William George Stirling (1887–1951)

A Tale of Two Rubaiyats.

There have been many translations of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat into foreign languages, just one of which was Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – a Malay Version by A.W. Hamilton, illustrated by William Stirling. Subject to some uncertainty as to date, it was first published by Printers Ltd. in Singapore in 1932, a second edition certainly being published by the Australasian Publishing Co. Pty. Ltd. in Sydney in 1944, under the different title Sha’ir Omar Khayyam by A.W. Hamilton and The Rubaiyat by Edward FitzGerald, illustrated by W.G. Stirling (1a). Both editions used FitzGerald’s first edition, but they had different Introductions (1b), and though in both editions the nine illustrations were pretty much the same (1c), one illustration in the second edition was applied to the same verse, but different lines, than in the first edition (1d), and one illustration in the second edition was applied to a different verse entirely to that in the first edition! (1e) In addition, in the second edition, the illustrations were unsigned, or at least the signature had been ‘lost’ in the re–printing, whereas in the first edition they were signed either with the single initial S or (in two instances) with “W. Stirling” (1f). Figs 1a, 1b, 1c & 1d are examples from my copy of the second edition, relating to verses 9, 16, 37 and 75 respectively. (Fig.1b actually preserves part of “W. Stirling” on the horizontal line going left from the folded leg of the seated Sultan.)

With all due respect to the artist, these illustrations are well executed, but routine as far as Rubaiyat illustration goes. Indeed, they would hardly bear much notice were it not for what follows.

In about 1918 – the precise details of the date are not known (2a) – there appeared, as Lotus Library Publications No.1 (2b), The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, printed by Fraser & Neave Ltd., Singapore, in a limited edition of 1000 copies (2c). It used FitzGerald’s first edition, and its title page is shown in Fig.2a. On the page following this we read that this book offers “New Lamps for Old, lit by” a name presented in monogram form (Fig.2b). That is, one naturally supposes, the illustrations in this edition of the Rubaiyat will offer a radical new approach to their subject, and certainly no–one would argue with that given the relatively staid editions of the likes of Edmund Dulac and René Bull, and of lesser lights like Gilbert James. Certainly, the Lotus edition – like Mera K.Sett’s equally extraordinary edition of 1914, of which more presently – stands out as a refreshing change in the routine flow of illustrated Rubaiyats. Examples of the Lotus edition’s illustrations are shown in Figs.2c, 2d, 2e, 2f, 2g, 2h, 2i. 2j, 2k & 2l, these relating to verses 1, 17, 20, 23, 27, 33, 36, 55, 57 & 69 respectively. [Browse images.]

Comparison with the images in Fig.1 shows such a marked difference in style and approach that it is difficult to believe that they are by the same artist, and yet they are! The monogram in Fig.2b reads W.G.S. and we know that the initials relate to W.G. Stirling from an article of his, “Chinese Exorcists”, which was published in the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (June 1924), p.41–7 (3). I here reproduce a scan of its title page (Fig.3a) and a scan of the illustration on its p.43 (Fig.3b) – the latter shows various instruments of self–torture used by Chinese exorcists! To the lower right of Fig.3b is the tell–tale monogram of the Lotus edition, here conclusively linked, via Fig.3a, to the name of W.G. Stirling. An illustration of his other article in the same issue of the Journal, “Chinese Divining Blocks” (3), bore the same signature.

Before looking at W.G. Stirling himself – and at his co–worker in the Malay edition of the Rubaiyat, A. W. Hamilton – let us take a look at some of the extraordinary illustrations in the Lotus edition. I make no apology for reproducing quite a few of them, as they really do bear close scrutiny.

Though the relationship of Fig.2c to FitzGerald’s verse 1 is obscure to say the least, this illustration certainly does set the scene for the whole book. Omar’s Wine is to be replaced by Opium, and Omar’s Tavern by the Opium Den. In Fig.2c the opium smoker’s equipment is clearly depicted: the disembodied arms reaching up from the dark band (of Night ? Or Despair ?) at the bottom of the picture hold an opium pipe and a long pin on which a lump of the drug is being ‘cooked” over an opium lamp prior to insertion into the bowl of the pipe. The lamp here seems, Cyclops–like, to have a single eye, though whether this is symbolic or merely decorative is not clear. From the vapours arises a figure so like the traditional genie released from Aladdin’s Lamp as to recall that “New Lamps for Old” promise in Fig.2b. But this genie looks anything but benign, and perhaps symbolises the destructive effects of opium addiction. As regards nods towards FitzGerald’s image of night turning into day, we appear to have an awake (but masked ?) Sun–face to the lower left, apparently watching the cooking process, and a sleepy crescent Moon–face to the upper right, with a few Stars being put to flight. Note the peacock feather hiding the lower point of the Moon’s crescent – we shall see more of these as we proceed. They may well symbolise what the addict sees as the beauty of his / her drug experience. We shall have more to say about this illustration shortly.

Fig.2d is an equally odd approach to FitzGerald’s lines, “They say the Lion and the Lizard keep / The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep” (v.17). Curiously here, the Lion has wings and a spiny pointed tail. I can find no trace of a winged lion in Chinese folklore, though we do find winged lions (like the winged bulls) in ancient Assyrian culture, and of course there is the winged lion of Venice (there a symbol of St Mark the Evangelist). The winged Lion seems to be exhaling breath which causes the swirls that dominate the lower half of the drawing. This makes some sense if we look at some other illustrations in the book, where swirls are associated with opium–induced visions (see Fig.2h below.) Again, the Lizard here is a more of a Dragon, though that is perhaps not so surprising given that the Komodo Dragon is a lizard and the name “dinosaur” signifies “great lizard.” In any case, if this is akin to a dream, there is nothing untoward in either a Dragon–lizard or a Winged–lion with a spiny pointed tail! It is odd that the Court of Jamshyd takes the form of a Mosque (?), with its minarets and the characteristic crescent above its central dome. All in all, then, Stirling’s intended overall symbolism is again not very clear.

