The Museum of the Awesome Mr Gulbenkian

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Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal

While America is littered with museums built around the varied collections of their millionaire founders, this sort of thing is much rarer in Europe.  The Armenian Calouste Gulbenkian, who made his fortune from oil, put his money to good use and amassed an amazing little collection of objects from across the ages which we can admire today on their own merits and also enjoy because they reflect Gulbenkian’s eclectic interests.

There are a few reasons for the quality of the collection, and they’re all to do with Gulbenkian.  First – he had great taste.  Second – he bought a lot from the Russians who sold some of their priceless collections on the sly during the 1930s.  Third – he went for quality not quantity.  The collection is not huge, but it has been carefully cherry-picked and as you walk around the galleries of the so-called Founder’s Collection, you really can appreciate why he had the motto: “Only the best is good enough for me”.

I wish I could have that as my motto.

But no.  My mother married into the wrong Armenian-Turkic stock, so I can’t indulge my passion for antiquities and the fine arts.  Well, I can, but not in my own home, anyway.  I mean my rented flat.  But enough about my festering sense of injustice.

Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian

The history of the collection has to start with a brief overview of the life of the collector, not least because his was a fascinating life.  Gulbenkian was born into a well-to-do Armenian family who, like most Armenian families in the Ottoman Empire, made a success of themselves in various businesses which required brains, a good work ethic and trustworthiness.  The Gulbenkians had, during the 1800s, made a success of trading in pioneering objects, such as medicine and agricultural machines.

Little Calouste was born in Scutari – modern Üsküdar on Istanbul’s ‘Asian’ side – in 1869.  His father, Sarkis, has a large oil field in Transcaucasia (an area that comprises modern Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) and was a representative of a company that dealt with oil for heating and lighting.  After getting a first class degree in Engineering and Applied Science from King’s College London, Calouste was sent by his father to Baku to research the oil industry there.

Baku, in modern Azerbaijan, had been at the forefront of oil exploration – in 1848 the first modern oil-well was north-east of Baku, by a Russian engineer.  By the end of the 19th century, and despite American competition, the area produced the largest amount of oil in the world.  It therefore made sense for Calouste to visit the area to gain knowledge – and to share.  He published an article and a book about the industry based on his observations.  This caught the eye of the Ottoman Minister of Mines, who asked him to write a report on the oilfields of their Empire, specifically in Mesopotamia (Iraq).

In 1908, Gulbenkian was given the right to prospect for oil anywhere in Mesopotamia and subsequently made his name – and his fortune – in the region.  The story of his involvement in the industry is complex and fascinating, and too difficult to go into in this post.  What is relevant is that he had a reputation for being discreet and diplomatic – two skills which also helped in his collecting – and his stake in the Middle Eastern oil world is still contributing to the work of the foundation that bears his name.

Having acquired British citizenship in 1902, Gulbenkian lived in London until 1920, and continued to have an office in the city.  He made his home in Paris from 1920 to 1940, when he bought a house on the Avenue d’Iéna, which he regarded as his home, even after he fled the Nazis and settled down in Lisbon.  It is interesting that despite the fact that Gulbenkian remained in Lisbon for 13 years, he never bought a house there, content instead to remain at the Hotel d’Avis from 1943 until his death.  His ashes are buried in the St Sarkis Church Kensington, London, a church he built in memory of his parents.

St Sarkis Church, Iverna Gardens, Kensington, London, England

St Sarkis Church, Iverna Gardens, Kensington, London, England

Gulbenkian as a Collector

Collecting was a childhood passion of Gulbenkian’s: he would take the money his father gave him for doing well in his studies and spend it on classical coins in Constantinople’s Grand Bazaar.  His father wasn’t impressed by this, but little Calouste clearly ignored him, for he went on to collect an extraordinary collection of coins.

What made Gulbenkian an unusual collector was his faith in his own instincts – he bought from auctions, private sellers, antique shops, always maintaining his own standards, and not being overly concerned about the opinion of others, but consulting those he respected, such as Sir Kenneth Clark, who was in charge of the National Gallery in London and became a trusted adviser.  He would also sell and swap items from his collection, donating to major museums around the world or giving them grants to buy artworks.

