The Houghton Shahnameh

Welch considered his monograph on the 16th century “Houghton” Shahnama manuscript to be his magnum opus. Created for the Safavid king Shah Tahmasp, the lavishly illustrated copy of the Persian epic was purchased by the bibliophile Arthur Houghton II in 1959 in consultation with prominent art historians. Welch and his coauthor, Princeton professor Martin Dickson, envisioned their monograph as a deluxe color facsimile edition, with essays that would tell the story of Persian painting as seen through the manuscript’s 258 full-page illustrations.

The sixteen-year collaboration was beset by problems large and small, ranging from budget cuts and printing problems to the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution. The final product (The Houghton Shahnameh, Harvard University Press, 1981), a 2 volume folio edition with a limited run of 750, ultimately reproduced only 21 miniatures in color, with the rest as black-and-white collotype plates. By the time of its publication, the original manuscript had been disbound, and individual folios sold at auction. Now dispersed across museums and private collections worldwide, these paintings have never been seen together again.

Welch’s image collection preserves a unique opportunity to view these paintings in situ, as well as in color. One widely reproduced painting, Sultan-Muhammad’s The Court of Gayumars, is now preserved as a single folio at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (AKM165). It depicts the mythical first king of Iran enthroned in an otherworldly landscape of surging, multicolored rocks and delicate bursts of vegetation. In Welch’s images, we can glimpse the edge of the accompanying overlay sheets—meticulously inserted during the manuscript’s long sojourn in Istanbul—that gives a precis and commentary on the painting in Ottoman Turkish (SCW2016.03903).1 These inserts were separated from the manuscript, and many are now lost; these are some of the few images of them in their original context. 

[1] Ünver Rüstem, "The Afterlife of a Royal Gift : The Ottoman Inserts of the Shahnama-i Shahi," Muqarnas 29 (2012): 248-253.

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