Fig.2e, like many others in the book (starting with Fig.2c), dwells upon opium–induced dreams or visions here involving a naked young woman. The face of another woman appears just above the smoker’s head, in the exhaled smoke, seemingly about to kiss him. Note the opium pipe in the man’s left hand, the burning opium lamp just behind the man, and the peacock feather to the left – all featured in Fig.2c. Note also the candelabrum to the left of the opium lamp, the swastika symbol at the lower right, and the strange circular face which, given the background stars, may well be intended to be the Moon, though it can only have got in front of the opium smoke by artistic licence. To the right of this is a Butterfly (?) All of these things are regular features of Stirling’s illustrations. The illustration thus replaces the intoxication of “the Cup that clears / Today of past Regrets and future Fears” in FitzGerald’s verse 20 with the intoxication of Opium.

Fig.2f is a strange nude opium den scene. Note the burning opium lamp and candelabrum again, with another strange circular face, not the Moon here, as it is depicted in the smoke as part of an opium–induced vision (4), linked to the nightmarish winged dragon and the curious heart–shaped face just above the man on the right. Like Fig.2e it is far removed from FitzGerald’s verse 23, making “the most of what we yet may spend” becoming here more a horror than a pleasure, as indeed opium addiction eventually becomes. We shall return to opium smoking and opium dens later.

Fig.2g offers an interesting oriental interpretation of the “Doctor and Saint” of FitzGerald’s verse 27, worth noting for its orthodox image of Buddha in the upper left–hand corner. There is no opium in sight. The dark background is perhaps symbolic of the fact that even “Doctor and Saint” are ‘in the dark’ when it comes to resolving the Great Mystery of Things, their darkness being only partly illuminated by the two candles either side of the Buddha – the Light of Religious Orthodoxy ?

In Fig.2h we have an opium addict, standing on tip–toe, atop the World, and crying to the “rolling Heav’n” of v.33. But the Lamp of Destiny has become an opium lamp suspended from the heavens by a disembodied hand (cf. the arms in Fig.2c.). Note the Butterflies (?) (cf. Fig.2e) and the queer face, here presumably the Sun (cf. the queer faces in Figs 2c, 2e & 2f.) The swirls here seem to serve the purpose of indicating that this is an opiate dream / vision.

In Fig.2i we have “the Potter thumping his wet Clay” (v.36) in what I would take to be “this earthen Bowl” of v.34, its face indicating that “the Vessel...once did live” (v.35). Note again the strange circular face in the sky (here presumably the Moon), the Mosque in the upper right of the picture (cf. Fig.2d – there were a number in Malaysia, even in Stirling’s day), the burning opium lamp below it, and the Vulture perched on a skull below that. We shall have more to say about that Vulture later – clearly it and the skull are there as symbolic of mortality – possibly of death as a result of opium addiction, with the background Mosque silhouetted behind the opium lamp, perhaps indicating the addict’s neglect of religion, who knows?

In Fig.2j we have a naked woman coming towards us, her modesty preserved by a heart–shaped object which seems to be the central ‘eye’ of a stylised peacock feather. At the lower left is what looks to be a stylised sunflower with a face, and to the lower right a Butterfly (?) like that in Figs.2e & 2h. Above the Butterfly (?) and to the right, appears just the front part of an unidentified animal/ bird head with something in its mouth / beak. The link to FitzGerald’s v.55 is provided by the demon–guarded door in the background – the Door outside of which the Sufi howls, though quite what the girl has to do with Sufism is a mystery. It is perhaps significant that she is walking away from the door. The swirls here seem to indicate motion of the girl’s hands, perhaps also emphasising the opiate dream–nature of the scene, as in Fig.2h.

In Fig.2k we have another demon–guarded door, with a face, seemingly the Door to the Underworld (the proverbial “Death’s Door” ?), judging by the two skeletal figures of Death. It is here to which the human figure, clothed in a swastika–decorated tunic, is being conducted, presumably laden with the Sin to which God has predestined him (FitzGerald’s v.57–8.) It is not clear if the human figure is an addict; if death here relates to his opium addiction; or if his predestined sin is associated with the degradation which eventually accompanies addiction. Stirling clearly had a sense of humour, though, for the Chinese inscription above the door translates roughly as “The Best–of–Luck Suite.” Thus, the swastikas on the young man’s tunic are perhaps intended to give him amuletic protection – ‘good luck’ – beyond the Door. Note the Cockerel – here with the tail–feathers of a Peacock (a Peacockerel ?) – and the Mosque or Palace behind it (cf. Figs.2d & 2i.)

In Fig.2l we again have a dejected and naked opium smoker, with his opium pipe, his Honour drowned, not in the shallow Cup of FitzGerald’s v.69, but through opium addiction. Note the extinguished (?) opium lamp, the peacock feather, and the somewhat sinister figure in the background whose head is surrounded by seven peacock feathers. Though it is difficult to be sure, this figure may well represent an opium–distorted version of the well–known figure of Buddha with seven Nagas or Serpent Heads – one of “the Idols I have loved so long”! If so, it contrasts markedly with the orthodox figure of Buddha in Fig.2g.

Enough has been said now to cover the generality of symbols in Stirling’s extraordinary illustrations. But why the stress on opium ?

That question is simply answered – W.G. Stirling wrote a short book of some 33 pages, with inserted plates, Opium Smoking among the Chinese, published by the Times of Malaya Press in 1913. How he came to write it will be covered in the next section, but as regards its contents, it covers the manufacture of opium from the opium–poppy seed–pod, the equipment & techniques used by opium smokers, the physical & moral degeneracy caused by opium addiction, and the extreme difficulty of breaking the opium habit. The plates include a number of drawings by Stirling (all signed simply “W.G.S.”) depicting opium smokers and their equipment. The opium smoker in Fig.2m, for example, foreshadows those in Figs.2e & 2f, whilst the opium smoker’s equipment he pictures in Fig.2n is readily identifiable in Figs.2c, 2e & 2l. The book also contains a number of photographs of opium smokers and opium dens taken by M. Nara, though, needless to say, none of these comes anywhere near the wild events of Fig.2f! But perhaps the most telling illustration in the book is Fig.2o. It is not clear if this cartoon of Opium Fiends (the caption to the upper right means something like “the Fiend in the Smoke”) is by Stirling himself. It is possible that the artist’s signature in the cartouche in the bottom right hand corner, read right to left, is a rendering of “Stirling”, but this is far from certain. But even if Stirling copied it from elsewhere, it clearly prefigures Fig.2c: the fiend in the smoke of Fig.2o has become the evil genie of the opium lamp in Fig.2c.