Some of the biggest coups of his collecting career came from the USSR.  Between 1928-1930, the Russians were a little short of cash, so they started to quietly sell off parts of their priceless royal collections.  Gulbenkian, who had a reputation for being a discreet fellow, made a good candidate to sell to.  He wrote a letter to the man heading the sales in Russia saying: “you should not be selling to me or to anyone else…I continue to warn you against removing these pieces from your museums.  But if in spite of everything this has to be the case, I insist that you grant me priority, for the same price, and I request you keep me perfectly informed of the prices at which you wish to sell.”

That one extract demonstrates Gulbenkian’s total common sense: his respect for the idea of national cultural treasures, his boldness, and his practical attitude towards business.  The fact that the Soviet Antikvariat, who were set the task of selling objects for as much as possible, were clueless about art is demonstrated by the fact that Gulbenkian paid good prices for his purchases.  He’d already bought a number of items before the Antikvariat decided to stop selling to him because they realised they should be getting more money.  They then sold 21 paintings to Andrew Mellon in America.

Gulbenkian regarded his collection as his ‘children’ and only close friends would be invited to view it; his greatest worry was what should happen to his ‘children’ after his death.  Originally he’d intended to build something in London, but he never forgave England for calling him an ‘enemy’ during the war, due at least in part to the fact that he remained in occupied Paris, so that was that.  He was approached to donate his collection to Washington, but that, fortunately, also didn’t work out.

When Gulbenkian died, he hadn’t specified in his will where his children were going.  As it turned out, this citizen of Europe’s last home became his main beneficiary.  In 1956, the Gulbenkian Foundation was set up in his name, and became involved in many cultural and charitable activities that helped the Portuguese population.  And it still does.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

The museum and the foundation’s headquarters were opened in 1969 – it is a very modern complex, kind of like a tidy Barbican area (London), but there are pretty gardens, and a pond.  With ducks.  Lots of ducks.

Ancient Egypt

One quite small room contains some amazingly beautiful examples of Egyptian art.  It’s actually astonishing.  Gulbenkian bought his first piece of Egyptian art in 1907, but it was in the 1920s that Howard Carter – he of Tutankhamun fame – who helped him acquire a number of the objects that you can see in the collection.  In 1924, Gulbenkian travelled to Egypt and was taken by what he saw: “So much beauty!  So much civilisation!”

Ancient Greece, Rome and the Near East

I was a little disappointed by how small this section was, but again, the quality of what was on display was impressive.

In 1902, twenty golden medallions from the Roman period were discovered in Egypt.  Eleven of these Aboukir Medallions came into Gulbenkian’s collection, showing Alexander the Great in various poses.  The only non-Alexander one shows the Roman Emperor Caracalla, who, due to his youth and military exploits, was keen to draw attention to the similarities between them.

Islamic Art

Gosh!  What a collection!  There were so many amazing pieces here, that it was overwhelming…

The history of the beautiful white jade tankard (mashraba) is fascinating.  It once belonged to Ulugh Beg, the Timurid ruler, as part of a 12 piece set made between 1417 and 1449.  There are three inscriptions on the body of the tankard: on the neck is the piece mentioning it was commissioned by Ulugh Beg; on the rim is the name of Jahangir, the Mughal Emperor; the third name is that of Jahagir’s son, Shah Jahan, under the handle.  The two Mughals claimed Timurid heritage, hence the significance of their names alongside Ulugh Beg’s.

The lovely collection of Iran fritware bowls is interesting, not just because they were not really collected in Europe in the early 20th century, but because in this case Gulbenkian broke his usual rule of only buying things that were in perfect condition.  That’s how much he liked them.

The beautiful collection of Mamluk glass is one of the most important and best preserved anywhere in the west.  Most of the objects are mosque lamps (producing light, a manifestation of the divine), which were lit by a floating wick fed by oil.  But there are bottles as well, which show the variety of patterns used by the craftsmen in the 14th century.


Naturally Gulbenkian had an interest in Armenian objects – unfortunately for Lisbon, most of his collection was donated to the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem.  However, there is a 17th century bible which is really interesting.  It was commissioned by Khodja Nazar, an Armenian from the Persian community of New Julfa in Constantinople.  What is fascinating is that it is beautifully illustrated – but in an ‘old-fashioned’ medieval style.  Presumably the same edition of a bible had been copied over and over from its first creation and the audience didn’t find it jarring.  Maybe the influence of the Greek orthodox icons and the repetition of set imagery made such medieval scenes seem more traditional and authentic.  In any case, it’s very charming.

