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1001 Nights Through Victorian Eyes

The cultural legacy of 1001 Nights has had a profound impact on storytelling and visual arts across the world. The statues of Mohammed Ghani Hikmat today stand in the squares of Baghdad as well as along the Tigris, ensuring that Baghdadi communities on their daily commutes or evening strolls evoke the spirit of one of the greatest anthologies of stories ever told. Hikmat's earlier scupltures blend these Abbasid era stories with uniquely Iraqi features that promote the heritage of Sumer, most noticably the eyes. The beautiful sculptures of Shahriyar and Sherezade, Aladdin, Kahramana, and the Genie's Lamp are loving examples of a time when public art was commission to celebrate history. In this article we explore how 1001 Nights became the perfect book for Victorian illustrators to express their Pre-Raphaelite artistic styles to visualise story telling for new audiences in the 19th century, and introduce Sherezade's tales to an increasingly literate world.

The 1001 Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights in the UK, gradually gained popularity in the mid 19th century as books became more accessible, and the middle class grew but interest exploded in 1865 with the publication of Dalziel's Illustrated Arabian Nights - the first version to include images to accompany the stories. Set amidst an expanding British Empire, interest in other cultures was growing in households around the country, and 1001 Nights represented a fascinating glimpse into the literary traditions of the Arab World, Persia, Central Asia, and India.

The Dalziel Brothers established their wood-engraving business in London, where they worked with a community of artists that illustrated books for leading writers such as Charles Dickens, Edward Lear, and Lewis Carroll. The growing book and magazine market in Victorian London offered the opportunity to bring artists into the literary world in a way that was never possible before, and further popularised the artistic style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Combining this Victorian art form with the stories of the 1001 Nights created a fusion of cultures that proved to be incredibly popular.

The Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement was born in a time of political crisis across Europe most notably in France, Germany, Italy, and Austria, where the thirst for modern democracies was a stark contrast to the prevailing authoritarian monarchies. In the UK, rebellion against British rule in Ireland highlighted the oppressive colonial attitude of Victorian England influencing the perception of chaos among these artists. The Pre-Raphaelite Movement saw chaos in modernity and began to look back in history for a more stable future - this idealistic approach to the Medieval period would heavily influence the style and colours used, but also the themes. The 1001 Nights therefore offered a perfect platform for the creatives to explore Medieval history, but through new lenses. Ignoring the historical reality of Medieval chaos, authoritarianism, and feudalism, the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood saw an arable and natural simplicity that promoted chivalry and justice - a contrast to the rapidly industrialisation of the world. The use of the Bible, Shakespeare, and mythology played hugely on the subjects of the artists but this concept can be seen in the artwork featured in Dalziel's 1001 Nights. The tales are filled with mythological beast from genies to giant birds, witches to mermaids who engage with human characters in ways that promote character growth and morality - core principles of the Pre-Raphaelite arts movement.

Whilst never originally printed in colour, the wood cut illustrations project detail that almost connect colour to the brain. You can see the richness of the clothing, the jewellery, the beauty of the palace settings or the nature of the forest scenes. This attention to detail draws the eyes enhancing the luxury in which many of the characters live in, or aspire to have. Themes of jewels and luxury feature heavily in the stories of 1001 Nights with merchants searching them out, and thieves hoping to steal them from under the noses of their owners. The pursuit of luxury is a literary theme that features universally, but is often used as a tool to frame greed and immorality, and since Ancient Greek writing has been associated with decadence and weakness with Eastern Civilisations, primarily Persia. These orientalist tropes have continued for centuries, helping to associate cultures in a particular way that does not reflect the reality. Interestingly, the Pre-Raphaelite Movement used similar styles in their other paintings that saw luxury as beauty to form a romanticised Medieval England with strong reds, yellows, and greens used that evoke royal tapestries and religious reliquaries.

Many of the images from Dalziel's Illustrated 1001 Nights place the characters in distinct small scenes rather than expansive sweeping landscapes, a fundamental principal of their artistic style that emphasises the visual component of the storytelling. The detail of the plants, the textures of the ground celebrate a natural existence, devoid of industry and human impact - a romantic reimagining of a forgotten landscapes. The celebration of nature was a response to many victorian artists and writers who saw massive urbanisation and industrialisation as a social shift that brought inequality, through art, nature could be celebrated and the past for which it represented. Many of the artists did not travel to countries featured in the tales, so their designs represented imagined landscapes, not scientifically accurate illustrations as shown by the palm trees above. Many journeys occur throughout the 1001 Nights, with the characters in pursuit of their goals, and how they engage with the nature around them is delicately expressed through lines, bringing the image to life even more. The motion of waves through Sindibad's sea journeys, along with plant life and bubbles is expertly brought to life through woodcut prints that highlight the skill of the illustrators and woodcutters.

The virtues of justice and morality upheld by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood could be easily seen within the tales of 1001 Nights, making it the perfect platform to continue to produce their unique style. Dignified facial expressions, and private personal actions, are visualised to support the storytelling. In some scenes, historical figures such as Zobeide are represented, their majesty emphasised through their posture and actions. In the scene below, Zobeide encounters a young man reading a quran, looking on admirably in turn enhancing her own piety. Zobeide's role in the 1001 Nights, though not a main character throughout, established her name amongst readers for centuries, the tomb of Zummurud Khatun in Karkh today was believed to be that of hers, known for her benevolence, piety, and dignity.

The characters themselves can not be said to be historically accurate, the clothing imagined by the illustrators , influenced by societal beliefs in London. Female characters are often represented similarly to images of European medieval princesses with long flowing hair and ethereal dresses; exaggerated shaped turbans that do not denote the variety of styles across the world reflect the Victorian impressions of singular cultures; some images also show established racist stereotypes particularly towards Jewish and Chinese characters that indicate attitudes towards those communities at the time. The illustrations therefore provide an insight into how Victorian society viewed what they defined as "The Orient," a romantacised and fantastical world of adventurers, beasts, Caliphs, and magic. Orientalist art would become increasingly popular across various schools of art, in turn having a profound impact on architectural styles such as Art Deco, and this collection of illustrations is just one example of how stories from Iraq influenced foreign arts.

Members of the Dalziel family by Kosmos albumen cabinet card, 1880s NPG x132805 © National Portrait Gallery, London

At Creative Iraq, we want to show how Iraq's history has not always been framed in conflict and violence that forms most of the artistic expression - primarily from western perspectives, this case showing that historically it fascinated communities who blended local styles with international storytelling. In 2024, we will be reimagining Dalziel's works with local Iraqi artists to create a new synthesis that builds on existing cultural exchanges but from fresh perspectives, whilst learning about international arts movements so stay tuned! We will also be exploring the way in which 1001 Nights has had an imact on Iraqi artists. In the meantime, if you would like to purchase your own piece of this artistic exchange - you can find the original Victorian prints in our online shop - just check out the sale and you'll find a small sample on offer! All print sales of this item fund our workshops and activities in Baghdad!

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