Opium Smoking among the Chinese must surely have been the seed that grew into the Lotus edition of The Rubaiyat some five years later.

[Browse images.]

Biographical Details

At this point it will be useful to have some biographical information about W.G. Stirling himself, as his life and career throw much light on his two editions of The Rubaiyat, and more particularly the Lotus Edition. (5)

William George Stirling was born at Sysonby House, in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, on August 25th 1887. In the 1891 census we find him, aged 3, living at Sysonby House with his three older brothers, Charles (aged 8) Reginald (aged 12) & Henry (aged 16), plus his mother, Norah (aged 40), & his father, Gilbert (aged 43). His father is listed as being a retired major in the Royal Horse Guards, and his Irish–born mother was the Honourable Norah Josephine Harcourt Westenra, daughter of Henry Westenra, the 3rd Baron Rossmore.

In the 1901 census we find the thirteen years old William Stirling as a boarder at Warren Hill School, Beachy Head Road, Eastbourne, East Sussex. This was a preparatory school, and he subsequently went to Harrow School, which he attended from 1901 to 1905. From his early youth he became fascinated by the Far East, and we know that by the age of 16, whilst still at school, he had joined the Japan Society in London. Indeed, by 1905 he had acquired some interesting pieces of Japanese art, for he lent some of them to a Japanese Exhibition held at Harrow School, this earning him an honourable mention in the school magazine, The Harrovian (in the issue of June 30th, 1905.)

The precise sequence of events after this is not clear, but we know that he spent some time in Canton before arriving in Malaya in January 1907, at the age of 19, where he worked on a Rubber Plantation. Two years later, in 1909, he joined the Civil Service, taking a post in the Monopolies and Customs Services Department of the Government, in particular in relation to the Opium Trade. It was clearly in the course of his work for this Department that he gathered material for his book, Opium Smoking among the Chinese, mentioned above.

It is clear, then, that Stirling’s art–work was a hobby rather than a profession, and though the Lotus Library Rubaiyat is one of his early works, it wasn’t the first: aside from Opium Smoking among the Chinese, his Shadows in the Malay Peninsular (sic) had been published in 1910, and his related work, John Chinaman, in 1914. We shall return to both of these in the next section.

In 1915, Stirling joined the Chinese Protectorate in Malacca, and from 1921 to 1931 he served as the Assistant Protector of Chinese in Singapore. The Chinese Protectorate was a government department set up in 1877 to manage all affairs relating to the Chinese in the Straits Settlements. Among its tasks were to regulate Chinese immigration, manage abuses among the Chinese population (“coolie brokering” as it was called – basically the criminal exploitation of cheap, almost slave, immigrant labour), and to suppress Chinese secret societies. By 1877 these secret societies, which had originally begun as mutual–aid brotherhoods, had become involved in illegal operations such as smuggling, extortion, opium trafficking, gambling, prostitution, and the aforementioned coolie brokering. They had become the criminal gangs all–too–familiar today, and gang wars were breaking out.

Stirling’s article “Contraband”, the first article he contributed to The Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, in April 1921, p.35–44 (3), is particularly interesting for its demonstration that things haven’t changed very much in the past century. In it he gives details of the means employed by the opium smugglers of his day, the drugs being hidden inside containers with false bottoms, in hollowed–out books, in hollow shoe–heels, stuffed inside fowl or fish ‘intended for market’, and in secret compartments in items of furniture. It is difficult to imagine that anyone today would try to smuggle opium inside an opium pipe, but apparently back then they did! (Another parallel between past and present is to be found in Opium Smoking among the Chinese, where Stirling mentions the spreading of phthisis caused by addicts sharing their pipes.)

Shortly after taking up the post of Assistant Protector in 1921, Stirling must have met A.W. Hamilton (6), whose day–time job was in the Malayan Police, for Hamilton’s Malayan Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by Stirling, and their first collaborative effort, was published by the Methodist Publishing House, in Singapore, in 1923. “Mary had a Little Lamb” (Fig.4a) and “Old King Cole” (Fig.4b) will serve as examples. Later, the two collaborated on Hamilton’s Malay Sonnets, this being published in 1932, seemingly at about the same time as the first edition of the Malay Rubaiyat (1a). Like the Malay Rubaiyat, it bore the imprint of “Printers Ltd., Singapore”. Some of the illustrations for Malay Sonnets are in a sufficiently different style to his other book illustrations to merit giving three examples here – Figs. 5a, 5b & 5c. One wonders what Mrs Stirling thought of the first of these (the inscription says “Balinese Girl, W.G.S., 11/3/32 (?)”), for in 1916 he had married Chan Chee Man Wan, some twelve years his junior, who was the daughter of a prominent merchant in Canton. They had one daughter, Mary, who was born in 1918.

It was the suppression of the Chinese Secret Societies which led to Stirling collaborating with J.S.M. Ward on a three–volume book, The Hung Society, or the Society of Heaven and Earth (London, 1925–6.) (The Hung Society survives today in the form of the Triads.) In fact, Stirling only had a hand in volume 1, to which he contributed a Preface, translations of the Hung Ritual, and the bulk of the illustrations. However, the illustrations are not of much interest to us here, being mostly photographs of the paraphernalia used in Hung ceremonies (7) – during his service, he had amassed a large collection of secret society artefacts (many apparently acquired on police raids, in which A.W. Hamilton may or may not have been involved!) These are now housed in the National Museum of Singapore, and a useful account of the collection can be found in Irene Lim’s book, Secret Societies in Singapore, featuring the William Stirling Collection (Singapore History Museum (8), 1999.)

