Fingernail Art (II): Three-dimensional Calligraphy and Drawing in the 19th-Century

Part II : Neighbouring Countries and Contemporary artists

Abstract

Fingernail art is a little known and studied Persian artistic medium, which was used in making calligraphy and drawing artworks, predominantly in the second half of the 19th century.

Part one of this article briefly introduces the technique and its history, before discussing prevalent themes and subjects. It then presents an exquisite album at the Harvard Art Museums, which contains unique examples of fingernail calligraphic scripts. In part two it considers the use of the technique in countries neighbouring Iran, such as India, Turkey, and Afghanistan.


We only have sparse information about the origins and history of fingernail art and artists. The decisive facts confirm that fingernail art reached its pinnacle of execution and peak of popularity under the Qajars. The technique gradually travelled to neighbouring countries, such as India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey, where it was practiced until the early 20th century. The technique was basically the same, but it was combined with indigenous embellishments.

India

In the second half of the 19th century, fingernail art had reached and was practiced in India. The technique was basically the same, but it was combined with indigenous embellishments, such as illumination, colouring, and gilding the traditionally bare medium. The image below is from an Indian album, dated 1866-67 at the Victoria and Albert Museum (fig. 1). This is one of their four albums containing fingernail art. In addition to the illuminated borders, the background and the raised surface of the calligraphy are also gilded.

Fig. 1. Victoria & Albert Museum, London, album no. 4625, dated 1866-67.
Source: https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O470470/album/

An Indian manuscript containing the wise words of Saʿdi Shirazi (1210–1292) is preserved at the Golpayegani Library in Qom (ms. no. 43484). The manuscript carries stencil decorations on the margins; the paper is tinted; and the background is gilded similar to the V&A album (fig. 2). The frontispiece is decorated with illumination and the verses are painted in gold (fig. 3).

Fig. 2. Stencil printing on the margin. Golpayegani Library, no. 43484.
Image © Library of Ayatollah Golpayegani, Qom.

Fig. 3. Illuminated frontispiece. Golpayegani Library, no. 43484.
Image © Library of Ayatollah Golpayegani, Qom.

Fig. 4. Colophon. Scribe: Jalal al-Din son of Muhammad Ramadan. Golpayegani Library, no. 43484.
Image © Library of Ayatollah Golpayegani, Qom.

The colophon states that it was “executed by Jalal al-Din son of Muhammad Ramadan in fingernail calligraphy, on the commission of the commander Lal Singh Ji” (fig. 4). He was the vizier of the Sikh Empire, and “one of the commanders of the Sikh troops during the first Sikh War”, who died in 1866 (fig. 5). [1] The manuscript is undated, but probably originates from around the same time as the V&A albums, meaning the second half of the 19th century.

Fig. 5. Lal Singh. His only existing photograph; taken in Agra or Dera Doon, c. 1855–1860.

In addition to poetic and literary texts produced in fingernail technique in India, we can see religious texts were not missed. One example is the Asma’ al-Husna (the 99 names of God) in the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library in Patna, Ms. no. 3980.

Two fingernail art albums of Indian origin are housed in the Tehran University Library (UT) nos. 9814, 9815, which are unique in the choice of subjects. They present a collection of figurative representations of animals, and well-known historical and mythical monarchs (figs. 6–9).

Fig. 6. Composite animal. Tehran University Library, album no. 9814.
Image © Central Library and Documentation Centre, University of Tehran.

The album no. 9814 (University of Tehran) contains 106 fingernail artworks, including portraits of Indian, Iranian and even Afghan rulers; to name a few: Timur (Tamerlane), Babur (founder of the Mughal Empire), Jahangir, Shah Tahmasp Safavi, Shah Ismail Safavi, ‘Ali Adil Shah of Bijapur, Ahmad Shah Durrani, Burhan Nizam Shah, and even the ancient Persian King Kaykavus from the Shahnama (Book of Kings). The backgrounds in all drawings are painted dark green and usually the eyes of the figures and, in some cases, animals are painted with gold.

Fig. 7. Portrait of Timur (founder of the Timurid dynasty). Tehran University Library, album no. 9814.
Image © Central Library and Documentation Centre, University of Tehran.

Fig. 8. Portrait of Babur (founder of the Mughal dynasty). Tehran University
Library, album no. 9814.

Fig. 9. Kaykavus airborne. Tehran University Library, album no. 9814.

The technique was also practiced in Pakistan and there are artworks in Lahore (Punjab Public Library), which the author has not yet had the opportunity to locate and study.

