The Rubaiyat of Gordon Ross

Gordon Ross was one of very few artists who illustrated all 75 verses of FitzGerald’s first edition. The result was Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a mass market paperback published by Pocket Books Inc., New York, in 1941 with an Introduction by Louis Untermeyer. It went through two printings in 1941, one in each of 1942, 1943 & 1944, and another (seemingly the last) in 1948. Inevitably some of Ross’s 75 illustrations (the frontispiece repeats the illustration to verse 38) are more interesting than others, and the eighteen featured here are a sample chosen as much for their interest value (use of symbolism and such like) as for their artistic merit. This is why I have omitted, for example, Ross’s illustration of the most famous verse 11, with Omar and his Beloved “beneath the Bough”: though a well executed composition it is simply a literal picture of the verse. Likewise, Ross’s illustration to verse 1, depicting a sleeping girl, with Omar leaning in through her bedroom window, the rising sun behind, is a nicely executed but rather obvious illustration of the verse. Such illustrations, though skilful, tell us little about the mind of the artist, to get a glimpse into which we need to delve into the more obscure illustrations. The illustrations are given in verse order, with a commentary on each. They can be browsed here.

Fig.1a. Illustrating verse 3 and Ross’s sense of humour, “The Last Chance Tavern” neatly encapsulating the lines, “You know how little while we have to stay, / And, once departed, may return no more.” The Last Chance Tavern is, of course, modelled on The Last Chance Saloon of wild–west fame, the original being the last chance to get a drink before entering Indian territory, where alcohol was prohibited. In Spain (at least in Galicia, where I spent much time), the last drink of the evening – the “one for the road” – is, or used to be, la pénultima, la ultima being reserved for the last drink before you die! Is Omar checking if he has enough money for a drink ?

Fig.1b. Illustrating verse 5. Here is “Jamshyd’s Sev’n–ring’d Cup” with the Vine yielding her ancient Ruby in a Garden, replete with butterfly. Whether intentionally here or otherwise, the butterfly, on account of its brief life–span, is a symbol of transience. It features again in Ross’s illustration of verse 68, where it is about to be caught in a net (to “be overtaken unaware”?) As regards the Seven–ringed Cup of the legendary Persian King Jamshyd, it was said to have been used for scrying purposes. By filling it with liquid (usually water, but here wine ?) and peering into its depths, after the manner of gazing into a crystal ball, the King was enabled to see what was happening in the Seven Regions of the World – hence, I would guess, the compass dial at the base of the cup in Ross’s illustration. As for the naked girl supporting the cup, she could perhaps here be the Daughter of the Vine, her grapes hanging above the cup, or she could be purely ornamental. She does, however, bear comparison with Ross’s use of the figure of Atlas supporting the World, of which more later.

Fig.1c. Illustrating verse 9. A puzzling if not baffling illustration, with with two men arguing over a game of chess; what seems to be a stout elderly woman, wearing a headscarf, and ringing a hand–bell; a parrot in a cage; and two figures fleeing over the horizon! The game of chess, of course, features again, more properly, in Ross’s illustration of verse 49 (“’Tis all a Chequer–board of Nights and Days”), but what is it doing here? What do the various figures in the illustration have to do with Kaikobad, Kaikhosru, Rustum and Hatim Tai? One possible scenario is that it is Hatim Tai who is announcing supper by ringing a bell, and that the two fleeing figures are Khayyam and whoever he invites to “come with old Khayyam, and leave the Lot / Of Kaikobad and Kaikhosru forgot.” That is, the two kings Kaikobad and Kaikhosru are represented as locked in a territorial power struggle, symbolised by a game of chess. But Hatim Tai should be male, plus we are left with Rustum as the parrot in the cage. Could a squawking parrot be Rustum laying about him as he will ?

Fig.1d. Illustrating verse 14 with the spiked Wheel of Fortune (1), accompanied by astronomical emblems (presumably of astrological significance here – our fate is in the stars etc) and dice, symbolising the uncertain nature of the Worldly Hope which is being madly pursued by the crowd below. It may or may not be significant that the spiked wheel was the instrument used to torture St. Catherine of Alexandria – hence our modern “Catherine–wheel.”

Fig.1e. Illustrating verse 15, the figure of a Miser who has “husbanded the Golden Grain”, with the skeletal figure of Death telling him that his time is up. The Debit and Credit columns are presumably not only those of his earthly accounts, but those of his life’s deeds as well. Note that Death is pointing to a rapidly filling Debit Page and holding a “Lease of Life expires” notice. (Compare the “Account Closed” in Ross’s illustration to verse 53.)

