My Favourite Painting: Henry Dallal

The photographer Henry Dallal, a favourite of the late Queen Elizabeth II, chooses a modern take on an ancient Persian image.

Henry Dallal chooses A Spark in the Emerald Forest by Hana Shahnavaz

‘When I first saw this work at the Saatchi Gallery, I was struck by its beauty and the colours and the style. I am Persian and always appreciate the famous Shahnameh (also known as The Book of Kings), written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi more than 1,000 years ago and one of the sources that inspired this artwork, reimagined as art.

‘I love the colours, the flow of the painting and, of course, the fact that horses are involved in depicting a love story set in Nature. I once met the artist and she explained the effort and methods employed to create the painting, which included using earth from Iran.’

Henry Dallal is a landscape and portrait photographer who was commissioned by Elizabeth II multiple times. For the late Queen’s 96th-birthday portrait, he photographed her with two Fell ponies, Bybeck Katie and Bybeck Nightingale.

Charlotte Mullins on Hana Shahnavaz and A Spark in the Emerald Forest

This highly intricate painting looks like a historic Persian miniature, but it was painted in 2019 by recent graduate Hana Shahnavaz and is more than 4½ft tall. The British-Iranian artist spent six years in Iran studying Persian art with Safoura Asadian, before completing her Masters in visual Islamic and traditional art at The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in Wales in 2017.

When in Iran, she studied the works of 15th-century masters: ‘There is an amazing history of Persian art and poetry,’ she says. ‘You can feel it still vibrating in the earth, within the people.’ She also learnt how to grind her own colours and began foraging for earth and mineral pigments, as well as using gold leaf and diamond dust to give her works an additional glow.

A Spark in the Emerald Forest takes a moment from the traditional Persian tale of Khosrow and Shirin. The pair had never met, but were drawn together when their spiritual hearts recognised each other. In the artist’s retelling, Khosrow picks his way along an undulating wooded ridge. As he crosses a river, he spies Shirin bathing in a pool below.

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The painting follows the format of Persian art in that there is no Western perspective, but rather a flattened picture plane covered with exceptional detail. Flowers from all seasons are in full bloom, expressing the couple’s union. The central pool has been enhanced by diamond dust mixed into the pigment, which refracts the light and makes the surface dance, a sparkling visualisation of the couple’s spiritual connection.

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