In 1925 Stirling took some leave, for on the 4th June that year he and his wife arrived at Plymouth from Singapore aboard the Macedonia. Presumably the trip involved meeting up with family and friends, but it may also have had something to do with the publication of volume 1 of The Hung Society. However, the trip also involved bringing some of his art–work with him, for in the March 1926 issue of the art journal The Studio (vol.91, p.212) a short but interesting article on Stirling’s work appeared, which is well worth quoting in full here:

Singapore – Mr William G. Stirling, whose drawings are reproduced on this page, is an untaught artist, never having had a lesson since he left Harrow. As a boy he was always very attracted by the design and colour of Eastern art. It is probable that he would have made art his profession if a lack of les nerfs de guerre had not obliged him to take a government post in China, but nevertheless he continued his study of types, and brought back last year quite a collection of sketches representing types and situations absolutely du pays. He has returned to Singapore intending to continue his hobby and hopes to be able to get together sufficient of his inimitable sketches and characters to have an exhibition on his return to this country, to which many of his friends are looking forward, having had the privilege of looking through his present sketches, which are full of originality, including many decidedly unconventional and truthful studies of the underworld of the East.

The two pencil drawings which were reproduced in the article, both portraits, were “Young Woman from the Hokkien Province of China” and “Teochiu Singing Boy.” Though both are accomplished pieces of work, I do not reproduce them here, as they are not of great interest in relation to Stirling’s book illustration. Had they been a couple of “decidedly unconventional and truthful studies of the underworld of the East,” I would almost certainly have reproduced them, but alas, they weren’t, and the present whereabouts of any such drawings is not known at present, unfortunately. This brings us back to Stirling’s day–time job.

Stirling’s post of Assistant Protector of Chinese was not without its dangers, and not necessarily from gang members, as a report in The Scotsman of 15th December 1926 reveals:

Singapore, December 14th. – Mr W.G. Stirling Assistant Protector of Chinese, had an alarming experience this morning. A Chinese tin miner, accompanied by his wife, obtained an interview with Mr Stirling in connection with some domestic trouble. Apparently the man was not satisfied with Mr Stirling’s advice, for he suddenly whipped out a clasp knife and stabbed Mr Stirling in the thigh. Then he stabbed his wife, and afterwards turned the weapon on himself. Mr Stirling and the Chinese were not seriously hurt, but the woman’s condition is critical. – Reuter.

Stirling retired in 1932 and subsequently returned to England, for on the 15th January 1933 he arrived from Colombo at Southampton aboard the Dempo, being listed on the ship’s manifest as “Ret. Cevil (sic) Servant.” His wife followed him a few months later, arriving at Southampton aboard the Baloeran on 21st May 1933. Her proposed address was listed as Sysonby Lodge, Melton Mowbray. Stirling returned to the place of his birth, then, where his mother was still living (his father had died in 1915.). But he did not stay in Melton Mowbray for very long, for his mother died in September 1934, her funeral being reported in The Times newspaper on September 17th. The order of events is not clear, but we know that it was on holiday in Ostend, Belgium, with his wife and daughter, that he pondered what he was going to do with his retirement. As he put it, how was he to give himself no time to think about the aches and pains of encroaching old age, and to stave off the undertaker ? It was this that led him to take up sculpture, attending – and enjoying – classes with much younger students at the London Polytechnic. He turned out to be surprisingly good at it, and by 1935 had exhibited his first head at the Royal Academy. Two years later, at the Wertheim Gallery, Burlington Gardens, London, he was exhibiting both sculptures and drawings – the former including a bust of Omar Khayyam (“A conception of the Persian Poet”) and the latter apparently including some drawings relating to The Rubaiyat as well as some coloured illustrations for the Arabian Nights (9). Unfortunately the present whereabouts of all these is unknown. Two fine examples of Stirling’s sculptures are still on exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore, one of these being that featured in the Royal Academy exhibition in 1935.

The year 1934 seems to have been a key one, for in addition to the death of his mother, we know that some time around then he went to work with Dr Edmund Locard, who was a friend of his, and the director of the Technical Police Laboratory in Lyons, France. The work involved the detection of forgery (of commercial documents, counterfeit notes and forged signatures etc) and resulted in Stirling inventing and producing an optical instrument known as a Synchrisiscope, or “synchronised microscope.” This may actually have been a device for document comparisons, but I wonder if it might also have been used for fingerprint comparisons, for in a letter to The Times newspaper (23rd Aug 1934, p.11), addressed from 84 Rodney Court, Maida Vale, London W9, he refers to his studies of the fingerprints of Chinese nationals, done in 1929–30, his results (the predominance of the whorl pattern amongst the Chinese) being confirmed by Locard’s study in the same field. (Stirling is also known to have identified a burglar by the palm print he left behind at the scene of his crime, and it appears that he also had hopes for a scientific study of palmistry.)

In his personal life, we know that on the 28th February 1938, at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London, William Stirling and his wife, Chan, saw their daughter, Mary, married to Sidney Frank Mitchell Boulting. Adhering to tradition, the bride was given away by her proud father, the ceremony taking place in the presence of a glittering array of titled family members and friends, not to mention the Chinese Ambassador and the Chinese Consul–General. Details of the bride’s dress, her bridesmaids & pages, as well as a full guest list, were reported in The Times newspaper on 1st March 1938 (p.19.)

