The Illuminated Rubaiyat Prints of Alan Tabor

This essay began when Roger Paas very kindly sent me copies of the two prints shown in Figs.1a & 1b. The first, headed “Come with Old Khayyam”, quotes quatrains 10 & 11 from FitzGerald’s first edition; the second, with no heading, quotes quatrain 14 from the same edition. As the bottom left hand corner of both prints tells us, they were “Published by Alan Tabor, St. Ann’s Arcade, Manchester”, which, since I live in Manchester, was what prompted Roger to send them to me. Though I knew St. Ann’s Arcade very well (it is still in business today), I had to confess that I had never heard of Alan Tabor.

Enquiries at the John Rylands Library in Manchester revealed that they had a large collection of Alan Tabor material housed among their Special Collections, and which had been generously donated by the Tabor family some years ago. It was also revealed to me that a book had recently been published about him: Colin Porter, Alan Tabor: the Life and Work of a Master Calligrapher and Illuminator (The Cock and Bull Press, 2022.) The book gives a good account of Tabor’s life, and a fine illustrated survey of a broad selection of his work, but alas, says nothing about the Rubaiyat prints I had acquired, though it does illustrate several other illuminated poems. More of these later, but first it will be useful to give a brief sketch of Alan Tabor’s life based largely on Colin’s book.

Some Biographical Details

Alan Lansdown Tabor (hereafter ALT) was born in Bedminster, Bristol on 19 May 1883. In 1892 the family moved to Eccles, now part of Greater Manchester, where ALT was to live for the rest of his life. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to an illuminator and calligrapher on King Street, Manchester. During his apprenticeship he attended night school to study painting in oils and watercolour, in which he became proficient. In 1908 he opened his own studio in St. Ann’s Arcade, where he was assisted by his first employee, Mr G.A. Smith, and for which he began to advertise in The Manchester Guardian. The bulk of his business in the early years consisted of illuminated addresses celebrating special occasions, or delivered to visiting dignitaries. He also found a ready market for illuminated long service certificates, presented by firms to their most loyal employees, and, during the First World War, for illuminated certificates commemorating service in the army. Some were presented (by local authorities) as tokens of sympathy to families of soldiers killed in action; others to surviving soldiers as a token of appreciation of their war service. Another source of income was illuminated Christmas cards, and mottoes and poems which could be framed to hang on a wall. Colin Porter’s book covers all types – particularly the long service certificates, which he covers in detail, but also the illuminated addresses and war certificates – for which reason I do not devote much space to them here, for my main concern is the background of the prints shown in Figs.1a & 1b – the illuminated poems – to which we will turn after a few more biographical details.

ALT had been brought up to live by strong Methodist values, and in Eccles he attended the Wesleyan Church there, where, in 1911, he met his future wife, Florence Clarinda Black. They were married in 1912, and a year later, their son, Alan McKenzie Tabor, was born. He was destined to run the firm after his father’s death.

Business boomed, and by 1933 it was necessary to move to more spacious premises in Albert Square, Manchester. By that time he employed four full time assistant illuminators and calligraphers and five ladies who framed the mottoes, poems and such like. The firm remained in those premises until ALT’s death on 18 September 1957.

A wonderful description of him by Barbara Bennett (née Meehan), who was taken on as his Office Junior in 1955, is stored, as part of a longer account of her time with the firm, in the John Rylands Library:

Mr Tabor was an elderly gentleman of 71 years. A tall man of slim build, he walked with a slight stoop and had a neat moustache and alert brown eyes that seemed to take everything in behind the brown–rimmed spectacles that he wore, especially when working. Always immaculately attired, he wore fine wool suits of lovat green, soft brown or salt and pepper tweeds, generally with matching waistcoats. His shoes were highly polished and his hat a brown trilby. Alan Tabor possessed an undeniable air of authority, and all who worked for him treated him with great respect. In turn, he was civil to all but never invited any form of familiarity or friendship. To me he seemed like an Edwardian gentleman, of another time.