Fig.1f. Illustrating verse 16, “How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp / Abode his Hour or two, and went his way” being represented by various blindfolded potentates – including an Egyptian Pharaoh, a Roman Emperor and Napoleon – chained together and walking the plank into a shark infested sea, the hand of Fate or Destiny above. The overall message is presumably that potentates can so easily become the prisoners of their own power, that very power leading them to their ultimate doom. Some of the potentates appear again, along with a Judge, a Bishop and a Tank (!), as the chess pieces in Ross’s illustration to verse 49 (with a chess–piece representing the Daughter of the Vine being held above, perhaps signifying that Wine can befuddle even the powerful.) Chains are associated with “the Knot of Human Death and Fate” in Ross’s illustration to verse 31, and for another blindfold, see his illustration to verse 57.

Fig.1g. Illustrating verse 23, the hour–glass symbolising the little time “we yet may spend.” The locked book below it presumably represents the Sealed Book of Fate. Though one should beware of reading too much into an illustration, the embracing couple in this one seem to be silhouetted behind some sort of veil which separates them from the book and the hour–glass. If so, this perhaps relates to “the Veil past which I could not see” in verse 32, and if that is the case, the lamp in Fig.1g could perhaps likewise relate to the Lamp of Destiny in verse 33. But I stress that all this is speculative food for thought. (An hour–glass also features in Ross’s illustration to verse 13, and a rather ghostly hour–glass in his illustration to verse 22.)

Fig.1h. Illustrating verse 25. The learned Saints and Sages are here casting pearls before swine, that is, wasting their time in trying to solve the riddle of the Two Worlds. The idea of casting pearls before swine comes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7.6.)

Fig.1i. Illustrating verse 30. This is another puzzling illustration, like Fig.1c, with its scarecrow on which are perched two un–scared crows. Note the “whither” and “whence” on his outstretched signpost–like arms. Notice, too, the (wilting?) ears of wheat and the poppies (?) in the foreground – recall the famous poppies in the wheat fields of Flanders in the Great War. Note too the partially concealed reaper’s sickle. Like Fig.1c, this is an intriguing illustration, and one wonders what inspired it! Why, for example, a scarecrow rather than a simple signpost ? I wonder if the field of wheat and flowers represents us, with the scarecrow representing the ineffective protection which Providence often seems to afford us, hence the un–scared crows ? (Do they represent the Impertinence of the last line ?) The sickle would fit in with such a view for, like the scythe, it is a symbol associated with time (2) – it features again in Ross’s illustration to verse 61. Certainly the crow or raven is a bird of ill–omen, being held to forebode death, its reputation deriving from its feasting on the dead after a battle, and even following armies into a battle in expectation of a feast. It is perhaps just a coincidence, but in Norse mythology two ravens, Hugin and Munnin (Thought and Memory), came to perch on Odin’s shoulders every night, and reported to him everything they had seen during the day.

Fig.1j. Illustrating verse 32. The “Door to which I found no key” is here between the paws of a Sphinx, a symbol which has a long history as regards seeking an answer to the Riddle of Life (3). The two figures are presumably “ME and THEE.”

Fig.1k. Illustrating verse 34. Here Omar is with his lips to “this earthen Bowl” to learn the Secret of Life, but getting no answer beyond, “Drink! – for once dead you never shall return.” The symbolic Scythe of Death (2) hangs over him – it features again in Ross’s illustrations to verse 13, with the transient Rose next to a Gravestone, and in the illustration to verse 24, in the hands of the “Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness.”

Fig.1l. Illustrating verse 40, with Omar being embraced by the the youthful and nude Daughter of the Vine. Old Barren Reason, carrying a T–square and books of Geometry and Mathematics, is being hastily banished to the lower left, having seemingly dropped or knocked over a lamp. Ross was fond of using nudes in his illustrations, often for no apparent reason (eg verses 8, 19, 39, plus verses 43 and 70, both illustrated below.)

Fig.1m. Illustrating verse 43. This is another of Ross’s more puzzling and intriguing illustrations, the “Two–and–Seventy jarring Sects” arguing in the background as a naked girl performs a circus act with a chimpanzee and four panthers. The message is presumably that their learned disputes are of no more consequence than the circus act of which they are the inattentive audience; or perhaps that their learned disputes are a circus act. “The Grape that can with Logic absolute” confute them is represented by the glass which the girl deftly holds aloft, whilst spinning a hoop around her arm, and cracking a whip with the other hand at the same time (“the subtle Alchemist” ?)