According to the 1938 and 1939 Electoral Rolls, Stirling and his wife were still living at 84 Rodney Court, Maida Vale, London W9. By 1947, though, the Electoral Roll tells us that he was still in London, living at the Queen’s Gate Hotel, on Queen’s Gate, South Kensington, but that his wife was no longer registered. This situation was repeated in the 1948 Electoral Roll. She may well have gone back East for family reasons, but there is no evidence of marital discord – on the contrary, a newspaper report of May 1939 suggests that his wife had returned to Singapore, bound for Hong Kong, and that her husband, by now “well known as a sculptor”, would join her later in the year. But whatever, she died in Hong Kong in 1977. As for Stirling himself, he died at St Charles Hospital, Kensington, London on 11th October 1951, Chan Stirling being noted in probate records as his widow. His funeral at Golders Green Crematorium was reported in The Times newspaper on October 17th, 1951 (p.8.)

Finally, Stirling was well–enough respected for the modern Stirling Road in Singapore to be named after him in 1956. Not many of us can say that.

John Chinaman

Let us now take a look at some more of Stirling’s art–work, this time for his book of ‘silhouette drawings’ (there is no accompanying text beyond the title of each drawing) John Chinaman, published simultaneously in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong (as it then was) and Yokohama, in 1914 – four years before the Lotus edition of The Rubaiyat, then. Its title page is shown in Fig.6a, and it is worth noting that, somewhat confusingly, the book’s cover bears a different title, Chinese Shadows! The title page is interesting as not only does it give us a sample silhouette drawing (taken from Opium Smoking among the Chinese, where it is titled “Caricature (in silhouette) of an opium smoker”), it also introduces us to Stirling’s ‘Chinese signature’ which he adds to each drawing in the book. Apparently the signature reads Duo–Ling, but it is not clear whether this was some sort of nickname – it can be translated as “Much Neck” – or whether it arose from a Chinese difficulty in pronouncing his surname – Stirling becoming something like Tuer–Ling, and hence Duo–Ling. The title page is also interesting for its mention of Stirling’s Shadows in the Malay Peninsular and Opium Smoking among the Chinese, both mentioned above. As regards the first of these, it was the precursor of John Chinaman (hence the “Shadows” in the title), but set in Malaya. As the styles are so similar, I will use John Chinaman here as exemplifying this type of Stirling’s output.

First of all, by way of explanation, westerners have always struggled with Chinese names, and in the 19th century, when English sailors had problems with the names of their Chinese fellow crew–members, the practice arose of calling them all John. The name “John Chinaman” caught on with westerners generally (10), and became an umbrella term for Chinese people at large (men as well as women, it seems, at least in Stirling’s book) – totally unacceptable today, of course, but this was over a century ago, when political correctness was not exactly at a premium. Stirling’s silhouette drawings, all with recognisable Chinese traits, are all “John Chinaman” – caricatures of Chinese people in various roles. Thus, for example, in Fig.6b we have, a delightful, almost cartoonish, Cantonese girl; in Fig.6c, a street ballad singer; in Fig.6d, a street story–teller; and in Fig.6e, a man whose unenviable profession is delicately hidden by an apt caption in Latin: “Ex Excrementa Incrementum.” [Browse images.]

Stirling later produced another work in similar vein, Shadows on a Malayan Screen, published in 1926. In it he ‘recycled’ some of the images from Shadows in the Malay Peninsular and John Chinaman.

Anthology of Wine

Anthology of Wine, edited by Jean Mowat, with a Foreword by wine expert André L. Simon, was published by W.H. Houldershaw Ltd., Southend–on–Sea, Essex. No date of publication is given, but it is believed to date from about 1950, and thus shortly before Stirling’s death in 1951. As the title indicates, the book is a merry romp through literary references to the pleasures of wine, starting with ancient Greece and Rome, not to mention the Bible, and coming, via 8th century China and 12th century Persia, to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Burns, Keats, Byron, Dickens and many others.

It is not clear how Stirling came to be involved in supplying the nine illustrations for this book, or why he received no mention for his efforts either on the title page or on the acknowledgements page. But they are of sufficient interest to reproduce five of them here as Figs.7a, 7b, 7c, 7d & 7e. As can be seen, all are signed “William Stirling”. [Browse images.]

It comes as no surprise that in this Anthology of Wine, quotes from The Rubaiyat put in an appearance, and Figs.7a & 7b both relate to Omar. Fig.7a accompanies verses 21–3 of the 5th edition, possibly relating to the words “Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth / Descend – ourselves to make a Couch – for whom ?”, the “whom” being the younger man in the background. Fig.7b accompanies verse 24 of the 5th edition, “Ah make the most of what we yet may spend etc”, and needs no further explanation. Clearly both are more in the style of the Malay Rubaiyat than the Lotus edition, but this is hardly surprising given that this is an anthology of wine, not opium!

Now it has to be said that it is not always clear to which literary quote Stirling’s illustrations relate, and Fig.7c is one such. It possibly relates to a passage quoted from Thomas Randolph’s 17th century play Aristippus, or the Jovial Philosopher, but I am not at all sure of this. But whether it relates to Randolph, Dryden or Pepys, it is an interesting example of Stirling’s work.

Fig.7d seems to depict Mr Trumper in a quotation from the novel Hawbuck Grange by Robert S. Surtees, first published in 1847, but again I am not at all sure of this.

Finally, with Fig.7e, Stirling is back in his beloved Far East, though actually this illustration relates to a passage from Robert Standish’s novel, set in China, The Small General, first published in 1945.

A False Trail

In his book Early Artists of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam 1914–1929 (2018), p.19–26, Danton H. O’Day claimed that there is significant evidence that Mera K. Sett was the hitherto unknown artist of the Lotus Library edition of 1918. He based his conclusion partly on a somewhat tortuous argument that the monogrammed initials in Fig.2b related to Sett, and partly on parallels between various images in Sett’s Rubaiyat and the Lotus Rubaiyat.

As regards the monogrammed initials of Fig.2b, we now know that the initials are W.G.S. and that they demonstrably relate to Stirling. We need not labour this point here, as O’Day has now abandoned his theory and has openly acknowledged that the artist was indeed W.G. Stirling. But his book is now ‘out there’ and some readers may still find some of its parallel imagery ‘evidence’ persuasive, or at least, demanding of an explanation, so it is perhaps worth dealing with these parallels here in some detail.

