Museum, and Leigh Ashton of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Bossom was an architect of international repute who had done work for the Iranian Government, while Nubar Gulbenkian was an Armenian oil millionaire attached to the Iranian Legation. Keeling had been Secretary-General of the 1931 Persian Exhibition. Lockhart was a scholarly member of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. (AIOC, renamed British Petroleum/BP in 1954) and Wilkinson the recently retired Chief Manager of the Imperial Bank of Iran (the former Imperial Bank of Persia: renamed The British Bank of Iran and the Middle East in 1949 and then, in 1952, The British Bank of the Middle East/BBME).
Lockhart and Wilkinson were the first of a long line from the two major British firms in Iran to serve the Society in the coming years. There is some mystery about Ali Ashgar Zarrinkafsh who, as already mentioned, attended the early Council meetings but whose name does not appear on this published list although he attended later meetings. He was the Iranian Government’s representative or Imperial Delegate to the AIOC between 1933-39 and an important figure entitled, like the Iranian Minister, His Excellency as were his successors Fathullah Nuri Esfandiari (1941-47) and Nezam ed-Din Emami (1947-51), both of them Council members. Fakhreddin Shadman, the Society’s joint-Secretary, was the Imperial Delegate’s deputy at AIOC.
On the occasion of the second AGM in July 1937 on the premises of the Royal Asiatic Society at 74 Grosvenor Street, Lord Lamington reported that five lectures had been given during the past year, that receptions for members had been held by Alfred Bossom at his London home and by Hussein Ala at the Ritz Hotel on his departure from London as Iranian Ambassador to the USA, and that Leigh Ashton had conducted members round the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Persian collections: also that membership now totalled 160 and that the Society’s assets of £246 were “satisfactory”.
This set a pattern. Since then, lectures, with and without slides and some film shows have constituted the Society’s main activity, supplemented from time to time by excursions to places of interest, receptions and dinners, Nau Ruz and Christmas parties, musical evenings.
From 1936-48 some, but not all, the lectures were published at irregular intervals in the Society’s Proceedings, forming Vols. I, II and III which, with the Journal, can be found today in the British Library, London and the Bodleian Library, Oxford. In 1949 it was decided to replace the Proceedings with a half-yearly Journal which would publish all lectures in full or résumé together with news of other activities, book reviews etc. Supported by advertisements from the AIOC, the BBME and others, five issues of the Journal, forming Vol. I were published between July 1950 and January 1954 when, as mentioned below, publication ceased. Laurence Lockhart5 edited the Proceedings and all but the last issue of the Journal, this being done by Lt. Colonel C. B. Pybus, a member of the Council and a former Military Attaché in Tehran and Henry Graves Law, the Hon. Secretary.
Since then relatively few lectures have been published. Frederick Richter, a long serving member of the Council and for many years editor of The Asiatic Review edited and published on behalf of the Society a series of seven known as The Iran Society Occasional Papers, viz.:-
- Omar Khayyam and Fitzgerald by Professor A. J. Arberry (1959)
- A Recent Visit to Iran by Peter Avery (1959)
- The Sufi Journey by Ahmed Ordobadi (1960)
- The New Development of Education in Iran by Dr. H. E. Entesham (1960)
- A Visit to Persia by Wilfred Seager (1962)
- Edward Granville Browne 1862-1962 by Professor A. J. Arberry (1962)
- The Kharg Story by D. M. Cullum (1962)
Two other lectures, both delivered in 1966, were also published – Sir George Trevelyan’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and M. Zelli (Minister at the Iranian Embassy)’s Modern Iran.
The Society’s contribution to the lavish celebrations in Iran of 2,500 years of monarchy in 1971 was Sir Max Mallowan’s lecture that September on Cyrus the Great at St. John’s Church, Smith Square and its publication. Since then the only lectures to have been published are those of the Rev. Norman Sharp on Old Persian Cuneiform (1973), an English translation of Dr. Massoud Homayoun’s lecture, delivered in Persian, on The Origin of Persian Gnosis (1992), John Bowen and Omar Pound on Persian Poetry (1976), John Carswell on China and Iran (1995) and Paul Gotch and Ronald Ferrier’s Memoir of the Rev. Norman Sharp (1999). The last three were financed from the Society’s Palmer Smith Publication Fund established in 1992 on the initiative of Gordon Calver, when Chairman, in memory of Miss Kathleen Palmer Smith from the residue from the sale of a British-owned hospital in Tehran. “PS”, as she was always known, had spent over fifty years in Iran as governess and teacher of English before dying in a Sussex nursing home in 1978.
