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The Holburne Museum presents Ellen Tanner's collection of Middle Eastern art
Mirror case Lacquer, Iran, 19th century. F65B. Given by Miss E.G. Tanner in 1926.

BATH.- Ellen Georgiana Tanner (1874-1937) was one of the first British women to travel solo to the Middle East.

This summer, following a major conservation project, the sumptuous textiles, delicate carved woodwork and lacquer, and elaborately decorated metalwork she collected during her travels go on display for the first time at The Holburne Museum.

Born near Bristol, Tanner received an inheritance of £18,000 which enabled her to travel, first in Europe and then further afield. In 1894, she travelled by steamer to Baghdad in Iraq, beginning a journey overland on horseback into Persia (now Iran) accompanied only by local guides, staying in caravanserais along the route, and exploring the bazaars of Baghdad, Shiraz, Teheran and Isfahan.

She eventually settled in Bath and between 1917 and 1932, donated more than 85 items to The Holburne. The collection reflects the richness of secular Middle Eastern figurative and decorative art traditions and includes chased silver, Persian shellac mirrors and pen cases, an incised brass hookah, a pair of elaborately carved pearwood sherbet ladles, embroidered and woven textiles, large incised brass vases and beautiful damascened peacock and hawk. Handwritten notes describing the objects and where she bought them survive for a number of objects.

Catrin Jones, Curator of Decorative Arts at The Holburne says “It has been so exciting to explore the untold story of Ellen Tanner and to discover and share her collection for the first time. Ellen Tanner is not well known as a woman traveller - unlike her contemporaries Gertrude Bell or Isabella Bird, so it has been fascinating to discover more about her journey and experiences of travel in the Middle East.“

She added “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. The huge success of our Big Give crowdfunding project enabled us to conserve more of Ellen Tanner’s collection than we had expected – 61 objects conserved by 7 conservators over the past 4 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 tells a fascinating story about her life and interests, as well as a woman’s view of the world as a late Victorian during the age of Empire.

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