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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. To help Iranian students in England to study Iranian culture, according to European methods.
4. To give members of the Iranian colony in England opportunities to meet one another and their English friends at social and intellectual gatherings.
5. Political problems will not fall within the province of the Iran Society.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3.The Society will do all in its power to facilitate travel in Iran by its members.
4. The Society will arrange social gatherings for its members.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. There shall be a Council consisting of the Officers and nine other members.
4. The Representative of Iran shall be ex officio Honorary President.
5. The Chairman shall be elected annually by the Council.
6. The Treasurer and Secretaries shall be elected at a General Meeting, on the nomination of the Council.
7. Of the nine members of the Council, three shall retire annually, but shall be eligible for re-election.
8. Nominations to the vacancies thus caused shall be made by the Council, and the names submitted to the Annual General Meeting.
9. Four regular Meetings of the Council shall be held each year for the purpose of arranging programmes.
10. Special Meetings of the Council may be summoned at the discretion of the Chairman.
11. Three members of the Council shall constitute a quorum.
12. The accounts shall be audited annually by an auditor nominated by the Council.
13. 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
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
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).
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.:-
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:
1. 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
2. To foster intercourse between Iran and Great Britain and maintain close relations with institutions in Iran and elsewhere working in the same fields.
3. To help Iranian students in Great Britain in every way possible.
4. 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.