Japan and China

Gulbenkian’s personal taste is once again obvious in this gallery, with a large amount of flowery porcelain from China dating from all the major periods of production.  The Japanese collection is somewhat smaller.

For me the most interesting object in the Chinese collection was the Coromandel Screen.  The inscription on it states that it was made for the 50th birthday of a high ranking dignitary – as such, it wasn’t intended for export, like most Coromadel Screens, and offers an interesting perspective into the expectations of the Chinese audience.  It shows scenes from legends, folk tales and everyday life – my favourite scene showed a family gathering with a toddler.  I think this shows the zhuazhou – an activity where a child (boys and girls – girls had some different objects), on their first birthday, chooses an object from a selection of significant/representative items laid out before him.  The object he chooses, determines his future: if he picks a book, he will be a scholar, if he picks a chicken, he’ll never go hungry etc..  In the past, this played a role in determining a child’s training, but the tradition continues to the present day – albeit in a more lighthearted way.

That’s why the parents are leaning in eagerly to see what sonny has chosen.

Gothic Ivories

Gulbenkian first became interested in medieval ivories at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1900 – but it took him 14 years to get his hands on one.  In the end, he created a lovely little collection that was fascinating to look at.

European Painting

Only about half of the 200 paintings that Gulbenkian bought are actually on show, but what is out, is great.  Whether the work is Northern Renaissance or Impressionist, the unifying factor is again Gulbenkian’s taste for delicacy, refinement and exquisite detail.

The portrait of Ruben’s wife, Helena, was particularly dear to Gulbenkian.  It had once belonged to Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and was then bought by Catherine the Great of Russia.  It was sold by the Antikvariat, and Gulbenkian liked to sit in front of the painting every day at his house in Paris, always finding something new to admire.

Other Antikvariat purchases were the two Rembrandts on show.  The extraordinary portrait of the Old Man is beautiful.  If you are a fan of Rembrandt, you’ll already doubtless appreciate his paintings of old men – he always captures a sadness and a wisdom in the faces, as well as a general dignity.  This painting is no different.  It was hypnotic and you can understand why Gulbenkian was himself obsessed with it.  He wrote to a friend saying, “I often recall it as it was in my house…bathed in a discerning light which was able to bring out all the nobility and gentle serenity of that remarkable face.”

One of the cute things about Gulbenkian is that you really feel like you get to know him through his collection.  So when you come upon some Italian velvet and you think, ‘Gosh, that looks like the Turkish stuff round the corner’ – you realise you’ve probably just got the reason why he bought it.

In the 15th and 16th centuries Italian velvet was mainly produced in Florence, Genoa and Venice.  Italian workshops created better quality fabrics than the Turkish, and their products still look so luxurious that you want to reach out and stroke them.  There is a very definite visual link between what’s on display in this and in the Ottoman gallery – the two markets are known to have influenced each other to such an extent that it’s hard to tell who originated which motif.

There is an amazing collection of furniture on display in the 18th century gallery which, I must admit, I sort of ignored.  The items were actually bought for Gulbenkian’s house in Paris, so were of practical as well as aesthetic value.  But I don’t enjoy looking at furniture in museums, because if I like it, I want it, and as things stand, it’s considered illegal to carry writing desks out under your coat.  And awkward.


So In Summary

The Gulbenkian Museum was one of the reasons I wanted to visit Lisbon.  Sometimes when you have these sorts of high expectations, it can be a bit disappointing.  But this wasn’t.  Sure, it was a shame that there weren’t more objects, but then you have to remember that this was one man buying what he wanted.  The displays are well designed and allow the visitor to really get close and see the objects as they are meant to be seen.  Most of all, it’s a pleasure to walk around the museum and feel that you’re getting to know its collector, and being charmed by what charmed him.

Further Information

There are actually two museums showing the Gulbenkian collection: I have talked about the original collection, but there is also a separate building dedicated to (mainly Portuguese) modern art.  I didn’t get there, but the ticket that grants you entry into one also gets you into the other.

There are also exhibitions on at the museum – but again, I didn’t have the time to visit any.

The Gulbenkian foundation runs the museums but also various other cultural institutions in Lisbon; if you check out their excellent website (in English) you can have a browse to see what they’re up to:  They also have seminars and a really cool schedule of events, so do check it out if you can.

How To Get There

The transport of Lisbon is run by these people, and their site is English:




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