Fig.1n. Illustrating verse 56. The two arguing figures atop the pile of books (a reference to the likes of St. Simeon Stylites? (4)), and the other euphoric one in the background, presumably represent the orthodox seeking of “the one True Light” in the Temple (text–book orthodoxy ?) The figure of Omar holding a flask of wine is to the bottom left presumably represents the “One Glimpse of It within the Tavern caught.”

Fig.1o. Illustrating verse 58, and clearly depicting Eve in the Garden of Eden, reaching out for the Forbidden Fruit, the Snake / Serpent looking on. Omar’s complaint, of course, is that God created the Serpent, and thus Himself brought about the Fall of Man, for which Man himself has had to pay the penalty. Note the leopard and the deer co–existing in harmony in the foreground, along with the little bird perched on the serpent and singing away! Ross was fond of these little extras, as we shall see.

Fig.1p. Illustrating verse 60, in the Potter’s Shop. Here is the pot who “more impatient cried – / ‘Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot ?’” Note the soapbox on which he stands, and the little mouse listening in on the proceedings – another little extra, like the little bird in Fig.1o. (Compare also the cats in Ross’s illustrations to verses 35 & 62.)

Fig.1q. Illustrating verse 64, in the Potter’s Shop still, with the Devil as the “surly Tapster” putting in a personal appearance. The startled Pots look far from convinced that “He’s a Good Fellow, and ‘twill all be well.” Note the cartoon–like features of the various pots, already seen in Fig.1p, with others to be seen in his illustrations to verses 63, 65 and 66.

Fig.1r. Illustrating verse 70, clearly depicting Spring, “Rose–in–hand”, putting an end to any thoughts Omar had of Repentance.

The above images can be browsed here.

The American Pocket Books edition was re–published in full, under the same title, in India, by the Jaico Publishing House of Bombay, in 1948, and had run to a thirteenth impression by 1996.

Ross’s illustrations were also used in a Persian and English edition, again under the title Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, issued by Padideh Publishing of Tehran, at an unspecified date, but probably in the 1970s. This book actually contained all five of FitzGerald’s versions, as well as the first version illustrated by Ross, the whole being interleaved with paintings by Mohammed Tajvidi.

Let us at this point take a look at the life of Gordon Ross, or rather, at such scant details as are available.


Gordon Alfred Ross was born in the village of Collessie, Fife, Scotland, on 15 March 1872. He was the son of the Reverend Hugh Ross, a Free Church Minister, and his wife, Isabella. The Scottish Census for 1891 reveals that Gordon, then aged 19 and listed as an Apprentice Lithographic Artist, was their oldest child. He had three younger sisters, Maggie (aged 15), Maud (aged 10) and Bella (aged 3), plus two younger brothers, Hugh (aged 13) and Paul (aged 11), all of whom were still at school.)

In 1894 he emigrated to America, studying painting and drawing at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute in San Francisco. To earn a living, he worked in the art department of the San Francisco Chronicle (possibly in that of the San Francisco Examiner as well.) Certainly, in the 1897 directory for San Francisco he is listed as a newspaper artist. The 1900 US Federal Census tells us that he was now married to California–born Helen G. Ross (née Beatie), some 6 years his junior, and that they had been married for one year at the time of the census. His occupation is listed as Artist.

Directories tell us that they were still in San Francisco until at least 1904, and quite possibly until 1907, for it is in that year that the publishers for whom he worked switch from being San Francisco based to being New York based. Certainly by 1910 they were in New York, for the US Federal Census tells us that they were living in Manhattan, and that they had a daughter aged 9, Helen C. Ross. The 1925 New York State Census tells us that they were still in New York, and that they had a son, Campbell Ross, aged 18 (their daughter was not with them at this time.) This is odd, since Campbell Ross, who would have been born in about 1907, does not show up in the 1910 census. Ross and his wife do not appear, for some reason, in the 1930 US Federal Census (perhaps because they were out of the country at the time of the census), but in the 1940 Federal Census they are listed as living in Fairfield, Connecticut, the record indicating that they were also living there in 1935. He is listed as Alfred G. Ross for some reason (possibly an error of the Census Enumerator), but since he is listed as an artist, born in Scotland, of the correct age, and with a wife Helen, we know that it is him.

They must have moved back to New York at some stage, for he died in Manhattan, on 26 December 1946.

Books Illustrated – Part 1

Ross’s career as a book illustrator is easier to document than his life. The earliest book illustrated by him – or rather, jointly illustrated by him with W.H. Bull – seems to have been War Poems 1898, compiled by the California Club, and published by the Murdock Press, San Francisco, in 1898 (the War in question being the Spanish American War of that year.) Unfortunately it is not clear which artist did which of the small black and white vignettes, and so I do not give an example here.

