7 min read

The forgotten Victorian woman traveller and her collection of Middle Eastern art 5

a photo of a metal bird inlaid with decoration

Hawk, steel with inlaid gold and silver decoration, Iran (Isfahan), late 19th century

The Holburne Museum in Bath reveals the amazing collection of a Victorian lady who travelled the bazaars of the Middle East collecting Persian art and curiosities

When Miss Ellen Tanner first sailed towards Baghdad on the River Tigris, she was instantly beguiled.

“As we came in sight of Baghdad,” she wrote, “it looked like a fairy city with the palm-fringed river, orange gardens, the houses on the waterside like Venice, and all her mosques and minarets gleaming in the yellow evening sunlight.”

Ellen Georgiana Tanner (1874-1937) was one of the first British women to travel solo to the Middle East. Born near Bristol, she received an inheritance of £18,000, which enabled her to travel, first in Europe and then further afield.

It was 1894 when she took the steamer to Baghdad, beginning a journey that took her overland through Iraq and on horseback into Iran accompanied only by local guides, staying in caravanserais along the route.

a photo of a woman in Victorian dress in a garden with a folded umbrella

Ellen Tanner in 1903 in Mahun, photograph by Herbert Sykes. Sykes Family Collection

a photo of a teacup with an angel depicted on it

Teacup, enamel on copper. Iran, 19th century. Given by Miss E.G. Tanner in 1928.

a photo of a an animal motif on the curve of a decorated stone bottle

Detail of a soapstone water bottle, Iran, (Mashhad), 1903-4.

Along the way she explored the bazaars of Baghdad, Shiraz, Teheran and Isfahan and picked up scores of Persian artworks. She went on to make three visits to the region and amass an impressive collection of art that included textiles, laquerwork and metalwork as well as ceramics and books.

Eventually settling with her treasures in Bath, between 1917 and 1935 she began donating large parts of her collection to the Holburne who have just finished a major conservation project of her generous and sumptuous donation, which veers between the typical Victorian taste for the what was then termed the Oriental – to the simply beautiful.

In some of her purchases – like the mirror case depicting the Firdawsi’s Shahnama, or Book of Kings, the mythical account of the history of Iran, floral motifs reflect the popularity of European-style flower painting and hint at the exchange of design ideas that had flourished since the seventeenth century.

But others are simply unique, like the beautiful rosewater sprinkler glass that was reputed to have collected the tears of women or the two steel animal figures, of a type that were attached to standards carried in the mourning processions of Muharram, the Iranian New Year. Tanner’s journals reveal how she watched one of these processions when she was staying in Gulahek, near Teheran, in the summer of 1895.

a photo of a blue glass jar with an elegant neck

Rosewater sprinkler, glass, Iran (probably Shiraz), 1700–1800.

a photo of a decorated tile with floral motifs

Tile with floral decoration, Iran, late 19th century. Given by Miss E.G. Tanner in

a photo of a set of playing cards with depictions of people on their rear

Lacquer, Iran, 19th century. F84. Given by Miss E.G. Tanner in 1927.

In the bazaars of Kashan she became captivated by the ornate brass and copper work vases. The large size and detailed design of the pierced and chased brass objects she bought there incorporate arabesque designs known as eslimi and Quranic styled inscriptions. The unusual half-man, half-animal figures, represent the life-and-death struggle of the Iranian monarch with an animal who symbolizes the evil forces of the world.

Fragments of damask silk, a sliver frame depicting men locked in battle with mythical beasts, leather bounds books, boxes and sherbet ladles, and intricately carved soapstone vessels acquired on her third trip to Iran with Ella, Ethel and Herbert Sykes in 1903 are also among the haul of items she eventually gave to the Holburne.

“Ellen Tanner is not well known as a woman traveller – unlike her contemporaries Gertrude Bell or Isabella Bird,” says Catrin Jones, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Holburne, “so it has been fascinating to discover more about her journey and experiences of travel in the Middle East.