The photograph shown in Fig.2 shows ALT in about 1952, shortly before Barbara’s time. Clearly, then, ALT was no Bohemian artist. Nor, given that he was a Methodist, did he approve of alcoholic drink, as Barbara recalls:

All mottoes and poems were framed on the premises by a small but super–efficient group of ladies who worked together at a large wooden table ... Whenever one of them had a birthday, the ladies brought in food and drink (non–alcoholic – Mr Tabor would not have approved otherwise!) and flowers and gifts were the order of the day.

Both a non–Bohemian outlook and a disapproval of alcohol, taken together with his firm religious beliefs, make ALT an unlikely illustrator of Omar, of course. But then as ALT’s granddaughter, Catherine Nicolson, pointed out to me, ALT was also a businessman who printed what sold, and Omar certainly sold in the early years of the twentieth century. (1) Plus, it is certainly possible to appreciate the poetry of FitzGerald without accepting the wine–drinking agnosticism of Omar. G.K Chesterton, for example, admired the poetry of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, but also decried it as “a bible of unbelief” and “a thing unfit for a white man.” (2)

It is useful at this point to take a Dickensian digression.

A Christmas Carol

In 1916 George G. Harrap & Co, of London published an edition of Charles Dickens’ well–known story A Christmas Carol, “designed by Alan Tabor”, with, as the colophon tells us, the assistance of M.G. Taylor and G.A. Smith (the latter was mentioned earlier.) A copy of this, and the beautifully bound original manuscript on which it is based, are in the John Rylands Library. The frontispiece and title–page of the published version are shown in Fig.3a, and those of the original manuscript version in Fig.3b – note the change of frontispiece; otherwise the two are pretty much the same. Note too that the text was all in black and red, like the title–page.

Now this publication raises a question, for ALT also produced two beautifully bound, illuminated copies of Gray’s Elegy with calligraphic text. The cover and title–page with opening verse of one are shown in Figs.4a & 4b; those of the other (this one dated 1914) in Figs.5a & 5b. Being unique copies and tightly bound, these shots are about the best that can be obtained without causing damage. The question is, of course: why didn’t Harrap & Co., or someone else, publish either of these ? The answer is almost certainly one of expense, for when A Christmas Carol appeared in 1916 it was priced at 10 shillings and 6 pence cloth–bound and one guinea leather–bound, which were on the high side for a book at that time, but not astronomical – and that was for a book simply illuminated in black and red, not in the lavish colour schemes of the two volumes of Gray’s Elegy.

To add to the puzzle, there is, also in the Rylands, a copy of a rather modestly bound book bearing the title Five English Poems (Fig.6a). The title–pages of each of the five poems in it are shown in Figs.6b, 6c, 6d, 6e & 6f, each ‘signed’ by ALT. The use of only red and black in Fig.6b etc contrasts markedly with the lavish use of colour in the illuminated versions in Figs.4b & 5b, this, like the cover in Fig.6a, suggesting a limited budget. Whether it was ever intended for commercial publication is not known, but if so, it was never actually published. There is no indication of any publisher or printer in it, and the fact that Catherine Nicolson, also has a copy, suggests that it was privately published by ALT himself, possibly as gifts for family and friends. Betty Tabor (née Williamson), ALT’s daughter–in–law, is sure that it was a private printing by him, with no other publisher involved. How many copies were produced, though, remains unknown at present, as does the date of its production. [The illustrations can be browsed here.]

ALT was a great lover of poetry, theatre and music (his wife, Florence, was a musician) and it is to his illuminated poem prints that we now turn.

Illuminated Poems

ALT produced several versions of Kipling’s “If”, one of which is shown in Fig.7a. Many of these would have ended up framed on living–room walls and it was a best seller, according to Barbara Bennett. Kipling was clearly a favourite of ALT’s, as he illuminated at least five of his poems. He produced prints of “L’Envoi” (Fig.7b), for example, and “The Children’s Song” (Fig.7c), though not, it seems, any of Kipling’s more gung–ho Queen–and–Empire poems, which his rather conservative persona might have suggested. In fact, his illumination of Whittier’s poem “The Little People” (Fig.7d) would seem to indicate a more pacific child–loving nature. Indeed, one of his prints was clearly designed to be hung on the nursery wall – Gladys Ross’s prayer–poem “My Greatest Friend” (Fig.7e.) [The illustrations can be browsed here.]

