The Rubaiyat of Ned Wethered

For me, one of the most unusual, quirky, and fascinating interpretations of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat is the edition illustrated by Ned Wethered, published by Gilmour’s Bookshop, Sydney, New South Wales, in 1926. Its cover bearing the title The Australian Omar Khayyam, it uses the text of FitzGerald’s first edition and features short biographical notes on Omar and FitzGerald, pointing out, as had been noted by others before, that FitzGerald’s rendering of Omar was so extraordinary that it was as if the Persian poet had somehow been reborn in his English translator. This little booklet of 24 pages is Potter #177. Its ten cartoon illustrations led Potter to describe it as a parody, which arguably it is, even though FitzGerald’s verses are quoted verbatim. Potter dates it to [1927], but contemporary newspaper advertisements show it to have been published in 1926 (1a).

Actually the ten drawings had been published earlier, in 1920–1, in the literary journal The Bookfellow (2a). Published monthly in Sydney, it was the pet project of writer, critic, journalist, editor, literary agent, and publisher, Alfred George Stephens (1865–1933), whose name we shall meet again below (2b). It is known that as early as September 1920, Stephens was negotiating on Ned’s behalf, with Tyrrell’s of Sydney, for them to publish the drawings in an edition of what was already dubbed The Australian Omar Khayyam (2c). As we shall see shortly, Tyrrell’s had already published a book illustrated by Ned, but for reasons which are not clear, negotiations on this one fell through. Somewhat later, Gilmour’s Bookshop, who advertised in The Bookfellow and so would certainly have seen Ned’s drawings in it, approached Stephens with regards to publication of the drawings in book form (2d), and as we now know, this one went ahead in 1926. It is known that 1000 copies were printed and that by 30 November 1928 all but 390 of them had been sold, Ned earning a mere 15 shillings in royalties per 100 copies sold (2e).

We shall take a detailed look at Ned’s wonderful illustrations later, but by way of a taste of things to come, the following review comes from The Sydney Morning Herald, 2 October 1926, p.10:

The text of “The Australian Omar Khayyam” is the familiar version by Edward Fitzgerald (sic). The only novelty is the illustrations by Mr Ned Wethered, which depict Australian types such as swagmen, deadbeats in Persian costume, and usually in alcoholic surroundings. It is sometimes held that the allusions to wine and taverns in which the Rubaiyat abound are merely symbolical. Mr Wethered, however, has taken them literally, except that beer is substituted for wine.

Actually, it isn’t quite true that beer is substituted for wine, as both – and whisky – feature in his illustrations. As the above quote makes clear, though, the illustrations are to be examined in the light of the artist’s life–experience, specifically, as it turns out, his experience of life in the goldfields of Western Australia in the early years of the twentieth century, in respect of which we should mention here the only other book illustrated by Ned: John Philip Bourke’s, Off the Bluebush – Verses for Australia West and East, published by Tyrrell’s, Sydney, in 1915.

Born in 1857, Bourke (3) had been a schoolteacher in New South Wales, but after being effectively dismissed for drunkenness, he moved west and became a prospector in the Kalgoorlie area of Western Australia. As quite a skilled versifier he began to submit his work to the local press under the pen–name ‘Bluebush’, and as a result gained considerable popularity amongst the mining community, whose lifestyle was the subject of most of his verses. As a result, from 1906 he became the staff poet for the Kalgoorlie Sun newspaper as well as having material published in the Perth Sunday Times. Off the Bluebush was a compilation of his verses edited by A.G. Stephens (mentioned above) and with an Acknowledgement page part of which reads thus:

The illustrations by Mr Ned Wethered represent the promising effort of a Western Australian designer and illustrator, almost wholly self–taught, aged twenty. Their youthful defects are apparent, yet they depict life, character and scenery in a Western mining town with a gusto that preserves faithfully the spirit of the verses.

On behalf of Bourke, I record his expressed gratitude for the help which, contending with many difficulties, Ned Wethered gave to his friend.

By way of explanation of this last paragraph, J.P. Bourke died of pneumonia, not helped any by a lifetime of heavy drinking, in January 1914, before the book was published. As for Ned’s age, the above implies that if he was 20 in 1915 he must have been born in c.1895, and that date is quoted in various sources as a result. In fact, though, as we shall see, he was born in 1890.

Examples of Ned’s illustrations and the verses they illustrate will be given later in the context of his biography, but meanwhile these, and his Rubaiyat illustrations, can be browsed here.

Ned Wethered – the Movie

An internet search for the scant information about our artist leads to an animated film of 11 minutes, “Ned Wethered”, made in 1984. It was the first such film made by Lee Whitmore (4). Made possible by the Women’s Film Fund branch of the Australian Film Commission, it subsequently gained three prestigious awards.