“Tanner’s story can tell us so much about our own troubled times: it’s a chance to celebrate a pioneering woman and the extraordinary artistic and cultural output of the Middle East, but also a salient reminder of Britain’s history of empire.”

a detail of a Persian style vase with figurative decoration

Detail of a brass vase pierced and chased, Iran (probably Isfahan), 19th century.

a photo of a small teacup with motifs of people on it

Teacup, enamel on copper. Iran, 19th century. Given by Miss E.G. Tanner in 1928.

a photo of a laqered hinged case

Mirror case. Lacquer, Iran, 19th century. Given by Miss E.G. Tanner in 1926.

Jones adds that the museum’s ‘Big Give’ crowdfunding project enabled them to conserve more of Ellen Tanner’s collection than they had expected – 61 objects conserved by seven conservators over four months.

“The objects have been transformed and finally do justice to the intrepid woman who collected them and the exhibition is full of unusual and beautiful art from the bazaars of Iran and Iraq in the late 1890s.”

Ellen Tanner died in 1937 and is buried at Lansdown Cemetery, Bath. Her legacy and collection tells a fascinating story about her life and interests, and offers a woman’s view of the world as a late Victorian during the age of Empire.

a photo of a peacock in steel

Peacock, steel with inlaid gold and silver decoration, Iran (Isfahan), late 19th century.

a painting of a scene with a man on horseback attended by servants

Detail of the front of the mirror case. Iran, 19th century. Given by Miss E.G. Tanner in 1926.

a detail of the decoration in purple and red of a Persian shawl

Embroidered shawl detail.

Bath to Baghdad: Ellen Tanner’s Collection of Middle Eastern Art is at the Holburne Museum, Bath until October 21 2018.


Holburne Museum

Bath, Somerset

This jewel in Bath's crown was once the Georgian Sydney Hotel, whose glittering society Jane Austen watched from her house opposite. It displays the treasures collected by Sir William Holburne: superb English and continental silver, porcelain, maiolica, glass and Renaissance bronzes. The Picture Gallery contains works by Turner, Guardi, Stubbs…

5 comments on “The forgotten Victorian woman traveller and her collection of Middle Eastern art

  1. Alexandros Lavdas on

    Lovely article! Just a correction: ” Persia (now Iran)” does not really mean anything. Iran was always Iran. Foreigners used the word “Persia”, which comes from the Iranian province “Pars” – the epicenter of Persian culture and language. It was a bit as if people called all of the UK “England”, and so Reza Shah in the 1930s asked that the country’s full name, Iran, is used in international relations. The name never changed – it was always Iran.

    • Richard Moss on

      Thank you for the clarification Alexandros. I have made the correction to the text as suggested. Many thanks. Richard (editor).

  2. Walid Akef on

    A very lovely article about a woman who is not as famous as Gertrude Bell who we know through her books more than anything else. Whenever I visit Bath, I will definitely stop by the museum.

    Thanks alot!

  3. Iftikhar on

    Muharram is not just the first month of Iranian calendar, it is the first month of lunar calendar for all Muslims, which determines their special days of religious sanctity. It is also the month when the Prophet’s grandson and his companions were killed in Kufa (Iraq) by the Ummayyad forces and thus is a month of mourning for Shia Muslims all over the world. Muharram would literally mean “forbidden” and traditionally no violence would be committed during this month among the pagan Arabs since it followed Zilhajj, the month of pilgrimage and also the last one in lunar calendar. Muslim lunar calendar begins with the Prophet’s migration (hijra) from Mecca to Medina in CE622.

  4. Joanna de Groot on

    interesting to hear about a less well -known woman traveller

    Does the photograph located at “Mahun” indicate that she travelled to the Kerman region in south-eastern Iran, where there is a notable shrine and prince’s garden in a place called Mahan/Mahun, about 25 miles from the regional capital ? Since Percy Sykes was British consul in Kerman and was accompanied by his sister Ella and brother Herbert this seems to be a distinct possibility.

    I look forward to visiting your collection.


Leave a Reply to Joanna de Groot Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *