Height: 19.9 cm
Width: 15.7 cm
Prints and Drawings
Anthony Van Dyck, a study for the costume of Robert Shirley
This sketch was drawn by Flemish painter Anthony Van Dyck during a visit to Rome in 1622. It depicts Robert Shirley (about 1581–1628) who was in the city on a diplomatic visit, intending to set up trade links with Pope Gregory XV on behalf of Shah 'Abbas I (1571–1629), the ruler of Iran.
Van Dyck made several sketches of Shirley and his wife between July and August 1622, which he later used to create full-length portraits. In his role as an ambassador from the court of Shah 'Abbas Shirley wore a turban and silk robes, which would have been exotic and colourful to the European eye.
One of Shah 'Abbas’ more unusual policies was his openness to foreigners and non-Muslims. By 1598, when the capital moved to Isfahan, the Portuguese and latterly Dutch had already established trade relations in India, China and Southeast Asia. The Portuguese had also taken control of Hormuz, the strategically located island in the Persian Gulf. In 1600 Queen Elizabeth I signed the charter of the East India Company and gradually the English began to sail or travel overland to Iran and the lands beyond it to the east.
Shirley arrived in Iran with his brother Anthony in 1598. They were received by Shah 'Abbas and first Anthony, then Robert, returned to Europe as the shah’s ambassador. They tried to persuade the kings of Spain and England to join an alliance against the Ottomans and to open their markets to traders from Iran.
Shirley met his future wife Teresia in Shah 'Abbas’s former capital, Qazvin. A Christian of noble Circassian blood, she proved an intrepid partner for her husband and saved his life on two occasions.