A Wisdenish Encyclopedia of Visual Kitsch ?

Prefatory Note: This is now a much belated response to Robert Irwin’s review. It was begun a few years ago, then ‘temporarily’(!) shelved as I worked on other things. A recent discussion with Douglas Taylor, on the relative merits of some illustrated editions of The Rubaiyat, has prompted me to resurrect it and finish it off.

As many readers of this article will recognise, my title is based on Robert Irwin’s review of Bill Martin and Sandra Mason’s book The Art of Omar Khayyam in The Times Literary Supplement of July 13th 2007 (p.5.) Irwin described the authors as taking “a Wisdenish batting–average approach to their subject.” After giving a few descriptions of illustrations featured in their book, Irwin went on:

“Although the authors have refrained from making value judgements about the illustrations they have selected for reproduction and commentary, I find myself unable to follow their example. What we are faced with is mostly an encyclopedia of visual kitsch.”

Although Irwin admits (he could hardly do otherwise!) that “a few notable book illustrators, Jessie King, Frank Brangwyn and Edmund Dulac, did produce versions of the Rubaiyat” he seems to find significance in the fact that:

“...the list of those who did not do a Rubaiyat would read like a roll–call of honour in the history of book illustration: Aubrey Beardsley, Charles Ricketts, Heath Robinson, Walter Crane, Helen Stratton, Edward Julius Detmold, Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, Eric Gill, John Minton, Eric Fraser.”

Whilst conceding that some illustrators like Anne Fish, Doris Palmer and Robert Sherriffs made creditable efforts at illustrating The Rubaiyat — indeed, elsewhere, in his book Visions of the Jinn (of which more presently), he admits that “artists who illustrated the Nights were quite likely to have also worked on the Rubaiyat” (p.138) —Irwin complains that in The Art of Omar Khayyam it is “mostly hack work that is on display.”

Speaking for myself, the word “snooty” springs to mind here, though to be fair, as we shall see presently, Irwin is more than willing to admit that many of the most famous illustrators can lapse into kitsch from time to time. It is certainly true that illustrated Rubaiyats are of very variable quality, as indeed are editions of The Arabian Nights, but they are all part of the history of the Rubaiyat phenomenon, and deserve recording on that account alone. After all, though many high–brow devotees of The Rubaiyat have regarded the Omar Cult as vulgar, it nevertheless merits attention as a social phenomenon. Many years ago now I wrote a series of articles on the use of the hexagram and pentagram on amulets and talismans (they can be found on this site in the Numismatic (General) sub–folder.) I began with a reverential treatment of some rare Islamic and Jewish silver talismans — serious antiques — but by Part IV of the series, I found myself irresistibly drawn into “the descent into kitsch” — the free–gift ‘lucky charms’ given away with astrology magazines and such–like. They turned out to be every bit as interesting in their own way as the Islamic and Jewish rarities, and, let’s face it, in two or three hundred years time, their kitsch will have become a revered part of history, much as today’s archaeologists enthuse over the contents of a medieval rubbish heap. Unfortunately, of course, this same argument can be used to defend the (often ghost–written) novels and ‘autobiographies’ of the ‘celebrities’ of the present–day, and the worst excesses of the Turner Prize: to which I guess the answer has to be that one sometimes has to take the rough with the smooth! Besides, to return to illustrated Rubaiyats, it is not always high–art that produces the most interesting results. Personally, I find the imaginative if amateurish illustrations by Mera K. Sett (Appendix 17 & Gallery 2E), like those of the strange Lotus Library edition (1), rather more interesting than those by the much more famous artist, Frank Brangwyn, whose illustrations I have always found rather lack–lustre. To give another example of this phenomenon: when the ‘big–name’ Salvador Dali set himself to illustrate Alice in Wonderland in 1969, the results were not that impressive in comparison to the illustrations produced by some lesser–known illustrators. It has always seemed to me that they were enthused about largely because they were by Salvador Dali.

Turning now to Irwin’s book Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights (2010) which I do think is an excellent study, as with the Dali illustrations of Alice, I have similar doubts about the illustrations of Arabian Nights by Marc Chagall, featured in Irwin’s book (his Figs. 144 & 145.) As for those by the Dutch Fauvist Kees van Dongen (Irwin’s Figs.138–140 inclusive), the less said the better, in my opinion! “Let he who is without sin &c”.