Since the 1980s lectures have been taped for the Society’s archives and sold to members.
The original 1936 Rules stated that “Political problems will not fall within the province of the Iran Society”: all subsequent revisions of these Rules have excluded political matters from the Society’s lectures and other activities. In 1951 the Council firmly rejected a proposal by the Iranian Embassy’s representative, the ebullient Hussein Hamzavy, that to help put his country and the Society more on the map the ban on political discussion should be not interpreted too strictly.
In order to avoid controversy and offence the Council decided at one of its earliest meetings that lectures or summaries of these should be submitted a week in advance for vetting by a sub-committee. It was probably this imposition that led to the mysterious withdrawal of Mrs. Harold Nicolson (Vita Sackville-West)6‘s invitation to lecture in 1937. The Minutes recording this incident state that “in future the subject of lectures should be confined to the art and archaeology of Iran, her literature, language and philosophy”. By and large these rules have stood the Society in good stead: trouble and complaint have been avoided with occasional exceptions, one notable incident being the heated exchanges that took place following James Norris’ lecture on The BBC and Iran in 1983.
The Society bravely kept going during the first three years of World War II. Sadly, Minutes of AGM’s between 1938-46 and Council meetings between October 1943 and November 1945 are non-existent or missing but we know from the Proceedings that a full lecture programme continued at least until the autumn of 1943. Miss (later Professor) A. K. S. Lambton, briefly home on leave from Tehran where she was Press Attaché at the British Legation, lectured on Persia on 8 September 1943 at a joint meeting with the Royal Central Asia Society chaired by Sir Percy Sykes. Two weeks later she was followed by Dr. S. F. Shadman on A Review of Anglo-Persian Relations 1798-1815, based on a thesis that had won him a University of London doctorate.
With no premises of its own the Society was able, thanks to Hussein Ala and his successors, to use the Iranian Legation as its base until 1943 with lectures taking place at the Courtauld Institute, Royal Asiatic Society, Overseas House and elsewhere. In March 1943 the Society rented for £40 p.a. one of the Royal Asiatic Society’s rooms at 74, Grosvenor Street along with the use of its library and lecture room, at the same time deciding to establish its own library “in all languages dealing with Iran since the promulgation of the Constitution of 1906”. There the Society remained until 1948 when, as related below, it found a home of its own.
The war was barely over when the Society organised a reception for Iranian delegates and journalists attending the inaugural meeting of the United Nations Education and Cultural Assembly (UNESCO) in London, followed a few days later in early December 1945 by a poorly attended lecture on Persian Education by the Iranian Minister of Education, Dr. Ali Ashgar Hekmat. The next lecture on record, Persian Cultural Relations with the West was given in June 1947 by Dr. Isa Sadiq, Hekmat’s successor at the Ministry of Education. Thereafter lectures were given regularly until 1953 when all activity was temporarily suspended.
Inevitably there were a number of changes after the war. There were problems in finding a new President, Lord Lamington having died in 1940. Both Sir Percy Loraine and the Marquess of Zetland (the former Lord Ronaldshay of the old Persia Committee) declined the honour before it was accepted by the Hon. Harold Nicolson who had been born in Tehran and served there as Counsellor at the Legation under Loraine in 1925-27. He proved a good choice, regularly attending meetings of the Council where he early on stressed the need for more Iranian members to avoid the Society “becoming too exclusively a society of English people interested in Iran”.
With the departure from London of the Iranian Ambassador Hassan Taqizadeh, who had served as Chairman from 1941-47 a replacement had to be found. His successor, Mohsen Raïs, seems to have been unwilling to do so and more often than not was represented at Council meetings by one of his staff. Thus in 1948 Major-General W. A. K. Fraser, a retired Indian Army officer who had served in Iran in both World Wars, was elected Chairman. He was succeeded two years later by Sir Giles Squire, an Indian Political who had been both Consul-General in Mashad and Counsellor in Tehran.
New joint-Secretaries had also to be found in place of the long-serving Gray and Shadman – the former resigning owing to pressure of work in 1945 and the latter two years later on his return to Iran. Briefly Miss Lambton and her colleague, Darab Khan (later Professor G. H.) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) stepped into the breach before Henry Graves Law took over as sole Secretary, a post he held for eight years. He was a retired member of the Indian Political Service and had served at Bushire in the British Residency and as Consul-General in Mashad.
