In September 2015 I was emailed by a lady who had found a letter written by Gilbert James in “a box of stuff” bought at an auction. The letter, dated 9th November 1907, was concerned with selling – or hoping to sell – some of the originals of his coloured illustrations of The Rubaiyat. As he was bit short of money, I was told the letter said, he was open to any reasonable offers the recipient might care to make. At that stage, I didn’t know who the recipient was, but obviously it was of sufficient interest for me to buy it “sight unseen” given the very reasonable asking price of £20. As it turned out, and much to my delight, it was addressed to Edward Heron–Allen (hereafter EHA.)

The letter is of sufficient interest to publish it in full here, and, James’s handwriting being so easily read, in facsimile (Fig.1) as well as transcript form. It reads thus:

Dear Mr Heron Allen,

There is a small coloured Omar Khayyám appearing this Christmas. I have just received the drawings back from the publishers and am making you the first offer of them.

They are watercolour drawings about fourteen inches high and I enclose the proofs for you to see, if you like I will also bring the drawings. The price is the same as the black and white five guineas each, but I may say that I am very short of money at present and quite open to any offer you might like to make.

Should you not be inclined to buy I would be much obliged if you would kindly return me the proofs so that I can send them on to someone else.

I suppose you know that the edition Routledge’s published was a very great success that is financially for them.

Yours very sincerely,

Gilbert James

The letter is of interest on several counts.

Firstly, given its date (9th Nov 1907) and the reference to “a small coloured Omar Khayyam appearing this Christmas”, it can only refer to the T.N. Foulis (1907) edition. Now, the publications of T. N. Foulis at this time are notorious for being undated, and Ian Elfick & Paul Harris, in their book T.N. Foulis – The History and Bibliography of an Edinburgh Publishing House (1998), were reduced to assigning publication dates for many by relying on the acquisition dates of the copies lodged, for copyright purposes, with the British Museum / Library and the National Library of Scotland. James’s letter not only serves to confirm the publication date, but reveals also that the book was published just in time for Christmas, a fact which I myself didn’t know at the time I bought the letter. In fact, it was the first of Foulis’ series of “Envelope Books”, so called because they came with an envelope in which the book could be put in order to be given or posted to friends or relatives – very handy come Christmas time, of course! As we shall see a little later, it seems that EHA did go on to buy the originals used in the book.

Secondly, James tells us, at the end of his letter, that “the edition Routledge’s published was a very great success”, adding, somewhat acidly, “that is financially for them.” That comment expresses the feelings of many an author and illustrator down the years, of course. It scarcely needs stating, but he here refers to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (George Routledge &: Sons Ltd., London, and E.P. Dutton & Co., New York 1904.) As we saw in my main essay on James, a) by 1907 this was going into its 8th thousand of sales, and b) Routledge’s photogravure Rubaiyat was the first of their series of photogravure editions, another seven of which (besides The Rubaiyat !) James had illustrated by the time he wrote this letter to EHA. Be that as it may, despite the commercial success of The Rubaiyat, and his other commissions for Routledge and other publishers, he was still “very short of money at present” and quite open to any reasonable offer that EHA might make on the watercolours done for T. N. Foulis.

Thirdly, James says in his letter that the price of the Foulis watercolours is “the same as the black and white,” this being “five guineas each.” This rather suggested to me that sometime earlier James and EHA had done a deal over the black and white originals used in the Routledge edition. But had they ?

Despite enquiries, for a long time it seemed as if there were no other extant letters from James to EHA other than the one quoted above. Certainly there aren’t any in the file of letters in the Heron–Allen Collection at the London Library (CAT 373). But there turns out to be a reason for that. Thanks to Amanda Stebbings, Head of Member Services at the London Library, it transpires that there are indeed some letters from James, but they are not in the folder for the simple reason that EHA tipped them in to his copies of the editions of The Rubaiyat illustrated by James. We are her concerned with three volumes in the Heron–Allen Collection, letters bring tipped–in to all three.