In fact, most of the similarities are not as significant as they might seem. Taking them in order, Sett’s Nude (Fig.8a) is more like that on Beardsley’s title page design for his illustrated edition of Wilde’s play Salomé (published in 1894 – Fig.9a) than it is like the Stirling Nude (Fig.2j), which in some ways reminds me more of the later Rubaiyat illustrations of John Yunge Bateman than it does that of Sett. Besides, pictures of nudes with their modesty preserved by a variety of means are legion, starting with Eve and her fig–leaf.

As regards the Peacock Feather designs common to both Sett (e.g. Fig.8b) & Stirling (Figs.2e, 2k & 2l), they also have a precursor in Beardsley’s Salomé, in his famous “Peacock Skirt” (Fig.9b.) Indeed, Beardsley used eight large peacock feathers in his design for the cover of Wilde’s play, though it was not used at the time, and only published as an example of his work later. (The Peacock was, in fact, Sett’s adopted signature / emblem, its neck naturally forming the initial letter S of his surname – see Fig.8d, for example, half way down the right hand side.)

As regards O’Day’s Moons (or Queer Faces, as I call them, for they are not all moons) which are again common to both Sett (eg Figs 8c & 8d) and Stirling (eg Figs.2c, 2e, 2f, 2h, & 2i), these also have a precursor in Beardsley’s Salomé, in his “Woman in the Moon” (Fig.9c.) Another Queer Face, here with a peacock, appears in “Peacock and Rising Sun” (Fig.9d), though this picture, being from the H.S. Nichols collection, is almost certainly a forgery. However, I would add here that the masked queer faces in Stirling’s Fig.2c and Sett’s Fig.8c form a more striking parallel which is perhaps not so easily dismissed as artistic coincidence. Certainly there is no masked queer face in Beardsley’s output, though he did have a thing about masks – the hairdresser wears such a mask in “The Toilette of Salomé”, for example.

Now, I am not saying that either Sett or Stirling copied from Beardsley. In fact, Sett made a point of stressing that he was not influenced by Beardsley’s work. I am merely saying that the peacock feather & queer face symbols were in general artistic circulation before either Sett or Stirling came along, and cannot therefore be taken as reliable evidence that Stirling copied from Sett, except perhaps in the case of the masked queer faces mentioned above.

In fact, both the peacock feather & the queer face have much older antecedents than Beardsley. In China, as an emblem of beauty and dignity, the tail feathers of the peacock were used to designate official rank, and to denote meritorious service, from at least the 17th century, and as we have already seen, queer faces feature in the obscure realms of Chinese numismatics, again as early as the 17th century, if not before (4). In the West, the Sun and the Moon have long been given faces in children’s books, the Man–in–the–Moon resulting, ultimately, from the rough appearance of a human face formed by the dark patches on the Moon’s surface. Again, we know that Beardsley’s peacock designs for Salomé were almost certainly inspired by his 1891 visit to Whistler’s famous Peacock Room, the sumptuously decorated room in the London town–house of the Liverpool shipping–magnate, Frederick Leyland, painted in 1876–7. There were also Walter Crane’s lithographs, “The Vain Jackdaw” and “The Peacock’s Complaint”, both published in The Baby’s Own Aesop, the first edition of which appeared in 1887.

Even more striking than the common use of masked queer faces by both Sett and Stirling is their common use of a Vulture image. Sett’s image is shown in Fig.8e, and Stirling’s in Fig.2i. The two vultures are virtually identical, aside from Stirling’s standing atop a skull. It is certainly possible that Stirling copied his vulture from one of Sett’s (there are two of them in Sett’s illustration.) He was certainly not above ‘recycling’ his own images – witness the fact that in his illustrations for A.W. Hamilton’s Malayan Nursery Rhymes (1923), the young girl in “Mary had a Little Lamb” looks suspiciously like the one in “Where are you going to, my Pretty Maid ?” Plus, as mentioned earlier, he ‘recycled’ some of the images from Shadows in the Malay Peninsular and John Chinaman in his Shadows on a Malayan Screen. But whether he ‘recycled’ one of Sett’s Vultures is another matter – it might be the case, for example, that both artists used a common ‘model’ – an illustration in a book about birds, for example. But even if he got this image, and his masked queer face in Fig.2c, from Sett, it proves only that Stirling knew about Sett’s edition. It certainly does not prove that Sett illustrated, or even had a hand in illustrating, the Lotus edition. Quite aside from anything else, interesting though Sett’s illustrations are, his drawing skills are amateurish compared with those of Stirling, and they hadn’t improved any by the time he published his Sculptured Melodies in 1922, four years after the Lotus edition.

[Browse images.]


Note 1a. The first edition was undated, but the second edition of 1944 tells us that the first edition was published in 1932. However, there is some evidence to suggest that something is amiss here. To begin with, an announcement of its publication by Printers Ltd featured, for example, in the Malayan newspaper The Straits Times on 30th April 1935 (p.12), where it was described as a “welcome addition to Malay Literature.” Likewise, the first reviews in the West seem all to date from 1935. Again, the British Library catalogue gives the date of its copy as [1935], presumably on the basis of its accession date – it is stamped “BRITISH MUSEUM / SEP. 35.” Yet again, in The Malaya Tribune on 8th August 1935 (p.10) we read that, “Her Majesty the Queen has honoured Mr A.W. Hamilton and Mr William Stirling by accepting copies of the Malay Sonnets (Pantun Melayu) and the Malay version of Omar Khayyam” for the Royal Collection, both books described as being “recently published”. (The Lotus Edition received no such Royal Accolade, it seems...indeed, H.R.H. may well have been left in blissful ignorance as to its existence.) Finally, Jos Coumans’ copy of the undated first edition bears a dedication to “Mr and Mrs Onraet, from their old friend in recollection of many happy times, Arthur W. Hamilton (Haji), England 6.6.35,” and one of its illustrations (that on p.ii) has been signed in pencil by “William Stirling”. Again, Garry Garrard’s copy of the same bears a dedication to “Mrs Vera Thomson from Arthur W. Hamilton, 22.8.35.” The inscription is accompanied by a drawing of a signpost saying “Hittisleigh ½ M.” This is in Devon, and is presumably where Mrs Thomson lived. These inscriptions do not prove a 1935 publication date, of course, but they do rather suggest that Hamilton & Stirling were signing copies of their new book in the summer of 1935 – and in England. Hamilton, we know, was well travelled, and Stirling had retired to England by then.