Afghanistan

Artists who practiced fingernail technique in Afghanistan tended to be faithful to the bare finish of the calligraphy, but deployed illumination to the borders for decoration. Bound in a beautiful lacquer binding is a copy of the Ilahi-nama by Khwaja ‘Abd Allah Ansari (1006–1089), in the National Archive of Kabul. The manuscript is dated 1896. The frontispiece is decorated with an indigenous style of illumination in gold, blue, light green and red (fig. 10). Interestingly, the foliation is also done in fingernail.

Fig. 10. Illuminated frontispiece. Ilahi-nama by Khwaja ‘Abd Allah Ansari, National Archive, Kabul.

The colophon on folio 115 (fig. 11) states that the Ilahi-nama of Pir Ansari in fingernail calligraphy was commissioned by Amir ‘Abdur Rahman Khan and transcribed by Muhammad Amin Kakiri in 1314 AH (1896).

Fig. 11. Colophon. Scribe: Muhammad Amin Kakiri, commissioned by Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman Khan, dated 1896.

‘Abdur Rahman Khan (1840s–1901), known as the ‘Iron Amir’ and ‘Dracula of Amirs’, was the Amir (ruler) of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901 (fig. 12). Although he united the country after years of internal conflicts, he was responsible for the massacre and enslavement of Hazara tribes.

Fig. 12. Portrait of Amir ‘Abdur Rahman Khan, Rawalpindi, April 1885.
Wellcome Collection, CMAC PP/HAM/A.31/1 – photo no. L0020789.

Turkey

There is enough evidence to be certain that fingernail art was practiced at a high level in Turkey as well.[2]

In Eski Eserler Ansiklopedisi (Encyclopedia of Antiquities) we read: “These are written with the lengthened nail of the thumb, by pressing down on the paper from the verso and turning the paper this way and that, thus leaving a trace on it. It can be likened to the embossed stamps used by some today. The inscription embossed on the paper is best seen when lit from the side. Smaller letters are shaped with a single trace, while larger ones are shaped by embossing the edges. In some cases, the margins of the inscription are decorated with flowers and branches also embossed with a nail”.[3]

One beautiful fingernail album at the University of Michigan Library in Ann Arbor, contains 14 artworks, pasted back to back in seven folios.

Fig. 13. Inscription in tughra. Isl. Ms. 279, University of Michigan Library (Special Collections Research Center), Ann Arbor.

In addition to calligraphic works in nastaʿliq, thuluth, and uniquely in tughra (fig. 13), it contains compositions of hunting lions, and of flowers.[4] It is dated 1864 and according to the first folio, it was executed for one of the most influential Ottoman administrators and statesmen, Mehmed Fuad Paşa (1814–1869), who was the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire on two occasions between 1861 and 1866 (figs. 14–15).

The artist signed his name Abu Turab Uftadeh, of whom I could not find much.

We know of other Turkish artists, famous for practicing fingernail calligraphy in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century:

  • Pesendî Hacı Ali Dede (1841–1913) was a dervish, poet, and musician who was also a calligrapher in nasta’liq and practiced “nail script” as well.[5]
  • Bereket-zade Hacı Rıfat Ağa (d. 1907) was both a politician (a northern Syrian MP) and a poet active in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was also a master calligrapher, and especially famous for his fingernail calligraphy.[6]
  • Mustafa Asım Bey (1856–1904), also known as Küçük Filibeli was a poet and a calligrapher. İbnü’l-Emin Mahmut Kemal İnal -– the Ottoman biographer and author of Son Hattatlar (1955), a biographical dictionary of calligraphers – described Asım Bey as: “He was skilled in nasta’liq script, especially in writing with the fingernail. A verbal portrait of the Prophet Muhammad that he had written in this manner was once exhibited at the School for Calligraphers and admired by the calligraphers”.[7]
  • Elmalılı Muhammed Hamdi Yazır (1878–1942), a theologian and Qur’an commentator, who was also trained as a calligrapher. There exists a good number of skillful fingernail artworks by him.[8]
Arabic verse in muthanna (mirror writing), ما شاالله کان. Unknown artist, from the collection of Dr Irvin Cemil Schick.

Aftermath

Fingernail technique almost became extinct in Iran after the fall of the Qajars (1925). It was destined to fade away in other countries too, probably due to the lack of patronage, and difficulties of preservation. The Encyclopaedia of Antiquities (1939) suggests some of the reasons:

“Since they are invisible from a distance and degrade with the passage of time, they are among the useless arts and do not have much value. Some five or ten years ago, a huge catalogue was sold for 10 Turkish Lira. Indeed, the labour that goes into it is not proportional to its value”.[9]

As stated above, fingernail artworks tend to become flat gradually. In order to prevent this and to preserve the quality of the artworks there should be no pressure on the folios and if possible one should keep them in a position such that their embossed side face each other.