A) This volume contains all thirteen of the black and white drawings which had appeared in the The Sketch newspaper at irregular intervals over two years, starting in 1896, along with a single illustration from The Tatler. The stray illustration from The Tatler (Dec.11, 1901, p.481) is the one illustrating verse 74, facing p.158 of the Routledge edition (Fig.2), and it was one of two plates in that edition which hadn’t previously appeared in The Sketch – hence the gap in the first two columns of Table 2 of note 1a to the main essay on James. We shall encounter this illustration again below. All fourteen of the illustrations in this volume had been carefully extracted from their respective periodicals and bound together in book form. I should at this point add that there are two letters from James to EHA bound into this volume, in which James is clearly responding to EHA’s questions about the dates on which his illustrations appeared in The Sketch. One letter is clearly dated Sept 2nd, with postmark 1899, which shows that EHA had not actually collected the pages from The Sketch as they appeared, but must have got them from back–issues acquired later. This volume is CAT 116 at the London Library.

B) The drawings which had appeared in The Sketch, were, as is well known, promptly re–cycled in book form in Fourteen Drawings illustrating Edward FitzGerald’s Translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Gilbert James (Leonard Smithers & Co., London, 1898.) EHA’s copy of this is CAT 92 at the LL.

C) Twelve of James’s drawings were used in the above–mentioned Routledge photogravure edition of 1904, EHA’s copy being CAT 149.

Letters from James to EHA tipped–in to B & C enable a very simple summary of what happened to be given at this point. EHA had bought some of James’s black and white originals in 1899, just after the Smithers edition had appeared, and others a little later, in 1901. But then, a few years after that, James got the commission from Routledge & Co for the Photogravure edition, and had to borrow them back again so they could be photographed. In fact, EHA’s copy of the Photogravure edition (C) is inscribed: “To E. Heron–Allen, with thanks for the loan of the drawings, from which most of these reproductions have been made. G.J.” (Fig.3)

Going into more detail, and turning to volume B first, this contains six letters from James to EHA, one dated 30th August 1899 (to which we will return below) and five dating from July 1901, all five relating to the buying and framing of three of the originals. Very obligingly, in addition to tipping–in the letters, EHA had annotated the index of illustrations in the book to indicate which ones he owned, and (except for one) who owned the ones he didn’t. As EHA wrote in pencil on glossy paper, this doesn’t photograph or scan well, so Fig.4 is a transcript version of it. As can be seen, he had bought nine of the fourteen illustrations used in the Smithers edition; Clement Shorter had bought (or retained, having already bought them for The Sketch ?) three; “Harris, 4 Green Bd W” (?) had bought one, and one had no buyer indicated. The easiest way for readers to see their way around all this is to compare Fig.4 with Tables 1 & 2 in note 1a to the main essay on James. As regards the question mark in The Sketch column of Table 1, corresponding to the illustration on Smithers p.59 (Fig.5), this can now be explained. According to the above–mentioned letter from James to EHA dated 2nd Sept 1899 tipped–in to volume A, this illustration was never published in The Sketch but was “declined with thanks.” This came as a great relief not only to myself, but also to Bill Martin and Sandra Mason, for we had all tried desperately to find it in The Sketch on trips to the British Library, and all to no avail. (The note at the front of the Smithers edition suggested that it had been published there. Thank you, Leonard Smithers...) As regards the letter dated 30th August 1899, tipped–in to volume B, it would appear that EHA had asked James to sign a copy of the Smithers edition for Nathan Haskell Dole, to which James replied: “I would rather not put my signature to a book the paper & printing of which has my strong disapproval, but if Mr Nathan Dole really wishes it I will do so.” I'm afraid I do not know whether Dole got his signed copy or not!

The letters tipped–in to volume C relate mainly to the borrowing and (delayed) return of the re–framed originals to EHA, with profuse apologies for the time it has all taken. A letter of 10th June [1904] tells us that “Messrs George Routledge think that justice has not been done to my drawings and wish to try their hand with a volume.” (Compare James’s own comments on the Smithers edition above.) In another letter dated 10th July ’04, James wrote: “I have had to do one fresh drawing so as to have one new thing in the book.” (In fact, he seems to have done two, one being Fig.2 and the other being the one facing p.78 of the Routledge edition – again see Table 2 in note 1a of the main essay on James.) He went on:

I don’t know whether you would care to make me an offer for it but I am afraid I could not take the price I took before as two gentlemen seeing the drawing on the easel have offered me three and five guineas for it. I have not yet closed with the offer, the larger one of course, as I thought I ought to let you know first, as you have so many of them.