Ned, it turned out, was a friend of Lee’s parents, and a frequent visitor to the family home when she was a young girl in the 1950s. I contacted Lee, and the following account of Ned combines the content of the film and her emails to me.

Ned’s visits to the family home took place roughly between 1947 and 1961. Lee remembers him as a large man, taller than her parents, who moved, and talked, rather slowly. Her father, the illustrator Frank Whitmore, was intrigued by him and always stopped working to chat, often for hours, when he came. By the time Lee was old enough to remember him clearly, he seemed to be mostly interested in photography (hence the photography sequence in the film), and to have pretty much given up illustrating, though Lee’s film does have a sequence in which Ned shows her father an example of a process he had devised for printing images onto tiles. Of his artistic skills, she told me: “I expect he was self–taught. He was a very clever man who I believe never got the chances he deserved.”

For many years, Lee told me, Ned lived in Little Arthur Street in North Sydney, on the lower north shore of Sydney harbour, with his elderly mother (whom she never actually met), but she knew nothing about the rest of his family, or even if he had any siblings. He always seemed to be very alone, and her father and Valentine Waller (a photographer, who ran Freeman’s Studio in Sydney, and for whom Ned may have worked) seemed to be his only friends, aside from a number of stray cats which he befriended and fed (on cheese and porridge, as he was a vegetarian!) They feature in the film.

He loved poetry and reciting it, and in the film there is a sequence of him reading from a book which he always carried with him. This seems to have contained some of his own poems, accompanied by drawings, as well as quotations from favourite authors. In particular, he loved Shakespeare, Milton, and the Romantics. He also wrote music, including a lullaby for Lee as a baby: “Lullaby in Slumberland, on the ‘Lee’ side of Dreamtime Bay.” The piano music in the film is all by him, and played by Christine Cornish, a friend of Lee’s, from sheet music he left. The film is really quite haunting, and the almost minimalist music adds greatly to it. As Lee puts it: “Ned’s memory started me on a creative journey which I have been on ever since. I feel I owe him a lot.”

Towards the end of the film, Lee holds up a photograph of Ned taken when he was a young man. Unfortunately the original photo is now lost, but a screen shot of it from the film is shown in Fig.1a, and one of Lee’s drawings of him for the film is shown in Fig.1b. A drawing of Lee herself as a girl is shown in Fig.1c. It shows her holding a prism which Ned had given her, and is one of several personal memories of him which add colour to the film – in this case quite literally!

Ned’s end was rather sad. He was forced to move from his Little Arthur Street home as the whole area was to be demolished to make way for a motorway. He was moved to a housing commission place in Leichhardt, a few suburbs away, but he hated it and seems to have fallen ill and died, in relative poverty, shortly afterwards, on 24 July 1964. He was cremated in the Northern Suburbs Crematorium, Sydney, and his ashes scattered on the rose garden there. Lee’s parents had been his protectors for some years, and it seems to have been Lee’s mother, Valdar, who arranged and paid for the funeral.

So what of Ned’s earlier life ? Lee knows little about this, save that before coming to Sydney, he had lived for some time in the old gold–mining town of Kalgoorlie, mentioned earlier in connection with Off the Bluebush. She thought that he might have been born in Kalgoorlie, and that his move to Sydney might have been an attempt to further his career as an artist and book illustrator. To find out more we need to delve into online ancestry records and newspaper archives.

Tracing him via online ancestry records is complicated by the fact that Ned is a short form of Edward, Edmund, Edwin, Edgar and Benedict! However, there is only one candidate that comes up on a broad sweep of Australian records who fits in with all the foregoing: Edwin Charles Wethered.

Biographical Details

Edwin Charles Wethered was born in Hungerford, New South Wales, on 4 September 1890 and baptised in Sydney on 8 October 1890 (5a). He was the son of Charles William Wethered, a Storekeeper in Hungerford, and his wife Christina. His sister Edith Marie was also born in Hungerford in 1892 (5b). In 1893, their father died (1b), the store was sold, and the family moved to Gilgandra, New South Wales, where their mother ran a boarding house / hotel (1c). By 1903 they had moved to Collie, in Western Australia, where Christina ran another boarding house (1d). By 1911 they had moved to Boulder, Western Australia, a few miles south of Kalgoorlie, in the Australian goldfields, where Christina ran a laundry (1e). It was only in 1912 that Ned himself attracted some newspaper attention – as an artist. In a colourful article in the (Perth) Sunday Times on 11 February 1912 (p.4), in his “Kalgoorlie Kedgeree” slot, columnist ‘Abracadabra’, after noting that a recent cyclone had hit the churches hard, but spared the pubs (6), and noting that a local ex–accountant turned burglar had accidentally bumped into a policeman who knew him, whilst trying to escape, went on talk of the artistic and literary talent in the goldfields that deserved wider recognition. He wrote:

And there is a young fellow named Ned Wethered of Boulder, whose native talent as a sketcher is as rare and undeniable as his gift for catching a likeness and getting down on a mannerism in inexorable ink. If there were only a little more scope for that kind of work up here, it is my belief that the quality would challenge comparison with anything turned out in Australian capitals.

