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Major-General Sir Robert J. Murdoch Smith

Ali Muhammad Isfahani, table top, fritware with underglaze decoration, Tehran, 1887, ordered by Colonel Robert Murdoch Smith

Ali Muhammad Isfahani, table top, fritware with underglaze decoration, Tehran, 1887, ordered by Colonel Robert Murdoch Smith

Major-General Sir Robert J. Murdoch Smith acted as agent for the Department of Science and Art in Iran where he reported on and acquired collections of Iranian objects for the South Kensington Museum.

Robert J. Murdoch Smith was born in Kilmarnock, Scotland, on 18 August 1835, the second son of Dr Hugh Smith and Jean (née Murdoch). He attended Kilmarnock Academy and Glasgow University and was commissioned to the Royal Engineers in 1855. Smith undertook archaeological expeditions to Asia Minor (where he participated in the excavation of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus) and North Africa, and published two accounts of his travels. For 20 years he was director of the Persian telegraph company in Tehran, a position that gave him unrivalled opportunities to develop relationships with collectors and dealers, and to scour the markets for artefacts.

In 1873 Smith was engaged to act as an agent of the Department of Science and Art, purchasing “artistic and ornamental objects” and reporting on potential purchases suitable for the Museum, a role he undertook with vigour until 1885. One of Smith’s largest acquisitions was the collection of the Frenchman, Jules Richard (1816-1891), who resided in Tehran, which he despatched to the Museum in 62 cases in 1875 (401 to 900-1876, 1547 to 1851-1876). Smith’s acquisitions of textiles, ceramics, manuscripts, metalwork and paintings formed the foundation for the Museum’s Iranian collections. The collection was exhibited in 1876 in a gallery dedicated to Iranian art; Smith wrote the guide.

In 1885 he was appointed director of the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art. Knighted in 1888, Smith died in Edinburgh on 3 July 1900.

Information in the V&A Archive

MA/1/S2325/1-8: Nominal file – Smith, Colonel R. J. Murdoch

MA/30/92-97: Central Inventory registers

MA/49/2/47: Press cuttings

MA/2/P7/1: Purchases by officers on visits abroad, 1863-1884

ED 84/36: Précis of the Board minutes of the Science and Art Department, vol. II and III, 1863-1877

ED 84/37: Précis of the Board minutes of the Science and Art Department, vol. IV, 1878-1880

ED 84/38: Précis of the Board minutes of the Science and Art Department, vol. V, 1881-1883

Twenty-second report of the Department of Science and Art. London: George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode for HMSO, 1875

Other archival sources

National Library of Scotland, correspondence and papers

The National Archives, London, PRO 30/40/1: Lieut R Murdoch Smith: as to service on Persian telegraph detachment

Selected publications

Smith, R. Murdoch. Persian Art. Published for the Committee of Council on Education by Chapman and Hall, [1876]. NAL pressmark: 502.B.123.I

Dickson, William Kirk. The life of Major-General Sir Robert Murdoch Smith. Edinburgh, 1901. NAL pressmark: 188.F.12

Helfgott, Leonard. ‘Carpet Collecting in Iran, 1873-1883: Robert Murdoch Smith and the Formation of the Modern Persian Carpet Industry.’ Muqarnas: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture 7 (1990): 171-181

Vernoit, Stephen, ed. Discovering Islamic art: scholars, collectors and collections, 1850-1950. London: I. B. Tauris, c2000. NAL pressmark: 603.AA.1509

Scarce, Jennifer. ‘Travels with telegraph and tiles in Persia; from the private papers of Major-General Sir Robert Murdoch Smith.’ AARP: Art and Archaeology Research Papers 3 (1973): 70-81. NAL pressmark: PP.1.S

Scarce, Jennifer. ‘Persian art through the eyes of nineteenth-century British travellers.’ British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 8, no.1 (1981): 38-50

Scarce, Jennifer. ‘Persian Art through the eyes of Major General Robert Murdoch Smith KCMG.’ In Jenni Calder, ed. The Enterprising Scot–Scottish Adventure and Achievement. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 1986

Scarce, Jennifer. ‘Major-General Sir Robert Murdoch Smith KCMG and Anglo-Iranian relations in art and culture’. In Vanessa Martin, ed. Anglo-Iranian Relations since 1800. London: Routledge, 2005

Stronach, George. ‘Smith, Sir Robert Murdoch (1835–1900)’, rev. Roger T. Stearn. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. NAL pressmark: 920.041 DIC

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