His Christian faith also shows through in some of his other choices for illumination, in particular in respect of Life after Death. William Cullen Bryant’s poem “Death Vanquished” is one example (Fig.8a), this particular copy being framed; Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Beyond” is a second example (Fig.8b); and possibly the best known, Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” is a third example (Fig.8c) (the Bar, of course, is a nautical analogy – a sand bar – representing the barrier between the realms of the living and the dead. Note the ‘re–cycled’ Angels in the top left and top right of Figs.8b & 8c.) However, the faith of both ALT and his wife was severely tested by the death in 1916 of their baby daughter, Theodora Eileen, at the age of only 11 months, in the aftermath of which he illuminated Longfellow’s poem “The Reaper and the Flowers” (Fig.8d). This is the familiar image of the Grim Reaper (3), of course, here in the context of the Infant Mortality that was so prevalent in the past. Perhaps relevant at this point are the sentiments expressed in Rev. R.F. Pechey’s poem “Afterwards” (Fig.8e). [The illustrations can be browsed here.]

Again, ALT’s Christian outlook shows in his choice of poems meditating on the course of Life. J.G. Whittier’s “Influence” is one example (Fig.9a), as is Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “Give me Strength” (Fig.9b), this particular copy being framed; Matilda Betham–Edwards’s poem “My Creed” (Fig.9c) is another; and Edith Stanley’s “Play the Game” yet another (Fig.9d). Not that everything was always so serious or sentimental. ALT was a golfer, hence his choice of the pseudonymous Peter Niblick’s poem “Follow Through” (Fig.9e) - niblick is an old word for a type of golf club.. Another sporting analogy, by American sportswriter Grantland Rice, is shown in Fig.9f. These are the last two lines of his poem “Alumnus Football,” lines sometimes (as here) wrongly attributed to Sir Henry Newbolt. One of my favourites, though, is the rather catchy poem / motto “Try it!”, clearly done by ALT in minimalist illuminator mode (Fig.9g), though this could well be an unfinished draft judging by the visible pencil lines. (Actually this is the first half of the first verse of the poem “It Couldn’t Be Done” by British–born American poet Edgar Albert Guest.) [The illustrations can be browsed here.]

But not everything was Christian, for ALT had a broader outlook, as is shown by his illuminated “Philosophy” (Fig.10), a selection of proverbs from around the world taken from Wayside Sayings, compiled by Selwyn Gurney Champion and Ethel Mavrogordato, first published in 1922, so the print must post–date that.

Also of interest is Leigh Hunt’s orientalist poem “Abou Ben Adhem” (Fig.11), based on the life of Ibrahim ibn Adham, who is said to have been a king who had abdicated to lead the life of Sufi mystic. Its theme – which is what doubtless appealed to ALT – is that he who loves his fellow man, of necessity loves God. In fact, Hunt’s monument in Kensal Green Cemetery is inscribed with the words “Write me as one that loves his fellow men.” (4)

All of which brings us back to Omar Khayyam. When I opened a large box full of prints at the John Rylands Library I was hoping to find more illuminated Rubaiyat verses like Figs.1a & 1b. But only one turned up, here shown as Fig.1c, which features four quatrains from FitzGerald’s first edition, seemingly placed at random, namely: top left, quatrain 51; top right, quatrain 21; bottom left, quatrain 14 (as in Fig.1b); and bottom right, quatrain 26. Given ALT’s firm belief in the Afterlife, it is perhaps odd that he used quatrain 26 (though its flower metaphor is shared by “The Reaper” in Fig.8d), otherwise the verses he uses are what FitzGerald himself characterised as the “less wicked” (5) : that is, ALT, in accordance with his Methodist beliefs, did not choose to follow Omar in wedding the Daughter of the Vine (quatrain 40), or in proclaiming the Tavern to be on a par with the Temple as far as inspiration went (quatrain 56); or, being a devout Christian, in accusing God of creating the trap of Sin into which He knew Man would fall, and then condemning Man to Hell for falling into that trap (quatrains 57 & 58.)