These appointments meant a perceptible change in the composition of the Council. The academics from Oxford and Cambridge and the museums had gone, replaced by retired members of our old Indian raj, all with experience of Iran. There remained representatives of both the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. and the old Imperial Bank together with representatives of the Iranian Embassy and its London community. Two valuable, long-serving new members were Wilfred Seager of O.C.M. Ltd. (Oriental Carpet Manufacturers) with long experience of Iran and Frederick Richter, editor of The Asiatic Review.
A revised version of the 1936 Rules was adopted in 1949 in which the Society’s Objects were defined more succinctly as:
- To bring together those who are interested in Iran, her culture and art, past and present and thereby to help the peoples of Iran and Great Britain to understand each other
- To foster intercourse between Iran and Great Britain and maintain close relations with institutions in Iran and elsewhere working in the same fields
- To help Iranian students in Great Britain in every way possible
- To give members of the Iranian colony in Great Britain and British friends opportunities to meet one another at social and intellectual gatherings.
The principal Activity remained the organisation of lectures, visits to public and private collections, social and cultural gatherings while “political problems and discussions are excluded from the province of the Iran Society”. The diplomatic representative of Iran in London remained ex officio Hon. President. There were no major changes in the Constitution other than an increase in the number of Vice Presidents from three to six.
Both the 1936 and 1949 Rules expressed the Society’s interest in Iranian students in the U.K., a matter of considerable concern for the Iranian Embassy who were keen that the Society should find a permanent home which would also serve as a club for the students. Eventually, with financial help from the Iranian Ministry of Education, the AIOC and others including Nubar Gulbenkian, premises were found and furnished in 1948 at 42 Connaught Square near Marble Arch on the top two floors of a private house owned by a Colonel and Mrs. Humphrey Butler at a rent of £500 p.a. Students, on arrival in the U.K., were given a leaflet by the British Council encouraging them to join the Society at the modest annual fee of ten shillings. Many seem to have done so. To help deal with them Lt. Colonel E. H. Gastrell, an Indian Political who had also been Consul-General in Mashad, and Dr. Mahmoud Sanai, Cultural Attaché at the Iranian Embassy were co-opted as Assistant Hon. Secretaries. However, though No. 42 was equipped with both a billiard and tennis table and Iranian newspapers students made little use of it, preferring to go their own ways. In 1950 only six of the one hundred and twenty invited to a special reception for them turned up! Membership of the Society had, however, grown from 119 in 1945 to 300 in 1950, a third of them Iranians.
Prompted by the Iranian Embassy the Society searched for a more central, larger and attractive (for the students) building in which it was planned to allocate two rooms for the Iranian Government’s “Curator for Students”. Unable to find affordable new premises the Society abandoned the search in February 1951. Shortly afterwards the souring of Anglo-Iranian relations following Dr. Mossadeq’s nationalisation of the oil industry resulted in the Iranian Government withholding its annual grant of £500, causing the AIOC to follow suit with their own grant of the same amount. The consequent financial problems caused the Society to give up its lease of Connaught Square in September 1951. Since that time it has had no home of its own and been dependent on arrangements made with other institutions such as the Overseas League, the English Speaking Union and since 1986 the Middle East Association, 33 Bury Street, SW1, for lecture and reception rooms, while for many years the Royal Society for Asian Affairs has, for an annual fee, befriended the Society by providing it with secretarial assistance and a registered address at 2 Belgrave Square, SW1.
The library, launched in 1943, never really got going before 42 Connaught Square was abandoned. It then contained about 150 books, most of them in Persian given by the Iranian Ministry of Education. A deluxe edition of Upham Pope’s six volume A Survey of Persian Art, presented by Lady Ravensdale, considered too precious for open shelves, was placed in Basil Gray’s care at the British Museum. An interesting collection of ninety-five books from the library of A. C. Edwards7 given in his memory by his son, came after the closure and went into store with the rest. More than twenty years later the Society gave the entire collection to Wadham College, Oxford in whose Persian Library it is now housed.