Next in time came George Eli Hall’s book, A Balloon Ascension at Midnight (Paul Elder and Morgan Shepard. San Francisco, 1902). This is an account of a nocturnal balloon flight over Paris made by the author with the French aviator Etienne Giraud in 1901. A sample page with illustration is shown here as Fig.2.

In 1904 Ross did the frontispiece (Fig.3) for Prosit – a Book of Toasts by ‘Clotho’ (Paul Elder & Co., San Francisco), this apparently being the pseudonym for a group of writers which may have included Ambrose Bierce. Interestingly, several toasts are direct wine–drinking quotes from FitzGerald (p.2, p.4, & p.22), and the following verse (p.113), for which no author is cited, will surely be of some interest to readers:

Here’s to old Omar Khayyam –
I’m stuck on that beggar – I am!
His women and wine are something divine –
For his verses I don’t care a damn!

The following year, 1905, Ross illustrated V.B. Ames’s Matrimonial Primer (Paul Elder & Co., San Francisco.) A book of thoughts on marriage, its title–page is shown in Fig.4a, a typical page, with one of Ross’s vignettes plus a couple of thoughts, in Fig.4b, and two of Ross’s full–page excursions into Matrimonial Mathematics in Figs.4c & 4d. Note the Cupid cowering behind the alarmed Owl to the lower right of the last of these illustrations! We shall encounter both again below.

Also in 1905 Ross did the frontispiece (Fig.5) for Jennie Day Haines’ book Sovereign Woman versus Mere Man (Paul Elder, San Francisco & New York), a medley of quotations relating to the eternal battle of the sexes. As an example for the curious: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, – they are only possible for the bachelor.” (p.15) [This quote is from the 1904 novel The Crossing, by the American novelist named, somewhat confusingly, Winston Churchill.] Note in Fig.5 the figure of Atlas, with the World on shoulders, which the woman holds in the palm of her hand as she casually picks out a tune on the piano. (Ross went on to illustrate two other books compiled by Jennie Day Haines, Weather Opinions and Christmas Tyde, both published by Paul Elder & Co. in 1907.)

In 1907 Ross was one of several illustrators who, with several authors (one of whom was Jack London), contributed to The Spinners Book of Fiction (Paul Elder & Co., San Francisco) and in the same year he did the frontispiece (Fig.6) for George Bronson–Howard’s novel, Norroy, Diplomatic Agent (Saalfield Publishing Co., New York & Chicago), a fine example of his draughtsman ship. Note that 1907 marks the first appearance of a New York publisher.

Also in 1907, Ross illustrated Edmund Vance Cooke’s delightful book, Impertinent Poems (Dodge Publishing Co., New York), which is a treasure trove of Ross’s illustrations. The book is a collection of light–hearted poems about Life and Living. In his “Pre–Impertinence” (the Foreword in any ordinary book) Cooke wrote: “Anticipating the intelligent critic of Impertinent Poems, it may well be remarked that the chief impertinence is in calling them poems.” Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Ross’s illustration for the front cover shows a worried Jester holding a statue of Atlas with the World on his shoulders (Fig.7a – cf Fig.5 & perhaps Fig.1b). The message here is surely that a Jester (the Cosmic Joker ?) seems to rule the world – recalling John Gay’s famous epitaph, “Life is a jest and all things show it / I thought so once and now I know it.” The expression on the Jester’s face seems to suggest that he is both saddened and puzzled by what is going on in the World on which he is looking down. Note the hour–glass of Time (cf. Fig.1g) to the lower right and the (sleeping ?) Owl (of Wisdom ? (5)) to the lower left (recall the Owl in Fig.4d)! This cover illustration also features in the book as an illustration to the poem “The Bubble–Flies” (p.61–2), from which these lines are a sample:

Gold? You may have a store of it,
But someone else has more of it.
Fame? Pretty things are said of you,
But – some one is ahead of you.
Place? You disprize your easy one
For some one’s high and breezy one.

The book’s theme is that life is mostly lived on a rather petty, superficial and frequently silly level, subject to such ignoble emotions as envy, jealousy, vanity (Fig.7b – note the Jester’s hat on the woman’s reflection), greed and ambition. Dame Gossip, Counterfeit Kisses and Mr & Mrs Thief all appear in the poems (pp.51, 60, 72 respectively.) As Cooke writes in his poem “There is, oh, so much” (p.101–2):

But sometimes we look at our little ball
Where the smallest is great and the greatest small
And wonder the why and the what of it all
In nineteen hundred and now.