What is clear from the above is that the Omar prints formed rather a small part of his output, presumably indicating that ALT rated FitzGerald well below the likes of Gray, Kipling, Longfellow and Rabindranath Tagore. Certainly, they seem to have had more impact on him than Omar, in that he devoted more time to illuminating them. How far his ranking of Omar was influenced by his own personal beliefs will probably forever remain unknown, but given the tragic death of his infant daughter in 1916, I was curious to know if these prints were done before or after that event, for none of the Omar prints in Fig.1 are dated – indeed, most of the poem prints, aside from Fig.8d, are undated. As we shall see in the next section, though, ALT had certainly studied his Omar by 1915, so one naturally wonders if the likes of the last line of quatrain 63 (“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake ?”), resonated with him in respect of his daughter’s untimely death, even though his faith survived it.


We know that ALT began to advertise in The Manchester Guardian as early as January 1908 (his early adverts being for illuminated addresses.) But we also know from the later advertisements that his poem prints were produced not only to be framed for display (we have already seen several), but also to be used in calendars: Poem Calendars were advertised from 1914 to 1921, soon after which they seem to have ceased, the year 1917 seemingly the peak year. A sample of adverts from The Manchester Guardian, spanning the years 1914 to 1920, are shown in Fig.12a, and a more ‘up–market’ advert from The Illustrated London News, dated 5 November 1921, is shown in Fig.12b. Thus, Omar prints were issued in calendar form between about 1915 and 1921.

Unfortunately, none of these poem calendars is known to have survived (6), and neither Colin Porter, nor Catherine Nicolson, nor Betty Tabor, nor Barbara Bennett, has ever seen one, or was even aware of their former existence. None showed up in the Alan Tabor Collection at the Rylands, and the only library reference to one that I have found to date is in the National Union Catalog of Pre–1956 Imprints vol.430, p.347 (Fig.12c), in which the abbreviation CU–S indicates the library of the University of San Diego, California. Unfortunately this seemingly unique item does not show up in a search of the online catalogue of their Special Collections, and in response to e–mail enquires there, I was apologetically told that it was nowhere to be found. We do know from Fig.12c, though, that the Omar print used with this calendar was that shown in Fig.1c. Its format isn’t clear, but the catalog entry suggests that the one print served as the illustration for every month of the year, with a smaller 12 page calendar booklet for that year (1 page for each month) somehow attached to a backing sheet beneath it. In production terms, that format meant that the same print could be re–cycled year on year simply by changing the calendar booklet.

Some Concluding Remarks

ALT’s Omar prints seem to be rare today, and the Omar Calendars even rarer. Neither of the prints shown in Figs.1a & 1b feature in the Alan Tabor Collection at the Rylands, and the only Omar print in that extensive Collection is that shown in Fig.1c. Another copy of the design of Fig.1a is in the possession of the Tabor family (Fig.1d.) Its colouring is somewhat different, but it is not clear whether this is because it comes from a different print–run, or whether it has simply changed its colouring on account of storage and / or age. But these are the only ones known at present. It is to be hoped that further examples will emerge in due course.

It remains only to give a brief account of the firm after the death of ALT. As indicated above, from 1957 the firm was run by his son, Alan McKenzie Tabor, eventually assisted by his wife, Betty. In 1974 the Albert Square office was forced by redevelopment to move to smaller premises in Eccles. In 1999 Alan McKenzie Tabor died, and Betty Tabor continued to run the firm until her retirement in 2004. In 2017 ALT’s daughter, Doreen Nicolson, and Betty Tabor between them donated a large and unique collection of ALT’s work to the John Rylands Library, where it will be preserved in perpetuity, and hopefully added to as time goes on.


Note 1: The edition of The Rubaiyat illustrated by Marie Préaud Webb was published in 1907 by James Hewetson & Son of London, though James Hewetson Senior was of a religious bent, judging by his various publications; and the edition illustrated by S.C. Vincent Jarvis, was published in 1911 by H.R. Allenson, and he too seems to have been of a religious bent, judging by his publications.