The Society went through a testing time between 1951 and 1954 following Dr. Mossadeq’s nationalisation of the oil industry in May 1951. Iranians no longer attended Council meetings and lectures, many resigned or failed to pay their subscriptions. Membership, which had risen from 175 in 1946 to about 300 in 1950 fell to only 120 in 1954. At the 1952 AGM in July, members accepted the Council’s recommendation that, rather than disband, the Society should continue its existence “in a modified form”: lectures to be continued but publication of the Journal suspended and a project to bring A. T. Wilson’s Bibliography of Iran up to date abandoned. In July that year the Iranian Ambassador was recalled and three months later diplomatic relations finally severed. Before leaving London the Iranian Chargé d’Affaires was instructed to inform Sir Giles Squire that the Society was “dissolved”; in reply he was told by the Chairman that this was a matter for the Council to decide. At the next AGM on 18 June 19538 , with Harold Nicolson in the chair and Anglo-Iranian relations at rock-bottom, it was decided to cease all activity and seek “a temporary alliance” with the Royal Central Asian Society (RCAS) while still retaining the Society’s own identity and officers in the hope that with better times normal activities could be resumed. By the time of the 1954 AGM on 21 October9 full diplomatic relations had been restored, the oil dispute settled and Anglo-Iranian relations were distinctly warmer. It was then decided not to renew the “alliance” with the RCAS, which had not proved popular with members, but to remain inactive pending developments in Iran. Abdol Hussein Hamzavy, back in London as his Embassy’s Press Counsellor attended the meeting and expressed his Ambassador’s high appreciation of the Society’s “patience, goodwill and forbearance” during the past two years in keeping itself alive.
Gradually, after some hesitation, lectures were resumed but it was not until the 1960s that the Society got into full stride – thanks to the rapid improvement in Anglo-Iranian relations, symbolised by the State Visit of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh to Iran in the autumn of 1961, and the growing interest of British businessmen in the country as a valuable export market. Membership rose from 122 in 1959 to 379 four years later and 450 in 1966.
Financial assistance from the Iranian Embassy and oil company was resumed. Attention was again paid to the welfare of Iranian students. Excursions and parties were arranged for them, members of the Society were encouraged to invite them to their homes, with the help of the British Council and Iranian Embassy short courses were arranged at Oxford and Cambridge in 1960-63. Yet, reading between the lines of the Minutes, one gets the feeling that neither the Society nor its efforts on their behalf had much appeal for the students.
Following the Queen’s visit, the Iranian Government invited the Society’s President, Lord Bossom, together with the Chairman, Wilfred Seager and Social Secretary, Mrs. Wontner to spend a week in Iran as their guests – an invitation extended five years later to the Society’s new Chairman Sir Peter Agnew and his wife together with the Hon. Secretary and Mrs. Chisholm. In November 1963 the Iranian Ambassador, Ardeshir Zahedi, bestowed the Order of the Taj (1st Class) on the President and the lesser Order of the Homayoun on the Chairman. This same Order was in due time given to other officers of the Society – Peter Agnew, Clive Bossom and Lord Shawcross.
Sir Denis Wright succeeded Clive Bossom as Chairman in 1976, being followed three years later by Sir Roger Stevens, like Wright a former ambassador to Iran. Sadly Stevens died after less than a year in office. Max Tagg, a retired member of the BBME, was elected in his place.
A meeting in Tehran in 1966 of the Inter-Parliamentary Union was attended by a number of British MPs including the Speaker and Sir Clive Bossom, the son of the Society’s late President. This led to useful contact with the Anglo-Iranian Parliamentary Group in Westminster, members of which – Agnew, Bossom and Peter Temple-Morris – duly became officers of the Society. After the death of Lord Bossom in 1965 the Society’s link with the House of Lords was maintained through its next three Presidents – Lords Shawcross, Carrington and Runciman. All three kindly acted as hosts at the summer receptions at the Upper House as Peter Temple-Morris has since done at the Commons.
Without a regular and attractive lecture programme the Society would never have survived. Great credit is therefore due to a succession of Hon. Lecture Secretaries and their assistants who, from the late 1950s onwards provided members in all but the summer months with a wide range of evening lectures, mostly of high quality. Along with Peter Avery, a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and University lecturer in Persian Studies, two names stand out – those of Ronald Ferrier and Paul Gotch. Both spent several years in Shiraz, the former teaching English at Pahlavi University, the latter as British Council representative. On returning home they devoted much time and energy to the Society’s lecture programme – Ronald Ferrier for ten years and Paul Gotch for a remarkable twenty-two years before retiring in 2000.
The Society was also fortunate to have, during the 1960s, Mrs Denise Wontner as its Social Secretary. Energetic, with excellent contacts and a love of Iran, she arranged a crowded programme of visits and social occasions as well as an annual dinner, the last taking place in November 1978 when Lord Carrington presided over a gathering of about 500 at the Savoy Hotel. By this time membership had reached an all-time high of nearly six hundred.
