Pomegranate and iron thrush. The Sevruguin legacy in the Matenadaran

Who could tell the nationality of Antoine Sevruguin? Born in Tehran from a Russian diplomat and the daughter of a Georgian aristocratic family, he studied photography in Tiflis in the 1860s just like other great Caucasian phographers, Alexander Roinashvili and Dmitry Ermakov did, but he put his knowledge to use in Persia, where he became a cour photographer for Naser al-Din Shah. He even taught the shah and the court aristocracy how to make photos, which resulted in a series of private photos from the aristocratic harems. He was given a Persian noble rank and he photographed the peoples of Persia for decades, but used a French name throughout to emphasize his independence. It was not until 2015 that his Armenian origins became known when his grandson, Emmanuel Sevrugian, a German citizen, donated the family legacy of Antonine and his son André to the Matenadaran Institute of Armenian Manuscripts in Yerevan.

Antoine Sevruguin’s family around 1900. Sitting: Antoine, his second daughter Olga, his wife Louise, his first daughter Marie. Standing: his two sons André and Sasha, and his brother Emmanuel

Antoine Sevruguin took nearly seven thousand photographs of the peoples of late 19th-century Persia, of Persians, Turks, Kurds, and the mountain tribes of the Zagros. Nowadays, when one makes so many digital shots in a ten-days Persian journey, this number seems small, but it was not when each glass negative was the only end product of a well-prepared situation of a laborious expedition. Not to mention the quality of Sevruguin’s photos, the personal encounter and “oriental charm” flowing from them.

At the recently opened exhibition in the Matenadaran, the Sevruguin/Sevrugian legacy is accompanied by only a few photos. Almost metaphorically, the exhibition is opened by two late 19th-century iron figures in the same glass cube: a pomegranate, a symbol of the Armenians, and an iron thrush, about which I have already written – but Borges had also told so – that it is a symbolic bird for the Persians.

Much of the legacy on display is paper: letters, documents, and 19th-century printed books or manuscripts, with the big-eyed, naive, child-drawing-like figures typical of the late Qajar era.

The story of Yusuf and Zuleika (the biblical Joseph and Potiphar’s wife), 1841

And some personal items from the same period: sideboard decorations, cushions, plates with the symbol of Persia, the sun and the lion. The little that a family finds worth taking with them as a keepsake into the emigration.

I will write more about Antoine Sevruguin’s photos, the unique pictorial chronicle of old Persia, in a next post, with lots of illustrations.

Persian family sleeping under a table, with a copper brazier hidden under the same table, ca. 1880-90

Manure collectors, ca. 1880

Women from Lorestan (Zagros Mountains), ca. 1880-90

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