The process of digitisation is also one of the challenges (but not difficult) that collections encounter. Special lighting is required to capture the embossed effect on the paper and render a drawing or inscription visible. While each artwork is different and required a setting of its own, a 45-degree light angle usually works when moving it around the work or towards the top until finding the best lighting and image. If one image does not show it all, another one from a different spot and with different light positioning would be required.

Contemporary Artists

A contemporary master of the technique is Naser Javaherpour (b. 1943, Isfahan) (fig. 16–17), who has been practicing and creating beautiful fingernail calligraphy and drawings for almost four decades which have appeared in numerous exhibitions in Iran and abroad. He learned calligraphy under the renowned calligraphy masters Sayyid Hasan Amirkhani and Sayyid Husayn Amirkhani and became an expert in nasta’liq script.

Fig. 16. Javaherpour showing the trimming of his fingernails.
Fig. 17. Naser Javaherpour. Tehran, 2019.

Javaherpour learned fingernail technique from Mirza Vali Kimia Qalam Zanjani (1897–1967), who was a pupil of Mirza ‘Abd al-Jabbar Khamsa’i Zanjani (fig. 18), known as Mishkin Qalam (1237–1311).[10] Kimia Qalam (fig. 19) was the last master practicing fingernail art, and it is fortunate that he passed his skills to Javaherpour and thus the technique was saved from extinction.

Fig. 18. Mirza ‘Abd al-Jabbar Khamsa’i Mishkin Qalam.
Fig. 19. Mirza Vali Kimia Qalam (right) receives an award from the Shah of Iran (left)

Javaherpour’s artworks display a prominent mastery of calligraphy and the fingernail technique (fig. 20–21). He usually adds drawings to his calligraphed verses.

Fig. 20. A Persian line (غیر خیر از خیر مطلق مجوی), Artist: Naser Javaherpour.

Fig. 21. A Persian verse (تا نشوی عهدشکن جهد کن) from Makhzan al-Asrar by Nizami. Artist: Naser Javaherpour.

The few Iranian artists, who are actively in this field and continue Javaherpour’s path, were mostly trained entirely by him (fig. 22–24).

Fig. 22. Qur’an 103:1-2 (والعصر. إن الانسان لفي خسر). Artist: Mehdi Mehdi Beyg.

Fig. 23. A Persian line (زندگی چیست؟ عشق ورزیدن) from a poem by Hushang Ebtejah. Artist: Hasan Anjoman.
Fig. 24. A Kurdish line (ده‌ستی بده ره ده‌ستی شکسته‌م). Artist: Hasan Anjoman.

The contemporary artist Simon Schubert creates architectural bas-reliefs on paper on a colossal scale, which reflect a similar effect to Persian fingernail art, although in a different technique. For his “folded paper art”, he utilises special metal tools on wet paper, in addition to some embossing techniques for spheres or round forms (fig. 25). Schubert starts with sketches and then works with the tools from the smallest folds to the largest, and from the centre to the outer parts (fig. 26). He states: “I use paper from the point of view of a sculptor and one of the main ideas of my works is that I’m working on a fictional building which, in a way, unfolds from a sheet of paper through folding into a three-dimensional building. Every picture and every installation is part of this growing architectural complex”.[11]

Fig. 25. Portrait of Samuel Beckett. Artist: Simon Schubert.
Image © Simon Schubert, 2021.

Fig. 26. Untitled (figure in planes), 2009 (100 × 75 cm). Artist: Simon Schubert.
Image © Simon Schubert, 2021

Discussion

Invented around the 16th-17th century in Iran, fingernail art reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the 19th century. It attracted the attention of artists in neighbouring countries in the second half of the same century. However, that surge in popularity was destined to wane in the following century. The reasons for the popularity of this colourless, three-dimensional medium under the Qajars are not clear. Since recorded evidence about any aspect of fingernail art is scarce, we can only speculate about the philosophy behind it, artists’ ideas and intentions, and what caused interest in the medium. Could it be the artists and their minimalistic medium were celebrating or otherwise emphasising transience and ephemerality?

Fingernail art is slow work, requiring great dexterity and lengthy training. It displays a quiet virtuosity that is almost invisible, and that is in direct contrast to carving in stone. It does not seek permanence, but it memorialises its subject only transiently.