Two particularly memorable occasions during those halcyon days were the Society’s receptions at the Guildhall for the Shah and Shahbanou in March 1965 and in the Crush Bar at Covent Garden attended by the Queen Mother in April 1976 for the Shahbanou after a performance of the Royal Ballet. The Guildhall reception cost £1,024 and caused the Society to sell some of its small portfolio to meet the bill! Since then, thanks to increased subscriptions, occasional profits from dinners and receptions and wise investment, the Society’s funds have been in a sound state.
In January 1979, with the toppling of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Society’s future was again a subject for debate. Because of its essentially cultural, non-political character it quickly decided against closure and in favour of continuing much as before. The annual dinner was however dropped and for a time contact with the Iranian Embassy was lost: membership fell though, as time passed, there was no shortage of Iranians, men and women mostly exiles from their own country, wanting to join the Society and willing to serve on its Council. Summer receptions at the Houses of Parliament continued as did lectures, visits to places of interest and the Christmas party. Occasional dinners were held in honour of retiring members – for Nancy Lambton on her retirement from SOAS, for Denis Wright, Kenneth Bradford and Paul Gotch on giving up their Society offices.
Much of the burden of the day during these initially difficult post-revolutionary years was born by retired and working members of the BBME (the old Imperial Bank)), notably Gordon Calver and Kenneth Bradford successively Hon. Secretary and Chairman of the Society who had both spent several years in Tehran, succeeding each other there as the Bank’s Resident Director, and again in London at the Head Office as General Manager and Director; also John James and Alan Ashmole as Hon. Secretaries, Lena Hall and Alec Gray as Hon. Treasurers. One wonders what the Society would have done without the Bank which provided all but three of the Society’s eleven Treasurers in the past sixty-five years.
The Society’s Rules were drastically revised in 1997 to bring them into line with modern practice and to meet the requirements of the Charity Commissioners, the Society having been recognised as a Registered Charity since 1966. Its Objectives are now defined as: To promote learning and advance education in the subject of Iran, its peoples and culture (but so that in no event shall contemporary politics form any part of the Society’s activities) and particularly to advance education through the study of language, literature, art, history, religion, antiquities, usages, institutions and customs of Iran.
Under the chairmanship of Michael Noël-Clarke, formerly of the British Embassy, Tehran, the Society has established an annual travel grant for any student at a British university to undertake a project of his or her choice in Iran during the summer vacation – a reminder that in 1950 the Society contributed £10 towards an expedition of two Oxford undergraduates to study the qanats of Kerman. Another initiative has been an annual study morning in London on a particular aspect of Iranian art.
At the beginning of the new Millennium the Society had 368 members, eight of them corporate members.
In conclusion and to understand the appeal of Iran for many members of the Society I cannot do better than quote the words of one of its founder members, Sir Denison Ross, in his Preface to Gertrude Bell’s Persian Pictures:
There is a peculiar magic in the air of Persia which inspires all who visit her with poetry and romance: and this is not easily to be explained: for Persia to-day is a country in which very few traces remain to remind the traveller of her past glories. The cities of old Iran have been built and destroyed in the course of her long history, and nature and man seem to have combined to place Persia in our day under the ban of neglect. A score of cities have in turn been royal capitals, and as such have received all the embellishments that powerful monarchs could bestow on them, only to be abandoned and finally left in ruins, and even the ruins have often been ruthlessly destroyed. The country itself is full of vast desolate tracts. In spite of all this Persia casts her spell on every traveller, a spell worked by marvellous sunsets over the undulating deserts, by the glorious gardens the Persians love so well, and, last but not least, of the subtle charm of the Persians themselves, who are all poets and philosophers of nature, whether prince or muleteer.
I am very grateful to Dominic Brookshaw of Wadham College for his help in researching among the Society’s Minutes and archives.
Haddenham, August 2001
1 Lord Curzon’s Persian Autonomy; Sir Mortimer Durand’s The Charm of Persia; Professor E.G. Browne’s The Literature of Persia and H.F.B. Lynch’s The Importance of Persia
2 It moved shortly afterwards to 26, Princes Gate
3 By the end of 1936 the Society’s address was 26, Princes Gate, London SW7, viz. the Iranian Legation
4 It can be found on the Internet: www.iis.ac.uk then select ‘learning’
5 It can be found on the Internet: www.iis.ac.uk then select ‘learning’
6 Author of Passenger to Tehran (1926): Twelve Days (1928)
7 1951 Author of A Persian Caravan (1928): The Persian Carpet (1953). He had spent many years in Iran with O.C.M. Ltd
8 and 9 Who, one wonders, had the wit to choose these two anniversaries, Waterloo and Trafalgar, for these two important AGMs