This book is actually of considerable interest to us here, as it not only contains multiple illustrations by Ross, thus giving us more insight into the artist, but also some of the illustrations contain interesting bits of symbolism which (as already noted of the front cover) relate to his much later Rubaiyat illustrations.

Fig.7c (one of several full–page black and white illustrations) is one such, and shows Father Time, with his Scythe, giving the World a good kick. Time’s (or Death’s) Scythe, of course, appears in some of Ross’s Rubaiyat illustrations (see the commentary on Fig.1k.)

Father Time appears again in Fig.7d, this time with an hour–glass rather than a Scythe (cf. Figs.1g & 7a.) Note, too, Ross’s attention to detail in featuring Time’s Forelock, a traditional if little known symbol (less obviously featured in Fig.7c) (6), as well as Ross’s own neat symbolic additions – the Spider’s Web on the sleepy Knight’s armour, the discarded Laurel Wreath and the Tortoise to the lower left!

Fig.7e is also Omarian in that it shows a Peasant–like figure and a King, weighed down by their respective burdens, recalling Omar’s Slave and Sultan (verse 10.) Note too that the Peasant has the attributes of a Jester.

Two other illustrations from Impertinent Poems are of interest here. The first (Fig.7f) is a head–piece to the first poem in the book, “Dead Men’s Dust.” Its theme is the general neglect by the book–buying public of serious poetry, into which category Cooke certainly does not put his own efforts, for he pretty much tells his readers that if they were interested in serious poetry, they wouldn’t be reading his stuff! The illustration shows the Poet casting pearls before swine, an image Ross used in a different context in Fig.1h. The second illustration (Fig.7g) is the rather curious end–piece of the book, coming immediately after the poem “How did you Die ?” It shows a broken–down Pegasus nearing death, with two crows watching: recall the two crows in Fig.1i, with others in Fig.7e. Ross had a fondness for these symbolic birds, it seems.

The above images can be browsed here.

Before leaving Cooke’s odd little book, I cannot resist quoting the opening lines of his poem “The World runs on” (p.49), as Omar would undoubtedly have approved of them:

So many good people find fault with God,
Tho’ admitting He’s doing the best He can,
But still they consider it somewhat odd
That He doesn’t consult them concerning his plan.

An Interlude

Following the publication of the foregoing works in 1907, there seems to be something of a gap in the list of books illustrated by Ross (or the books are rare?) He was, however, still busy doing illustrations for magazines. It is not as easy to track these as it is to track books, but several examples have come to light, and I would guess that these represent the tip of an iceberg.

Fig.8 is an illustration for a story in the New York magazine Harper’s Weekly (issue of 30 January 1909) and is, like Fig.6, an example of Ross in ‘society’ mode.

Certainly between 1910 and 1912 Ross did numerous covers and centre–fold illustrations for Puck magazine, published by Keppler and Schwarzmann in New York. I give two examples here, chosen for their depiction of the Devil, another favourite theme for Ross, it seems – recall his image of the “surly Tapster” in Fig.1q. Fig.9a, Easter Puck, is a typical cover (issue 23 March 1910.) It depicts a bright red Devil concealed in a bed of white Lilies (the lily being a symbol of purity.) Fig.9b, “The Devil’s Masterpiece”, is a typical centrefold (issue 30 November 1910). It depicts a young woman admiring her new dress – and herself! – in a mirror, behind which crouches the designer of the dress, the Devil, here the promoter of Lustful Temptation and Vanity (recall Fig.7b.) Note the symbolic Peacock atop a Globe (Vanity rules the World ?) in the background, and the variously clothed women of past ages looking on. We shall meet these – and the Devil – later. Note what seems to be an hour–glass between the bases of the pillars above and behind the women (the transience of physical beauty ?)

I believe that in 1914–15 he provided illustrations for some issues of The Pleiad, the magazine of the Pleiades Club, but I have no details for, or examples of, these.

Finally, in 1918 he produced the self–explanatory cover for Leslie’s Weekly Magazine shown in Fig.10.

Books Illustrated – Part 2

In 1921, Ross’s book illustration begins again. In that year he illustrated John Martin’s book The Children’s Munchausen (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston & New York.) This contained eight full–page illustrations in colour and five full–page illustrations in black–and–white. Two of the former are shown in Figs. 11a & 11b and two of the latter in Figs.11c & 11d.

In 1927, for the Angler’s Club of New York, Ross illustrated an edition of Frank Forester’s Trouting along the Catansauqua (Eugene V. Connett, New York.) As we shall see, Ross seems to have had an interest in “huntin’, shootin’ ‘n’ fishin’.”