Again, in Irwin’s book, I think it is a pity that he didn’t devote some space to the kitsch of Arabian Nights illustration, for it is via that route – the pantomimes and the garishly illustrated books specifically for children (sometimes with pop–ups!) – that most of us got to know the stories of Ali Baba, Aladdin and Sinbad in the first place, not via, for example, the two–volumed Dalziel’s Illustrated Arabian Nights Entertainments of 1865, illustrated by, amongst others, John Everett Millais and John Tenniel, or via the six–volumed translation by E.W. Lane, illustrated by Frank Brangwyn, published in 1896, still less via the twelve–volumed translation by Sir Richard Burton, illustrated by Albert Letchford, published in 1897. True, Irwin does include Walter Crane’s illustrated editions for children, The Forty Thieves (1873) and Aladdin (1874) (for the latter see Irwin’s Figs.63–7), though there are illustrated editions by many lesser lights that he could have profitably included – for example the delightful Children’s Stories from the Arabian Nights told by Rose Yeatman Woolf and illustrated by Harry G. Theaker (1914 ?) (Figs. 1a , 1b & 1c), or, at the cheaper end of the market, W.T. Stead’s series of “Books for the Bairns”, early paperbacks at one penny a copy, and which included The Marvellous Adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (no.XXV in the series) and The Story of Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp (no.XXXIII). (The booklets are undated, but are reckoned to date from about 1896 in the first instance, with later reprints. See, for example, Figs.2a & 2b and Figs.3a & 3b.)

Incidentally, as indicated earlier, Irwin is quite ready to admit that some illustrations by the likes of Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, William Heath Robinson and René Bull border on the kitsch (p.140.) My complaint is simply that he doesn’t give enough attention to the kitsch by ‘lesser’ artists. Instead, Irwin approaches the subject thus:

“Garish and clichéd, kitsch art is manufactured to appeal to as wide a public as possible, as wide an age–range as possible, and children, who of course have no taste, as we can readily see from the toys we see currently on sale.” (p.140)

And so, at least as I see it, we miss out on a fascinating aspect of the Arabian Nights phenomenon.

But getting back to Irwin’s comment about the roll–call of artists who never illustrated The Rubaiyat, I am not sure why either John Minton’s or Eric Gill’s names are there. Certainly neither of them ever illustrated The Rubaiyat, but then neither of them ever illustrated The Arabian Nights either. Minton never seems to have illustrated anything even vaguely oriental, though Gill did come a bit closer. In the context of a list of authors whose skeptical views were popular in his younger days, he makes a passing reference, in his Autobiography (1940), to Omar Khayyam as “a herald of the dawn — a sort of cheerful, cynical but kindly prison–warder, who took pleasure in letting out the prisoners ” (p.110.) But Gill was probably more influenced by the cynicism of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus than he was by the skepticism of Omar (ibid), and, so far as I can see, the closest he came to Oriental illustration — Rubaiyat or Arabian Nights — was his frontispiece for Ananda K. Coomaraswamy’s translation of a Hindu poem / play, The Taking of Toll (1915) (Fig.4.) This, as Coomaraswamy tells us in his Introduction, is “after a damaged Indian drawing of the latter (sic) eighteenth century.” It is also in the style of a nineteenth century lithograph in Rajput style, of the type to be found in Hindi printed chap–books of that period. (2) [In addition, some of Gill’s erotic sculptures do seem to have been influenced by the erotic temple–carvings of India, which again he may have encountered via Coomaraswamy, the historian of Indian art, who was a friend of his. But that is another, though related, story. (3)]

Again, whilst it is true that (William) Heath Robinson – he of the queer devices – never illustrated an edition of The Rubaiyat, both of his older brothers – Thomas Heath Robinson and Charles Robinson – did. And whilst it is true that Walter Crane never actually illustrated an edition of The Rubaiyat, he certainly did produce a full–scale painting inspired by it — “The Roll of Fate” (Gallery 3D, Fig.1) — and a bookplate which he designed for himself is also Rubaiyat–related Fig.5). As for Kay Nielsen, though he never actually published an edition of The Rubaiyat, we do know that he worked on one, for which he produced at least five illustrations, only one of which (so far as I know) has survived – see Gallery 2F, Fig.14. Incidentally, Nielsen’s Arabian Nights, which features in Irwin’s book, was never published either, and its illustrations survived only by virtue of circumstances outlined in the notes on Gallery 2F.