Note 2: Writing in his book The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), chapter 3, Chesterton went so far as to describe it “as poetical as Swinburne and far more perfect.” But for all that, it was still “a sort of bible of unbelief” and still

“...pessimism, a thing unfit for a white man; a thing like opium, that may often be a poison and sometimes a medicine, but never a food for us, who are driven by an inner command not only to think but to live, not only to live but to grow, and not only to grow but to build.”

Again, Prof. Cowell, FitzGerald’s teacher in Persian and the man who brought Omar to his attention, thought that though FitzGerald’s Omar was too free to be called a translation, “yet what closer translations could ever give such a vivid idea of the original ?” (George Cowell, Life and Letters of Edward Byles Cowell (1904) p.283 – letter to W. Aldis Wright dated 19 July 1883.) Nevertheless, he wanted nothing to do with the “Omar Cult”, adding that if he needed guidance in this life, he preferred to go to Nazareth, and not to Naishapur. That is, to Christ and not to Omar. (Edward Heron–Allen, The Second Edition of Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyyat of Umar Khayyam (1908) p.xv – letter to Edward Heron–Allen dated 3 April 1898.)

Note 3: I am reminded of Walter Crane’s “The Mower” (1891), which Isobel Spencer describes as “one of Crane’s oddest inventions” (Walter Crane (1975), p.131), shown in Fig.13a. It shows the Grim Reaper about to scythe down a field of humanoid daisies! I would guess that the source of inspiration for this curious image is that well–known part of “The Order for the Burial of the Dead” in The Book of Common Prayer:

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.”

The text is from Job 14.1–2.

It is interesting that Crane’s painting “The Roll of Fate” (1882) was painted in response to the deaths of his infant son and sister Lucy (see Isobel Spencer op.cit. p.123 & p.126–7.) It is shown here as Fig.13b and it illustrates quatrains 98 & 99 of FitzGerald’s fourth edition (the verses are inscribed on the frame):

Would but some wingéd Angel ere too late
Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,
And make the stern Recorder otherwise
Enregister, or quite obliterate!

Ah Love! Could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re–mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

The latter verse, with “you” and “Him” in the first line replaced by “thou” and “Fate” respectively, was quatrain 73 in FitzGerald’s first edition, and so would have been known to ALT. It presumably resonated with him as it did with Crane, the two sharing the tragedy of infant death.

Note 4: Russell Jones, “Leigh Hunt’s Oriental Motifs: Abou Ben Adhem” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, vol.7 no.3 (Nov. 1997), p.389–397.) In a nutshell, Hunt’s immediate source for this poem was d’Herbelot’s Bibliothèque Orientale (1781), vol.1, p.161–2.

Note 5: Alfred McKinley Terhune & Annabelle Burdick Terhune, The Letters of Edward FitzGerald (Princeton University Press, 1980) vol. II, p.418–9 – letter to W.H. Thompson dated 9 December 1861.

Note 6: Calendars, of course, tend to be ephemeral, but some do survive. One of the commonest types encountered today are those which were published, in tandem, by Ernest Nister of London and E.P. Dutton & Co. of New York, just before the First World War. The cover of their Rubaiyat Calendar for 1912 is shown in Fig.14a; its title–page in Fig.14b; and the calendar page for January in Fig.14c. It was effectively a small hard–bound booklet, which was neatly illuminated. Between 1908 and 1914 the same publishers issued similar calendars featuring Tennyson, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Browning, Dickens and others. Other notable examples of surviving Rubaiyat calendars, again in booklet form, are those illustrated by Blanche McManus for the de la More Press of London (1902–1905), and those illustrated by Willy Pogany for Liberty & Co., of London & Paris (1912–1914.) But these were presumably all mass produced, whereas ALT’s operation was on an altogether more modest scale, and his calendars of a more perishable nature, not being in booklet form.



In addition to the people already mentioned in the body of this article – Catherine Nicolson, Colin Porter, Barbara Bennett and Betty Tabor – I must also thank staff at the John Rylands Library, Manchester for facilitating access to the Alan Tabor Collection, especially Lorraine Coughlan, Anne Anderton and Clare Baker.


Copyright Notice

Though the images used in this article are free for public access, it is to be stressed that their copyright is owned by the Tabor family, and therefore they cannot be copied from this site and used in other publications without permission from the family.


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