This was followed in 1928 by Frederic Arnold Kummer’s humorous novel Ladies in Hades (J.H. Sears & Co., New York.) This is another delightful oddity, well illustrated by Ross. Subtitled “A Story of Hell’s Smart Set”, it deals with a group of twelve of the most famous vamps in Hell, who form a ladies club and take it in turns in describe their amorous adventures in life. Salome, the Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia and other notorious ladies, stir up such a scandal in the Nether Regions that an irate Satan is forced to disband the club. I make no apology for featuring seven of these wonderful illustrations here (there are fifteen in all) as they have such great appeal.

Lilith, at least in Kummer’s book, was one of Satan’s little demons who taught Adam the art of making love behind Eve’s back (7). She and Adam are featured in Fig.12a, in a paradisiacal setting in which wild animals live in peace and harmony – the lion with the deer, the panther with the lamb (compare Fig.1o.) Eve herself features in Fig.12b, her lectern supported by the Serpent, here stirring up trouble again, only this time in Hades rather than the Garden of Eden! Salome in is shown in Fig.12c, her seven veils all gone, and with the delightful figure of a butler behind her (he carries the head of John the Baptist in the silver serving dish.)

Lucrezia Borgia, depicted as a 1920s vamp, kissing goodbye to her husband with one hand and receiving what seems to be a phial of poison with the other, is shown in Fig.12d, whilst Sappho, depicted as a university ‘gal’ with mortarboard, being punted along by Phaon, in the form of a burly college American football player, is shown in Fig.12e. (Phaon was a boatman with whom Sappho is said to have fallen in love, but when he rejected her advances, she committed suicide, this being faithfully recounted in Kummer’s narrative.)

Cleopatra with a cigarette smoking Julius Caesar is shown in Fig.12f. The images of Eve in Fig.12b and Cleopatra in in Fig.12f, recall two of the women watching the proceedings in Fig.9b.

Finally, a delightful view of Satan is shown in Fig.12g. This image of Satan (one of three in the book) recalls those in Figs.1q, 9a & 9b above. The Devil and his temptations clearly held a fascination for Ross, and one wonders how much of this might have come from his clergyman father. [Likewise with the astrolabe–like device in Ross’s illustration to verse 37 of The Rubaiyat, whose motto, “My son, observe the hour and fly from evil," comes from the Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus 4.20.)]

The 1920s touches to some of these drawings add greatly to their humour – in addition to those already mentioned, note the flapper in the background of Fig.12b (she is Sheherazade), Cleopatra’s hairstyle in Fig.12f, and the figure of Satan in top hat and tails, with cloven shoes and a devilish cane, in Fig.12g. Note too Ross’s characteristic small additions – the Stork watching Adam and Lilith in Fig.12a (in fact all the animals in this illustration are Ross’s own addition to the scene), the bird (?) on top of the butler’s helmet in Fig.12c, and Lucrezia’s parrot in Fig.12d (recall the parrot in Fig.1c).

The above images can be browsed here.

In 1929 Ross illustrated an edition of Washington Irving’s The Christmas Dinner (William Edwin Rudge, New York.) Since this is extracted from Irving’s Sketchbook, to be covered below, I give no illustrations here.

Also in 1929, the same publisher issued An Academy for Grown Horsemen by Geoffrey Gambado. This was illustrated by the author and Ross. In the same year he illustrated G.H. Boker’s supernatural poem, The Legend of the Hounds. This too was published by W. E. Rudge, as was an edition of John Gay’s Rural Sports, together with the Birth of the Squire and the Hound and the Huntsman, published in 1930. Its title–page and frontispiece are shown in Fig.13. As indicated above, hunting, shooting and fishing held some fascination for Ross, and this illustration encapsulates all three. In 1932 he illustrated an edition of R.S. Surtees’s book The Jaunts and Jollities of that Renowned Sporting Citizen, Mr.John Jorrocks. It was published by the Limited Editions Club of New York.

In the 1930s Ross illustrated at least three editions of Dickens. First came A Christmas Carol (Limited Editions Club, Boston, 1934). Its frontispiece is shown in Fig.14a and another of its illustrations in Fig.14b. Next came Great Expectations (Limited Editions Club, Edinburgh, 1937.) Its frontispiece is shown in Fig.15a and another of its illustrations in Fig.15b, neither of them requiring an explanation in view of the popularity of the story, in printed form and in film! Finally came The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (The Heritage Club, New York, 1938.) Its frontispiece is shown in Fig.16a and another of its illustrations in Fig.16b, both of which are in fine Ross style (note the Cupid in the latter, & recall the Cupid in Fig.4d!) Actually, this book contains a number of black and white head–pieces which are of just as much interest, two of which are shown here as Fig.16c (a Goblin quizzing a Sexton) & Fig.16d (Mr Pickwick goes on tour.) Note the crow or raven on the signpost in the latter and recall Figs.1i & 7g.