As for Charles Ricketts (who, incidentally, never illustrated The Arabian Nights), it is not quite true that he never produced an illustrated edition of The Rubaiyat, for there was a Charles Ricketts / Vale Press Rubaiyat published in 1901. It had only a frontispiece by Ricketts by way of illustration (Fig. 6), but originally, it seems, he had planned to illustrate it more fully. then failed to follow it through. Maureen Watry, in The Vale Press – Charles Ricketts, a Publisher in Earnest (2004), covers the Ricketts Rubaiyat (B32 in her catalogue, on p.160–162.) She says:

It seems that Ricketts’ first thought was to produce an illustrated edition of the Rubaiyat, but when he sought out the designs, projected in 1898, he felt that they looked ‘inferior by three years to that date’, seeming ‘to belong to the “Cupid and Psyche” mood’ (ie the early designs that were eventually used to illustrate Adlington’s translation Cupid and Psyche (B13)). The striking illustration on which Ricketts finally settled for his engraved title–page fuses the two main themes of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat: the celebration of life and its transitoriness by an evocative choice of imagery. The ‘Rose that blows’, ‘The bird of time’, and ‘The angel with his darker draught’ are synthesised into a powerful composition. Ricketts engraved the title–page between 30 March and 3 April 1901. It was printed on 11 July. Ricketts spent that day at the Ballantyne Press, seeing it through the press. Unfortunately, this proved a ‘troublesome and depressing occupation, as the block prints badly. (p.160–1.)

Ricketts, of course, is a ‘big–name’ in the history of book illustration. That is as maybe. But in my opinion the illustrations by Edmund J. Sullivan (Gallery 2A) are symbolically much more interesting and just as accomplished, if not more so, than the title–page by Ricketts. (Compare the comments on Dali’s Alice above.)

As for another of Irwin’s ‘big–names’, Maxfield Parrish, he must surely take a prize for Rubaiyat kitsch, for his illustration of verse 12 of FitzGerald’s fifth edition (Fig.7). The original design was commissioned by the Crane Chocolate Company in 1916 to adorn the lid of their Christmas gift–package that year. The design proved so popular that the company began to sell poster–sized reproductions of it. This led to two further chocolate box–top commissions from Parrish— Cleopatra and Garden of Allah — leading to some $50,000 in royalties in 1918 alone! This led Parrish to the realisation “that harsh scheduling and book commissions were now a thing of the past.” (4)

Incidentally, as Irwin points out, Edmund Dulac also once designed a chocolate box, for Cadbury’s, but by slipping this in amongst Dulac’s designs for stage sets, playing cards, book plates and postage stamps, Irwin turns this into Dulac being “polymathic, hyper–energetic and muti–talented.” (p.140) In fact, Dulac was one of ten prominent artists (Arthur Rackham was another) commissioned by Cadbury’s to design their own “ideal chocolate box” in 1932. An exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in London accompanied the commission, and the results were, I believe, published in print form in a portfolio format, titled Boxes by Famous Artists specially designed for Cadbury, but it is very rare and I have never seen a copy.

Of the big names listed by Irwin who never illustrated The Rubaiyat, Aubrey Beardsley is the most interesting, as The Rubaiyat is certainly associated with the heady atmosphere of the Decadent 1890s. Oscar Wilde was a fan, as was the artist Charles Conder. Yet there is no evidence that Beardsley ever had any interest in it at all — as nor, indeed, did Ernest Dowson, in the case of whom, having penned the famous lines, “They are not long / the days of wine and roses”, we might have expected at least some interest. But no — both were much more interested in French literature. True, Beardsley often illustrated books suggested to him by others – his editions of Pope’s Rape of the Lock and Jonson’s Volpone were done at the initial suggestion of Edmund Gosse (though Congreve’s Way of the World, suggested by Gosse at the same time, remained undone (5). One wonders, therefore, what would have happened had Gosse suggested The Rubaiyat!)