So far so good. However, as the above–mentioned article in The Malaya Tribune indicates, Malay Sonnets was “recently published” in 1935 as well, but it certainly wasn’t published in 1935, for Hamilton’s Introduction to it was dated 4th July 1932 and the accession date stamp in the British Library copy reads “BRITISH MUSEUM / MAY 33.” So, if Malay Sonnets was published in 1932 and was counted as “recently published” in 1935, it is equally possible that the same applies to the Malay Rubaiyat – that is, it was actually published in 1932 as its second edition of 1944 indicates.

Note 1b. The first edition has a short Introduction in English by A. W. Hamilton; the second edition a longer Introduction in English, and a short Introduction in Malay, both by A.W. Hamilton. The second edition also contains an edited version of FitzGerald’s Notes, a Guide to Malay pronunciation and a Glossary of Malay words.

Note 1c. The main difference is that the illustration on p.41 of the first edition, illustrating verse 27, became, with all its background detail removed, the frontispiece to the second edition.

Note 1d. The illustration on p.49 of the first edition illustrated the first two lines of verse 37. It became the illustration on p.61 of the second edition, illustrating the second two lines of verse 37.

Note 1e. The illustration on p.17 of the first edition illustrated verse 12. It became the illustration on p.91 of the second edition, illustrating verse 62.

Note 1f. The illustrations on pp.ii, 9, 17, 33, 49, 57 & 65 are all signed just “S”. Those on pp.25 & 41 are signed “W. Stirling.”

Note 2a. Potter #174 says c.1918. The British Library copy is stamped “COLONIAL COPYRIGHT / BRITISH MUSEUM / 9 MY 1919” but someone has written, in pencil, at the foot of the page opposite the Title Page, “Singapore [1918]”.

Note 2b. Lotus Library Publications No.1 appears to have been the first and last of the series. At least, I know of no subsequently published volumes in that series. The printers and / or publishers Fraser & Neave, though, certainly issued a number of other books – eg The Traveller’s Malay Pronouncing Handbook (1911); J.G. Watson’s Malayan Plant Names (1928); and Fraser & Neave’s Short Malay Handbook (1930).

It is perhaps worth mentioning in passing that the Lotus Library Rubaiyat originally came with a dust jacket, though one which doesn’t tell us much, unfortunately. Its front was like the front cover of the book itself, but with a large line–drawing of a flower below the title. Its back bore the same fish design as that on the inside of the back cover of the book itself. Most copies now lack the dust jacket, though one of the copies owned by Roger Paas still retains it.

Note 2c. Potter #174 says 1000 numbered copies, but there is nothing in the book itself to indicate this. Of the 20 copies known to me, 2 are not numbered, and the other 18 are numbered variously between no.119 and no.980, which is consistent with Potter’s statement.

Note 3. Stirling had joined the Society in 1917, but wrote relatively few articles for the Journal. These were: “Contraband” (April 1921, p.35–44); “Chinese Exorcists” (June 1924, p.41–7); “Chinese Divining Blocks and the ‘Pat Kwa’ or Eight–Sided Diagram with Text Figures” (June 1924, p.72–3); “The Red and White Flag Societies” (April 1925, p.57–61); “A Chinese Wedding in the Reform Style” (December 1925, p.1–5); and “The Coffin Breakers” (July 1926, p.129–132.) [As regards this last, the ‘coffins’ were coffin–shaped pillow–boxes used to store valuables and protected by their owners by sleeping on them. The coffin–breakers were an organised gang of thieves who specialised in stealing pillow–boxes by various devious means.] Note the pillows, not necessarily pillow–boxes, in Figs.2e, 2f & 2m. The addict in Fig.2e, like one of the addicts in Fig.2f, is sleeping / stupefied off his pillow, thus leaving his pillow–box, if that is what it is, unprotected. Note that prior to 1923, The Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society was named The Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Note 4. When I first saw the Queer Faces in the Lotus Rubaiyat, I immediately recalled a strange coin-like object that had lived for some time in my collection of numismatic oddities. Fig.10a shows its two faces. I had no idea of what this thing was, guessing that perhaps it was some sort of amulet or good luck piece, and unfortunately I had no record of how it came into my possession. However, Joe Cribb, Former Keeper of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, was able to enlighten me, though the story was a strange one even after the telling. Apparently, in the 17th century, and indeed long before that, Chinese scholars were publishing studies of ancient coinage, illustrated where possible. Where no actual coin was available on which to base an illustration, only a verbal description, the authors were quite happy to give an imagined sketch of the coin type in question. Fig.10b is a page from such a coin book, dating from the 17th century, the sketch seemingly based on a Parthian coin of c.2 BC to 4 AD, which had the head of the King on one side and the head of the Queen on the other! My ‘coin’ is therefore a 3D version of a sketch of an imagined coin – a fantasy coin indeed! Of course, I do not claim that Stirling was inspired in any way by one of these pieces, I am merely pointing out that the coincidence is a curious one, that such queer face images were around in the Far East in Stirling’s day, and that they were certainly not the province of any one artist.

Note 5. These biographical notes are based on many sources: information from online ancestry websites; the Harrow School Register; newspaper clips (particularly Malaysian ones); odd pieces of information given in Stirling’s own articles, his book with J.S.M. Ward on the Hung Society, and Irene Lim’s book on Secret Societies in Singapore, all mentioned in the course of this essay; and from Little Day Out, a Singapore–based online magazine.