In 1939 Ross illustrated Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, (The Heritage Club, New York.) This is another book which displays the range of Ross’s skills. It contains 8 full page illustrations in colour – Fig.17a is a good example – but of more interest are the numerous black and white illustrations that serve as headpieces to some of the passages quoted. I give four examples here as Figs.17b, 17c, 17d & 17e. Note the mice in Fig.17b and recall that in Fig.1p; likewise the Cupid and the Spider’s Web in Fig.17e – for the Cupid recall Figs.4d & 16b, and for the Spider’s Web recall Fig.7d.

Also in 1939 Ross illustrated Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor for the Limited Editions Club of New York. In 1940 he illustrated Cheerio’s Book of Days for Garden City Publishing, New York; and in 1941 he illustrated Lavinia R. Davis’s book Pony Jungle for Doubleday, Doran & Co. of New York. Fig.18 is a sample two–page spread from the last of these. The Rubaiyat, of course, also appeared in 1941.

In 1943 Ross illustrated an edition of Charles Lamb, The Complete Elia: The Essays of Elia together with the Last Essays of Elia for The Heritage Press, New York, and in 1945 he illustrated an edition of Addison, Steele and Budgell’s book, The Sir Roger de Coverley Papers, again for The Heritage Press, New York. Three sample illustrations from the latter are given here as Figs.19a, 19b & 19c, the last giving another glimpse of Ross’s interest in rural pursuits. Also in 1945, his illustrated abridged edition of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson was published by Doubleday & Co., New York.

The 1940s seems to have marked Ross’s most prolific period. He illustrated a whole series of Living Biographies by Henry and Dana Lee Thomas, these being devoted to Great Composers (1940), Great Painters (1940), Famous Rulers (1940), Great Philosophers (1941), Great Scientists (1941), Great Poets (1941), Famous Women (1942), American Statesmen (1942), Religious Leaders (1942), Famous Novelists (1943), and Famous Men (1944). Since each volume could contain up to twenty portraits, this represented a considerable volume of work. Two examples are given here as Figs.20a & 20b. All were issued by Garden City Publishing of New York, and were much reprinted in subsequent years.

Some Concluding Remarks

Ross was clearly a talented artist and book illustrator, and it is a pity that not more is known about him. Unfortunately, the sparse details in the biographical section above are all that have come to light at the time of writing. It is to be hoped that more will emerge in time.

In addition there must be a lot of magazine articles ‘out there’ illustrated by Ross, and again it is to be hoped that more will come to light in due course. If anyone reading this can supply further examples, please do get in touch.


Note 1: The Wheel of Fortune dates back to the Roman goddess Fortuna, who was often represented as holding a wheel, which she seems to have used rather like a roulette wheel to determine the courses of people’s lives. This procedure, of course, reflects the seemingly random element in life, which can result in the virtuous suffering misfortune, and the wicked reaping undeserved rewards, all for no apparent reason. Thus Fortuna was regarded not just as fickle, but as duplicitous and even cruel, for what she gave one minute, she could take away the next: the King could be turned into a Beggar, and the Beggar into a King. Thus when the Earl of Kent is unjustly put in the stocks in Shakespeare’s King Lear, he closes the scene with the line, “Fortune, good night, smile once more; turn thy wheel!” (2.2.180) In medieval times the Wheel of Fortune was depicted as rather like a ferris–wheel, with human figures draped on it, to be carried round as Fortune gave it a spin. As an example, Fig.21 is an illustration from a French edition of The Consolation of Boethius, dating from about 1460–70. Note the King at the top – whichever way the wheel spins, he can only be ‘deposed.’ It is clearly from the likes of this that Burne–Jones got the inspiration for his famous painting, “The Wheel of Fortune” (1875–1883). Ross’s wheel of fortune is clearly loosely based on all this, in that he uses a roulette–style wheel of ferris–wheel proportions, with spikes or thorns, presumably indicative of the potential cruelty of Fortune. For a more detailed account of the goddess Fortuna, see the Notes on Verse 14 and Verse 49.