As regards Irwin’s claim for Beardsley as an Arabian Nights illustrator, we know that in 1896 he borrowed an unspecified edition from publisher Leonard Smithers (6a), but nothing came of it beyond two preparatory drawings (Figs.8a & 8b.) (6b) (He had also, somewhat earlier, intended to illustrate George Meredith’s Arabian Nights style fantasy The Shaving of Shagpat, but that seems to have yielded only one preparatory drawing, and it is unlikely that that has survived. (6c)) One problem with assessing the strengths of Beardsley’s interests is, of course, that so much was cut short by his early death. But I don’t think that fully explains his lack of interest in The Rubaiyat. Perhaps, as one of the avant–garde, the Omar Cult currently raging around him was too passé for him, or, at least, put him off. Who knows ? The plain fact is, he didn’t, and he is certainly one artist I would like to meet in the (hypothtical) Hereafter in order to ask him, “Why not ?”.


Note 1. This strange edition (Potter #174), Lotus Library Publications No.1, was published in a limited edition of 1000 copies, by Fraser & Neave, Ltd., Singapore, in about 1918. Its title page is shown in Fig.9a, and the following page is shown in Fig.9b. It is the latter which gives us a slight clue as to the illustrator, for it tells us that book is offering “New Lamps for Old”, and, to the lower right, “lit by (monogram.)” Reading from top to bottom of the monogram suggests that the artist’s initials are WGS, but that is about as far as we get, I’m afraid, for I have been unable to find any book illustrator bearing these initials who fits the bill. This is a pity, as the seventeen illustrations in it are very intriguing in both style and symbolism. Two examples are shown in Fig.9c (illustrating v.23) and Fig.9d (illustrating v.57), the text being that of FitzGerald’s first edition. The former, illustrated on p.75 of The Art of Omar Khayyam, draws this comment from Irwin:

An anonymous artist (1918) produced a black–and–white illustration in which, mystifyingly, Chinese men appear to be larking about and having hallucinations in what might be an opium den.

Personally I find this overly–dismissive, but each to his own, I suppose.

Note 2. Compare Fig.4, which can also be found in The Engraved Work of Eric Gill published by the Victoria & Albert Museum (1980 ed, pl.14, and note on it), with the two examples of 19th century Hindi lithographs in Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Rajput Painting (1916), Figures 8 & 9.

Note 3. He certainly knew of the sculptures of Elephanta, Elura and Ajanta, if only via photographs, and possibly via Coomaraswamy - see Malcolm Yorke, Eric Gill - Man of Flesh and Spirit (1981), 118-9. His “Lovers” (Yorke p.198) is a good example.

Note 4. See Laurence S. Cutler & Judy G. Cutler, Maxfield Parrish and the American Imagists (2004), p.229. Also p.248 for the Rubaiyat, p.250 for the Cleopatra, and p.254–5 for the Garden of Allah.

Note 5. See, for example, James G. Nelson, Publisher to the Decadents – Leonard Smithers in the Careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson (2000), p.142–3; Stanley Weintraub, Beardsley – a Biography (1967), p.112.

Note 6a. See The Letters of Aubrey Beardsley, edited by Henry Maas, J.L. Duncan & W.G.Wood (1970), p.143, letter of c. 10 July 1896.

Note 6b. See Letters, p.315 (letter of 7 May 1897); p.389 (letter of c.11 November 1897); p.390–1 (letter of 14 November 1897) & p.398–9 (letter of 29 November 1897.) The two drawings completed are Irwin’s Figs. 78 & 79.

Note 6c. See Letters, p.38 & p.39 n.5 (letter of 9 December 1892); and p.47 & p.48 n.3 (letter of c. May 1893.) The second letter is reproduced in facsimile in R.A. Walker, Some Unknown Drawings of Aubrey Beardsley (1923), No.9. The letter suggests that Beardsley sent a drawing, “a fine head of Shagpat – a most mysterious and Blake–like affair,” to George Meredith in the hope that “the Immortal George” would go for the idea of having him illustrate the story. But Meredith didn’t bite, and apparently didn’t return the drawing either, so its whereabouts – if it still exists – are now unknown. However, a small sketch at the head of the letter (Fig.10) perhaps gives us some idea of it.


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