Note 6. Arthur Wedderburn Hartwig Hamilton – he seems not to have used the Hartwig – was born in India in 1887. He may have attended school in England, for he appears in the 1901 census as a boarder, aged 13, along with a number of other teenage boys, at an address in Tonbridge, Kent. We know that he joined the Malayan Police in 1908, and that in 1915 he was involved in the suppression of the Tok Janggut uprising against British control in Kelantan state, in the north of Malaya, a role he seems to have been given because of his fluency in Malay. He published Easy Malay Vocabulary in 1921, Malay Proverbs in 1937, and Malay Made Easy in 1940. Interestingly, in 1939 he published Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes (Haji was his sobriquet on account of his fluency in Malay), this being illustrated by Nora Hamerton, with some of the rhymes being set to music by H. A. Courtney. Mrs Hamerton probably did the illustrations because Stirling had by then retired to England, though Hamilton tells us in his Preface that her front cover was based on a design by Stirling, “the artist, late of Singapore, whose delightful drawings have made such a pleasing addition to my previous publications.” In his Introduction to both editions of the Malay Rubaiyat, Hamilton wrote that the illustrations were by his old friend William Stirling, “whose sojourn in Malaya was contemporaneous with my own.” Hamilton seems to have retired and moved from Malaya to Australia in the early 1930s. He died in Australia in 1967. It is perhaps also worthy of note that, in his Preface to Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes, Hamilton tells us that “Some of the Malayan Nursery Rhymes were first published in pamphlet form at the time of the Malaya–Borneo Exhibition in 1922”, this pamphlet being reprinted a year later “with the added attraction of a few simple drawings.” This was the edition of Malayan Nursery Rhymes illustrated by Stirling, of course.

Hamilton, like Stirling, wrote a number of articles for The Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (he had joined the Society in 1915.) Given his translations of FitzGerald’s Omar and various English Nursery Rhymes, it will come as no surprise that several of his articles were on the Malay language – eg “Hindustani, Tamil, Sanskrit and other Loan Words in Malay” (May 1919, p.29–38) and “Chinese Loan Words in Malay” (June 1924, p.48–56.) Indeed, his last article for the Journal seems to have been “The First Dutch–Malay Vocabulary” (Dec 1947, p.20–5.) Likewise, it is not surprising to find one article on “Some Rhyming Sayings in Malay” (Nov. 1922, p.393–5) and another on “Two Malay Rhymes” (Dec 1936, p.331.) But Hamilton had wide–ranging interests. Thus he wrote one article on “Malay Love Charms” (July 1926, p.136–8), and several articles on the Natural History of Malaya – eg “Some Malayan Birds and Insects” (Dec 1925, p.31–2); “Malay Names of Molluscs” (Dec. 1933, p.135–6) and (with R.E. Holttum), “A Malay Garden” (Dec 1933, p.139–143.)

[Some of this information is taken from Ancestry Websites; some from library catalogues; and some from Russell Jones, “Malay Studies and the British” in Archipel vol.28 (1984), p.143.]

Note 7. Both Ward and Stirling were Freemasons, and both were fascinated by parallels between the ceremonial and paraphernalia of the Hung Society and those of Freemasonry. The two authors came together when Stirling chanced across Ward’s book Freemasonry and the Ancient Gods (London, 1921.)

Note 8. The National Museum of Singapore was named as such in 1965, but between 1993 and 2006 it was known as the Singapore History Museum, before reverting to its original name.

Note 9. The exhibition, titled “Facts and Fancy in Sculpture and Drawing” ran from April 20th to May 15th 1937, and the exhibition catalogue was a rather modest single page of typescript. The Omar sculpture was exhibit no.6, priced at £18. The drawings, alas, are only described collectively thus as exhibit no.21: “A collection of drawings priced from 3 to 8 gns are studies of types, and some old friends from The Thousand and One Nights.” That some of the drawings related to the Rubaiyat, and that the Arabian Nights illustrations were in colour, are details taken from a report on the exhibition in the Malaya Tribune for 22nd May 1937 (p.10).

Note 10. A whole literature surrounds this. See, for example, George Cockburn, John Chinaman: his Ways and Notions (Edinburgh, 1896); E.H. Parker, John Chinaman and a Few Others (London, 1901); G.L. Dickinson, Letters from John Chinaman (London, 1902); and E.J. Hardy, John Chinaman at Home: sketches of Men, Manners and Things in China (London, 1905). The first, second and fourth of these were essentially accounts of the everyday lives, manners, customs, religious beliefs and superstitions etc of the Chinese. Cockburn’s book – whose cover was decorated with swastikas, incidentally – was an attempt “to portray the representative man of the people” (Preface); Parker intended his book “to create a human sympathy for the still mysterious Chinese; and to show that, after all, they were in the main creatures exactly like ourselves” (Preface to 3rd edition, 1908); and Rev. Hardy, who, incidentally, also wrote a book bearing the intriguing title How to be Happy though Married, thought the Chinese were “a people who are always peculiar, though not always zealous of good works” (Preface). The third title, by Dickinson (who is not named on the Title Page), was essentially a portrayal of the West from an imagined Eastern viewpoint – that of John Chinaman.


Many people have helped in various ways in the writing of the present essay, and I must particularly thank Douglas Taylor, Bill Martin & Sandra Mason, Jos Coumans, and Garry Garrard, for their generous help on several fronts. I must also thank Joe Cribb for his helpful comments leading to note 4, and for his help with Stirling’s Chinese signature. Carman Wai of Manchester Central Library also deserves my thanks for her patient fielding of my questions about Stirling’s Chinese Signature, the inscription over the door in Fig.2k, and the inscriptions in Fig.2o. I must also thank Izrin Muaz of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society; Winefred Assan, Archives Assistant at the School of Oriental and African Studies; Tace Fox, Archivist and Record Manager at Harrow School; Rebecca Daniels of the Word & Image Dept. at the the V&A, London; Richard Keenan of the Wellcome Library, London; and last but not least, Alan Birch & Roger Paas, fellow Rubaiyat researchers.