London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1928. Second edition. Hardcover. This second edition of Gertrude Bell’s Persian Pictures, quite scarce thus in the original dust jacket, is the first edition published under her name. In 1892 Gertrude Bell, a twenty-four year old Oxford graduate, traveled to Persia with her Aunt to visit her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, a newly appointed Minister in Teheran. The result of her travels was Safar Nameh, Persian Pictures: A Book of Travel, a slim volume published anonymously in 1894 to little response.
In the following decades Bell achieved political influence as well as notoriety as a travel writer, prompting renewed interest in her scarce early works. The preface of this posthumously published volume written by Sir E. Denison Ross notes “the only copy known to me is that from which the present edition is being made.” This new edition is an attractive production printed on heavy, laid paper pages. This copy is very good in a good plus dust jacket. The olive cloth binding is well-preserved - clean, square, and tight with sharp corners and only minor shelf wear to extremities. The contents remain reasonably bright apart from age-toning to the page edges. We find no previous ownership marks. Spotting is primarily confined to the prelims and page edges, heaviest at the pastedowns, which show differential toning corresponding to the dust jacket flaps. The dust jacket shows overall soiling, shallow loss at the spine ends, fractional loss at flap fold corners, and a toned and scuffed spine. The dust jacket is protected beneath a removable, clear, archival cover.
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (1868-1926) was the intriguing and influential adventurer, scholar, writer, and diplomat who, like her contemporary T. E. “Lawrence of Arabia” did much to frame and shape the Middle East during and after the First World War. Raised amid industrialist family wealth, Bell lost her mother at age three, increasing a “sense of independence and self-reliance” perhaps already inherent to the “physically restless and intellectually gifted” child. By her mid-twenties – during the trip that prompted her to write this book - the unmarried Bell discovered intellectual and emotional fascination with the Middle East. “Outstanding literary and linguistic skills” coupled with “determination, bravery, physical strength, and endurance” invigorated contributions to travel literature, translation, archaeology, and architecture, eventually evolving into engagement in the region’s socio-political currents. By the First World War, Bell became “a voluntary agent of Britain’s interests in the Middle East” and assumed her defining role – as “a woman trying to break one of the most challenging barriers of her time: the physical conquest of the desert and the decoding of the moral and ethical code of its inhabitants.” (ODNB)
Bell’s linguistic and tribal knowledge made her indispensable to the Arab Bureau (the Cairo intelligence office of the British government during the First World War), contributing articles to the Arabian Report and the famous Arab Bulletin. After the First World War, Bell remained an influential figure, helping persuade Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill to maintain a British presence in Iraq, helping secure the throne for the King of Iraq, and facilitating the Anglo-Iraqi treaty. One of her last accomplishments was to gather funds for a national museum in Baghdad, which was inaugurated in 1923 and installed in a permanent building in 1926, the year she died. Like the contemporary figure to whom she is often compared, Lawrence of Arabia, Bell was disappointed in some of her hopes for the region and died comparatively young. Bell was played by actress Nicole Kidman in the 2015 film Queen of the Desert. Item #006027