By 1913, the local newspapers were looking to Ned as the illustrator of Off the Bluebush. The “Items of News” column of The Kalgourlie Miner on 16 October 1913 (p.4) noted that:

‘Bluebush’ the pen–name of Mr J.P. Bourke, of Boulder, is well–known throughout this State, and is not unfamiliar to lovers of verse on the other side of Australia. It is many years since ‘Bluebush’ commenced to delight goldfields readers with the bright products of his busy pen and fertile brain, and in that time he has contributed much excellent verse and amusing jingle that deserved a wider publicity and a more enduring form than could be offered by any journal. ‘Bluebush’ is familiar with every phase of goldfields life, and he writes of it with a knowledge and sympathy that appeals with peculiar force to those who have also “gone through the mill”, and to those who know not the life of the early–day mining–camps the writings of ‘Bluebush’ present a stirring picture of the “Roaring Nineties”.... It is therefore pleasing to note that the “Bookfellow” (2f) announces the forthcoming publication of a book of verses by Mr. Bourke, entitled “Off the Bluebush,” with an attractive coloured cover designed by Mr Ned Wethered, a goldfields artist, who has also contributed many illustrations to the publication. The book will be published at Christmas, and should make a fitting souvenir of the West to send to eastern friends.

The coloured cover of the book mentioned in the foregoing is shown in Fig.2a and its illustrated title–page, with Ned drawing in true prospector mode, is shown in Fig.2b. The latter shows the prospector as a swagman, an itinerant labourer, his belongings wrapped in the bedroll on his back (his “swag”), and carrying his cooking pot (“billy can”.)

The above quoted passage would suggest that the poet met his illustrator in Boulder, though it is not known how at present. It also explains the subtitle of Off the Bluebush – “Verses for Australians West and East” (Fig.2c) – verses written in and about the rough life in the West, and hoping for / deserving of recognition in the supposedly more cultured East.

As we have seen, though, the book was not published at Christmas 1913. The Kargoolie Sun for 22 February 1914 (p.6) explains why:

It appears that, before he died. Jack Bourke sent the proofs of his book of verses, “Off the Bluebush,” to Ned Wethered, at Margaret River, with a request for additional illustrations. Unfortunately Mr Wethered has not been in good health lately, and was not able to tackle the work straight away. Mr A. G. Stephens, who is publishing the book in Sydney (2g), is now in receipt of a telegram from Ned Wethered saying that the proofs, with author’s corrections and with additional illustrations, are being forwarded; and printing of the volume will commence as soon as they come to hand. Mr Stephens, as a publisher of some experience, is greatly pleased with the matter that Bourke supplied, and a big success is prophesied for the book. The work will be much indebted to Ned Wethered, whose numerous illustrations are full of Western spirit and truthful value.

The book finally appeared in 1915, and received some good reviews in the press (1f), a particularly lengthy one, spanning almost three columns, appearing on the front page of The Kalgoorlie Miner on 6 October 1915. The last part of it reads thus:

The publishers are to be congratulated on the appearance and general “get up” of this book, well printed and bound, and distinctly a credit to the Australian publishing trade.

Mr A.G. Stephens has arranged these verses in such a way that the ordinary objection to a book of verses, viz., that they are difficult to read through, is abolished by an arrangement of different metres and themes, so that neither ear nor brain is wearied with a surfeit of either.

Ned Wethered, who has illustrated the book, has wedded his sketches to the words in a most appropriate manner, and such defects as some of his drawings show, should, with a little training, be remedied, while his ability to catch the spirit of the verse is altogether laudable.

To those who knew Bourke as a man, and to those who looked for his work in the goldfields press, this book will be a possession to be prized; and to all those who desire to know what type of man it was who made the goldfields, this book is to be commended.

It is true that some of Ned’s drawings – his more serious depictions of people, as opposed to his cartoons – were a little amateurish. But then he does seem to have been self–taught, and seen in that light they are certainly better than most of us could do, and besides, the imagination displayed in his cartoons more than compensates for any lapses in skill.

