Many believe that thousands of Europeans who traveled to the Middle East between the 16th and 20th centuries were merchants, soldiers, and diplomats. However, there was also a large number of artists who were enchanted by the monuments, customs and traditions of one of the world’s most historically important and culturally prosperous regions.
Additionally, education and artistic awareness were so prevalent and high that many merchants, military personnel and diplomats were capable of painting better than most of the people who can take photos nowadays.
Baalbek – An old painting by Denis Dighton
Huge Collection of Arts
As a result, a huge collection was formed of pictures and paintings drawn by Europeans of monuments, landscapes, inhabitants, customs, traditions, animals and historical events in the Middle East region. These artworks can be viewed in a number of museums and galleries in London, Paris and New York. However, one figure was personally responsible of creating a huge collection of these paintings, which, according to experts, is considered the best of its kind in Europe. Paintings in this collection reflect Europeans’ impressions of the Middle East. This collector is Rodney Searight, who worked and lived in the Middle East for most of his life. He began his career with Shell in Egypt in 1931, where he stayed until 1951.
During this period, he worked in Palestine, Iraq, and Egypt and visited most other countries in the region, but he was particularly charmed by Cairo. Searight became acquainted with the Middle East and most of the region’s population during his stay. He was in theEgyptian capital when the Cairo Fire broke out in 1952. In 1972, his leg was injured in a plane hijack over Ethiopia. Like many Westerners who visited the Middle East, Searight, who is currently based in Britain, was always interested in the artistic aspects and used a pencil to draw the people and landmarks he saw during his tours. Nevertheless, he did not begin his “second career” until after he left Shell in 1966. Since then, he has begun to form his unique collection, which is receiving increased attention by all those concerned with art.
“Artworks were certainly cheap at the time,” saysSearight. In addition, people’s interest in this topic was not as much as nowadays. For instance, he was offered a collection of artworks by David Roberts, the renowned artist who used to paint scenes in Egypt and Palestine, for 50 pounds sterling. However, he refused the collection because it was too heavy to carry abroad.Now, the same collection’s price ranges between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds sterling.
Constantinople – a portrait by Amedeo Preziosi
Searight’s Collection is Rich and Valuable
Nevertheless, after years of searching in auction halls and shops in London and Britain, Searight was able to create a diverse and distinct art collection that reflects major aspects of the Middle East history. His achievement was also made thanks to descendants’ willingness to sell the art pieces collected by their grandparents, who were either travelers or artists.
The number of paintings and artifacts in his collection is “extremely difficult” to estimate. It includes hundreds of portraits, watercolor paintings, sketches, photographs, printed photos and comic books.
An old painting of Cairo by David Roberts
Searight says he owns a “study collection,” which is immensely valuable for whoever is interested in the history of Ottoman fashion, the Persian traditions in the early 19th century or the failed British campaign to help Gordon in Khartoum. There are also many paintings by amateur artists such as Godfrey Thomas Vigne, who was a topographer and interested in antiquities and languages, in addition to having “a great talent for drawing portraits of people.” This talent was demonstrated during his travels in Afghanistan and northwestern India in the 1930s.
The collection further includes paintings by professional artists such as William Henry Bartlett, who drew many famous paintings on Palestine and Lebanon and visited the Middle East five times before he died in 1854. Among Searight’s favorite artists is John Frederick Lewis, who lived in Cairo “like a rich Turk” from 1841 till 1851. According to Searight, Lewis fused himself into the Egyptian lifestyle and understood the nature of people there better than any other Western artist. Most of the paintings in Searight’s collection are by English or French artists, and he does not own any paintings by local artists.
Rodney Searight in front one of his precious paintings
A Reference for Researchers and Galleries
His collection continues to grow although Searight is struggling with the price hikes and had to sell most of the paintings on Greece to focus more on those on the Middle East.
Often researchers refer to this collection, and various exhibitions borrow some of its paintings, including a recent exhibition that was held in Manchester, Britain. Writers and authors also rely on his collection to search for pictures for their books.
Among the first authors to use the collection for this purpose is Sarah, Searight’s daughter, whose book, “The British in the Middle East,” includes excellent portraits of life in the Middle East during the 19thcentury. The collection also includes a rich source of information represented in the cards attached to the back of each painting, which are constantly modified according to the latest updated information on the subject of the painting or the artist who painted it.
Thus, a short look at Searight’s collection is enough to show the depth of relations between the Middle East and the West and the extent to which these relations continue. It includes paintings that portray every part of the Middle East, from Muscat to Meknes and from Aswan to Kabul.
The Middle East has never been separate from Europe, even in the 16th century when Western countries fought the Ottoman Empire for a long period in the Persian Gulf, in the Mediterranean and on the banks of the Danube River.
The history of arts, just like the history of carpets or the history of other products, such as coffee or spices, proves how Europe has constantly needed the Middle East.
Al-Majalla Magazine met with Searight and obtained pictures of his best paintings. These photos are published for the first time in any Arab publication. The paintings he owns are a treasure of art for all those concerned with the Middle East region, its history, customs and traditions.