In a letter dated 10th Oct ’04, after apologising for further delays in returning the drawings, he wrote:

I also have another apology to make. I have just returned from Routledges and they appear to have omitted to mention the names of the owners of the drawings, although I expressly mentioned it when I made the agreement, of course. I suppose I could prevent the publication because of that but it would entail a lot of bother and indeed it would not be to my interest, but very much against it.

So an apology is I think all I can do.

They have also omitted a list of the drawings, which appears to me to be an extraordinary thing in a book which is depending so much on its illustrations.

However, I did not see the proofs, although it was arranged that I was to.

Much light is thrown on the story of James’s originals by these tipped–in letters, of course, so it is a little alarming that no–one really knew that the letters were there until Amanda Stebbings brought them to light using the LL’s “notes field”, a field that does not appear on the public side of the library catalogue, and which is where library staff record anything unusual about a volume, such as inscriptions or letters. Only after Amanda’s sleuthing did the story emerge, and the moral of that is, as the Duchess said to Alice, that anyone using the LL to research the EHA Collection should be on the look–out for tipped–in letters.

Unfortunately there are no tipped–in letters in the LL’s copies of the two other editions of The Rubaiyat illustrated by James, namely the Foulis 1907 edition (CAT 183) and the A & C Black 1909 edition (CAT 205). The letter from James to EHA quoted above and shown in Fig.1 seems to be the only evidence that James offered the original illustrations for the former to EHA in 1907. Did he buy them ? And where are the black and white illustrations now ?

Some time ago, Tim McCann, Chairman and Archivist of the Heron–Allen Society put out an appeal for information in the Society Newsletter #27, and this led to contact with Ivor and Venetia Jones, Ivor being EHA’s grandson. The results are simply told as follows.

In addition to buying most of the originals of the black and white illustrations used in the Routledge photogravure Rubaiyat of 1904, EHA did indeed also buy the original watercolours used in the T.N. Foulis edition of 1907. All were framed and hung in the passage leading to the bedrooms at Large Acres, and so family and guests of necessity passed them by every day, and were prompted to remember their associated verses! When Ivor and Venetia went to the USA for a couple of years in 1981, they left most of their possessions in their house, but put many of the more valuable items – including the Gilbert James originals, for which Ivor had a particular fondness – into storage. Tragically, everything left in the house turned out to be safe and sound on their return, but everything put into storage for ‘safe keeping’ was destroyed in a fire in 1982. The only reminder of the pictures which Ivor now has is a copy of the pocket edition of the Routledge Rubaiyat published in 1910.

Did EHA also buy the originals of the 16 coloured illustrations which Gilbert James did for the A & C Black Rubaiyat of 1909 ? It seems not – or at least, Ivor and Venetia have no recollection of them. However, in volume A, at the top of the illustration in The Sketch for 5th May 1897, EHA had written: “I do not possess the original of this, but I have the elaborated water–colour drawing for the same verse.” Fig.6a shows the same black and white illustration as it appeared in the Smithers edition p.31 (verse 17 of the 4th edition), and Fig.6b shows the coloured illustration relating to the same verse in the A & C Black edition facing p.64 (verse 16 of the 1st edition.) It does look, then, as if EHA may have bought at least one of the A & C Black originals, the only snag with that idea being that neither Ivor nor Venetia recalls ever having seen it.

In conclusion, then, though we know that many of James’s originals were destroyed in a fire in 1982, a few of them may still be ‘out there’ somewhere, awaiting discovery.


To browse the illustrations of this Addendum, click here

To go to a) Main Essay on Gilbert James, click here; b)Index of Rubaiyat Archive, click here.