A Few of our Favourite Things: #19 John Falconer

As part of IDP's 20th anniversary celebrations we have asked twenty of our friends and supporters to select their favourite item from the IDP collections. The full selection will form an online catalogue and will be featured in the spring and autumn 2014 editions of IDP News

John Falconer at Karadong, November 2011. Photo 1187/2(368).

John Falconer is Lead Curator of Visual Arts at the British Library. This includes the Library's photographic collections, which are particularly strong on historical collections of India, his specialism. However, he has also been working on the Stein and other Central Asian photographic collections for over twenty years, having catalogued those at the British Library and the Library and Information Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He has also travelled and worked in the field, including on IDP Field Trips to the Taklamakan: many of his own photographs are now in the Library's collections and were on display at the IDP20 photographic exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society. He has also curated photographic exhibitions in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, China and elsewhere. His chosen item is a photograph taken by Robert Byron.

Tomb in front of the eastern iwan of the Abdullah Ansari shrine complex at Gazar Gah, near Herat. Neg 1240(90).

John Falconer writes:

In the decade before his untimely death in the early days of the Second World War, Robert Byron (1905–41) established an enduring reputation as an art and architectural historian. His travels through Iran and Afghanistan in search of the purest examples of Islamic architecture in the early 1930s are described in his best-known work, The Road to Oxiana (1937). While frequently displaying the casual racism and snobbery common to so many upper-middle class Englishmen of his generation, the book remains a perceptive and often hilarious account of a difficult and sometime dangerous journey. Despite radically personal and often idiosyncratic opinions on architecture — he notes approvingly of the Gumbad-i-Alaviyan at Hamadan that it wipes the taste of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal out of one’s mouth … I came to Persia to get rid of that taste — he was a passionate devotee of the arts of Central Asia.

His extensive collection of photographs (British Library shelfmark: Neg 1240) is among the most enduring and valuable of his legacies, providing a unique record of the buildings encountered and described on his travels, many of them now inaccessible, altered or entirely destroyed. The image selected here is rare in including a human presence: in contrast to his prose, Byron was not significantly concerned in his photographs with evoking atmosphere or creating artistic images. His purpose was to provide an accurate visual record for his own writings and for future historians of architectural form. In his wanderings around the monuments of Herat, a city that has seen massive damage to its historic fabric in recent decades, he writes of feeling as one who has lighted on the lost books of Livy, or an unknown Botticelli. His photographs preserve, however inadequately, something of this heritage.

Coincidentally, the Byron collection forms a further link with another important archive of photographs in the British Library. Byron nursed an unrequited passion for the traveller and writer Desmond Parsons until the latter’s death in 1937, and had lived with him in Peking in 1934. Parsons’ own photographs recording his visit to the Dunhuang Caves in 1935 (BL shelfmark: Photo 1275), were recently presented to the British Library and are also available for study on the IDP website.