One might recognise a resemblance of marble-like inscriptions on paper in fingernail art to the stone carvings that re-emerged and flourished during the same period. The Qajar rulers attempted to revive the ancient Persian rock bas-reliefs so as to connect their kingship to pre-Islamic Persian kings. Around the same time as those bas-reliefs immortalised the image of Qajar rulers on solid rock, at the other end of the spectrum we witness their portraits appearing in bas-reliefs on paper. It is not implausible to suggest these art-forms were in some kind of dialogue, contrasting long-lasting solidity with ephemeral delicacy.

Another possible cause of such popularity in the 19th century could be sought in connections between fingernail techniques, the western art of decoupage, and the production of machine-made, embossed European paper. There is no clear evidence demonstrating the West was influenced by Persian fingernail technique in creating such paper, but it is imaginable that the importation of such papers into Iran might have ignited for further inflamed passions for fingernail artworks. We know of rare examples of fingernail drawings created on European papers with manufactured embossed borders (see Part I, fig. 6).

Conclusion

This two-part article has attempted to introduce the little known medium of fingernail art and to trace the history of its emergence, popularity and transmission in Iran and beyond.

In short, the medium of fingernail art, and its origins and influences, call for further interdisciplinary research to uncover connections in other cultures. For now, it is fortunate that this intricate medium has been saved from fading away completely, and there is hope it can remain alive through workshops where the few practicing artists pass it on to the younger generations.


Notes

[1] Sita Ram Kohli M.A. Catalogue of Khalsa Darbar Records, vol. I (Govt. Printing Punjab Lahore, 1919): 117.

Lal Singh Ji was the commander of Sikh Khalsa Army forces during the Anglo-Sikh War in 1845-46, but was also secretly a traitor who sent information to the British and received instructions from British officers. For more on him, see Singh, Harbans, Encyclopaedia of Sikhism, vol. II, E-L (Punjab University, Patiala, 2011): 563-564. For the details of the battle see https://www.britishbattles.com/first-sikh-war/battle-of-ferozeshah/

[2] I am thankful to Dr Irvin Cemil Schick for his invaluable help with Turkish sources on fingernail art and artists.

[3] Şinasi Acar, M. Osmanlı’da Günlük Yaşam Nesneleri [Everyday Objects in the Ottoman Empire], (Istanbul: YEM Yayın, 2011):  217. Also Özönder, Hsan, Ansiklopedik Hat ve Tezhip Sanatları Deyimleri, Terimleri Sözlüğü [Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Terms and Expressions of Calligraphy and Illumination] (Konya: Sebat, 2003): 202.

[4] Tughra is a calligraphic feature, in which the letters are intertwined to form a monogram or signature, usually for imperial seals.

[5] Kalkan, Ümit, “Kütahya Ergûniyye Mevlevîhanesi ve Yetişen Sanatçılar ” [The Ergûniyye Mawlawi Lodge of Kütahya and the Artists it Produced], unpublished M.A. thesis (Necmeddin Erbakan University, 2015).

[6] Hacı Rıfat Ağa Bereket zade was the head of a 70-house family in Antakya in the 1900s. After the First Constitution was proclaimed, he served in the Parliament. Aside from his political activities, he was an important poet and master calligrapher. His nail script was especially famous. http://www.hatayzafer.com.tr/rifat-aga-konagi/

[7] İnal, İbnü’l-Emin Mahmut Kemal, Son Asır Türk Şairleri [Turkish Poets of the Last Century], (İstanbul: Türk Tarih Encümeni Külliyatı, 1930–42): vol. 1, p. 77.

[8] They have been witnessed by Uğur Derman. My thanks to Mr. Uğur Derman for sharing this. For more on Elmalılı Muhammed Hamdi Yazır, see Subaşı, Hüsrev, “Elmalılı Hamdi Efendi ve Hat Sanatımızdaki Yeri,” in Elmalılı M. Hamdi Yazır Sempozyumu, 4–6 Eylül 1991 (Ankara: Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı, 1993): 319–29.

[9] Rüştü Büngül, Nureddin, Eski Eserler Ansiklopedisi [Encyclopaedia of Antiquities] (Istanbul: Çituri Biraderler, 1939): 241.

[10] Rahjiri, Ali, Taẕkira-yi Khushnivisan-i Muʿaṣir, vol. I (Tehran, 1985): 88.

[11] Simon Schubert. Personal communications (Jan. 2021).

3 thoughts on “Fingernail Art (II): Three-dimensional Calligraphy and Drawing in the 19th-Century

  1. It is a differing and up to a point breathtaking technology. Did not know about it until today.
    Thank you for all the information and showing to breathtaking examples.

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