Note 2: The sickle and the scythe as symbols of time and death have a long and complex history, epitomised in “the Grim Reaper.” In brief, the sickle of the Greek God Kronos, which probably had agricultural significance originally, became associated with time when Kronos became confused with Chronos (Time.) Thus Shakespeare wrote in his 12th Sonnet, “nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence” (line 13) and Young wrote in his Night Thoughts, “each moment has its sickle, emulous / of Time’s enormous scythe” (1.193–4), In art, Walter Crane’s curious painting “The Mower” (1891) shows the Grim Reaper about to scythe down a field of humanoid flowers (Fig.22). For more details on the origins of the symbolism of the scythe and sickle, see Appendix 14c.

Note 3: Edmund J. Sullivan also used the Sphinx in his illustration of this verse. Consulting the Sphinx as an oracle has a long and rather complex history, quite possibly extending back to Ancient Egypt and relating to the so–called Dream Stela, found between the paws of the Great Sphinx at Giza in 1818. In 1875 Rossetti did a little–known drawing (for a painting which was never completed), variously titled “The Sphinx” or “The Question”. It showed the figures of Youth, Manhood and Old Age approaching the Sphinx to question her about the Unknown, but getting no answer, her face remaining inscrutable (Fig.23). For more details on the origins of the oracular Sphinx, see Gallery 3J.

Note 4: One of the most bizarre phenomena in the history of Christianity is typified by St. Simeon Stylites. He started out as a monk in a Syrian monastery, but was thrown out because of his excessive austerities. He then became a hermit and chained himself to a rock. But when too many people came to see him, he took to living on a platform at the top of a pillar some 66 feet high, where he spent the last 37 years of his life. The name Stylites means “raised on a pillar.” The surprising thing is that he had many imitators!

Note 5: The Owl as a symbol of Wisdom seems to have arisen via its association with the Greek Goddess Athene, one of whose roles was the Goddess of Wisdom. Quite why the bird was associated with the goddess in the first place is not clear. One plausible explanation is that it is on account of the owl’s large eyes, its seemingly penetrating gaze, plus its all–round vision and its ability to see in the dark. Added to this, one of Athene’s commonest epithets is “bright eyed”, and this seems to be etymologically connected to the Greek word for a particular type of owl. It has to be said, however, that nothing is certain – see, for example, H.J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (1974 ed), ch.5, note 27 (p.129). Be all that as it may, a nice modern example of the Wise Owl is provided by Oliver Herford, who began his delightful self–illustrated poem “The Early Owl” with the lines, “An Owl once lived in a hollow tree, / And he was as wise as wise could be.” (The poem appeared his book of verse, Artful Anticks, first published in 1894. Artist and writer Herford will be better known to most readers of this essay for his Rubaiyat of a Persian Kitten, first published in 1904.)

Note 6: Time’s Forelock apparently goes back to ancient Greek times, and an obscure Personification of Opportunity, Kairos, who was said to be virtually bald except for a lock of hair sprouting out over the middle of his forehead. As Kairos came towards you, you could seize his forelock (that is, seize an opportunity), but once he had passed you by, there was nothing to catch hold of (that is, the opportunity was lost.) At some stage, Kairos became fused with Chronos (Time), perhaps not surprisingly, as seizing an opportunity is the same as seizing its opportune moment. Shakespeare refers to the notion in All’s Well that Ends Well, “Let’s take the instant by the forward top” (5.3.39.) In art, the Scottish artist William Strang’s wonderful etching “Father Time” (1899) shows the winged figure of Time (“time flies”) with his Forelock, seated atop the World, holding his Scythe, and with an Hourglass at his feet. He holds a Book, presumably representing the Pages of History (Fig.24). For full details on the origins of Time’s Forelock, see the end of Appendix 14b.

Note 7: According to one strand of Jewish legend, Lilith was created by God as the first wife of Adam, before the creation of Eve, but she left him when she found out that she was expected to be subservient to him. Her resentment against God and Adam links her to the Serpent which tempted Eve into tasting the Forbidden Fruit, and which led to the expulsion of Man from the Garden of Eden. But this rather oversimplifies the story of Lilith, who was originally the demon responsible for still–births and infant deaths, and was thus an obstruction to God’s injunction to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1.28.) She was also responsible for inducing erotic dreams in men, and their resultant nocturnal emissions. Rossetti used the legend of Lilith in his poem “Eden Bower” of 1869 and in art, John Collier’s painting “Lilith”, done in 1887 and based on Rossetti’s poem, is perhaps the classic (Fig.25). For more details on the origins of the Lilith legend and the uses of it by the likes of Rossetti and Collier, see Gallery 3I.


My thanks are due to Fred Diba, Sandra Mason & Bill Martin, and Joe Howard for proof–reading this article, and for making a number of very helpful suggestions in the process.


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