Elwell, Abadan Oil Refinery, Iran -c.1947 watercolour plus original photograph


An original c.1947 watercolour painting by M.A. Elwell of Abadan Oil Refinery, Iran, plus an original black and white photograph of refinery at night by P.B. Elwell.

A fascinating painting by the talented hand of British woman Mary Elwell, produced in Iran in the 1940s, accompanied by an original black and white photograph, pasted on the verso. The painting shows the Abadan Oil Refinery, at the time the largest refinery in the world. The painting captures a sense of modernity and optimism, whilst the photograph shows a slightly darker vision of 'Abadan at Night' taken by Paul Elwell. These pictures dates from a fascinating and significant period in the history of Iran and Anglo-Iranian relations.

Signed at the lower edge.
The painting is accompanied by an inscription on a separate fragment of paper: ' Where all roads in Abadan lead, the biggest refinery in the world'.
In good condition for its age. The picture may have minor imperfections, such as slight marks, toning, foxing, creasing or pinholes, commensurate with age. Please see photos for detail. There are paper and adhesive remnants on the verso, from historically being laid down.
20.4cm x 15.2cm.

This painting is one of a highly unusual collection of paintings that we have for sale by husband and wife Paul and Mary Elwell, produced in Iran in the 1940s. The views depicted in these vibrant works focus around the city of Abadan in the south-west of the country near the Persian Gulf. Abadan was the location of the largest oil refinery in the world at the time, built by the British Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later British Petroleum and BP) in 1912.

During the period 1947 to 1948 Paul Bingham Elwell (1910–1962) was working as a pilot for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, having served as a wing commander in the RAF during the Second World War. Elwell was well-decorated for his bravery during wartime, awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for single-handedly downing two out of five German Focke-Wulfe planes over northern France. After his period in Iran, in the 1950s Paul Elwell moved to work for commercial carriers in Africa, and there are a number of African subjects in this collection of paintings. Elwell worked in Kenya, where he was appointed second mayor of Eldoret, and for Caspain Air Charters in Uganda, where it is said he trained the first African pilot. In 1960 he received an MBE for helping to evacuate European refugees from the Belgian Congo. Paul Elwell died prematurely after suffering a heart attack while landing a plane in 1962.

These pictures of Iran, Kenya and Uganda document Paul and Mary Elwell's engagement with these vibrant landscapes far from home. Vivid and colourful, the paintings communicate these regions' abundant natural beauty. The Iranian subjects include local people, animals and architecture: tribesmen in traditional dress, majestic Arabian horses and elegant Islamic temples. And most interestingly perhaps, they were produced in the years immediately preceding the dramatic 'Abadan Crisis' of 1951—a key time in the history of Iran and Anglo-Iranian relations. Following World War II, nationalistic sentiments had been on the rise, and discontent at the British treatment of Iranian oil workers at Abadan was intensifying. In March 1951 Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara was assassinated by the Fada'iyan-e Islam, who supported the demands of the National Front. In the same month, the new democratic Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, riding a wave of anti-imperialist sentiment, finally nationalised Iran’s oil. British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company employees were evacuated while local oil workers hoisted the Iranian flag on the Abadan refinery.

These paintings present Iran through British eyes—the British experience of Abadan being one of polo, golf and tennis clubs, bungalows and flowering gardens, removed from the harsh conditions that a city built on oil brought with it. But they undeniably show an appreciation of the country's vibrant landscapes, architecture and culture. Indeed, we see in their work direct influences of local Persian and Iranian artists. Included in the collection are a number of paintings produced by 'Studio Demon' in 1947, a small art studio in Tehran that produced watercolours which were sold in various shops. The studio was unique in employing local artists of only the highest quality and in allowing the artists to personalise their work. Paul Elwell's own painting style closely resembles the Studio Demon work, and he directly copies Demon paintings on some occasions. And Mary Elwell's work includes copies of traditional Persian miniatures by one of the famous miniaturists of Isfahan, Haj Mirza Imami. The collection as a whole therefore can be seen as a unique record of cultural exchange during a complex and transformative period in world history, in a region which remains at the forefront of global politics today.

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Product code: JP-631

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