Let us now look at some of Ned’s drawings in the light of the above. (They can be browsed here.)

Eight small drawings are used several times each in the book as decorative space–fillers, seven of which relate to gold prospecting. Four of these are shown here as Figs.2d, 2e, 2f & 2g. The odd one out of the eight different designs, a black swan, is shown here as Fig.2h. This is the official state emblem of Western Australia, featuring on the state flag, for example, though one wonders if, in the present context, a more likely source of inspiration might have been the likes of The Black Swan Saloon in Kalgoorlie, not to mention Swan Beer, brewed in Perth, but widely available and popular, and which sometimes used a black swan as a logo in its newspaper adverts.

Illustrative of specific poems, there are 24 larger drawings, some half page, some full page. Two examples continuing the prospecting theme are shown here. Fig.2i illustrates the poem “Our Goldfields Spring” (p.69–71), the foreground figure with Apollo’s Lyre representing the goldfields poet – note the empty bottle on the ground and the approaching miner, waving his hat and carrying another bottle. Fig.2j illustrates the poem “At Pennyweight Flat” (p.103–106), the place–name arising from the miners’ despair that sometimes a mere pennyweight of gold was all that resulted from mining an acre of ground.

Life in the goldfields was hard, and drink was, of course, a miner’s “cup that cheers and inebriates” – his amber nectar, laughing water, neck oil etc – and Fig.2i is only one of several illustrations involving it. Fig.2k illustrates the poem “We took the Pledge till May” (p.87–91) and what seem to be leprechauns (they take various forms) (7a) with assorted beasties represent the effects of delirium tremens, the onset of which, in the poem, leads to the traditional pledge of “never again!”– at least until the next time.

After a night of heavy drinking out on the town, the poet and his drinking mate, Dave Barker (the two figures at the left of the drawing), return to camp very much the worse for wear, and with impending delerium tremens:

And then the panoramy starts –
The queerest kind of fakes –
Fat little blokes and smaller tarts,
And funny bob–tailed snakes.

And presently, a big galoot
Drops down the chimbley flue,
And takin’ up Dave’s blucher boot,
Sez “Lads! Here’s luck to you!”

But all the time it’s bilin’ hot,
And, spare me (crimson) days!
You never heerd such blanky rot
As what them fantods says.

The “big galoot” holding up the blucher boot, may well be a leprechaun, for leprechauns were traditionally cobblers. As for the word “fantods”, it here clearly refers to these hallucinatory figures, and we shall meet it again later.

Fig.2l shows the illustration to, and full text of, “The Drunk’s Rubaiyat” (p.147–8) demonstrating that not only was FitzGerald’s text familiar enough to Bourke to do a parody of it (2h), but also that “Rubaiyat” would have been a familiar word to his miner readers (8). Fig.2m, finally, illustrates the poem “A Bloke from Mullingar” (p.149–152), and as a simple bar scene, needs no explanation. (Mullingar is in Ireland and the poem one of “the girl I left behind” variety.)

Three other rather quirky illustrations are worthy of note here. Fig.2n illustrates the poem “The Western Writer to his Muse” (p.167–8). It depicts wonderfully a worn–out poet with his even more worn–out muse, the picture on the wall in the background presumably representing, in contrast, the traditional classical muse (Erato, the Muse of Love Poetry ?) Note, too, the ‘audience’ – a potential paying customer for his work – peering in through the window. Next, Fig.2o illustrates the poem “When Susy makes the Duff” (p.170–1), and depicts a husband’s dread of his wife’s devil–sent, indigestion–inducing, cooking of the Sunday Duff, which she seems to think is a favourite pudding of his. Lastly, Fig.2p illustrates the poem “Your Level Best” (p.198–200) and depicts a number of souls waiting to see if their “level best” will get them into Heaven (or not!) The details of this drawing merit particular scrutiny, these being mostly Ned’s own take on Heaven and the entry thereto, rather than directly illustrative of the poem. The Celestial Cafe replaces the (more enticing ?) taverns and bars of the Earthly plane, and outside it are four advertisements: “See that you get Brown’s Halos – Beware of Imitations” (top left); “Psalms in Ragtime...[illegible – probably a spoof venue or music publisher]” (top right); “Try Smith’s Wing Restorer if your Feathers come out” (bottom left); and “Gabriel’s Harps – Angels swear by them” (bottom right – the use of “swear” here perhaps having a double meaning.) Note too the rejected Swagman on the right following a sign that seems to read “To H–––– (Ahem!!!)”, presumably avoiding the word Hell as it might be misconstrued as swearing.

Returning now to Ned’s biography, our next online glimpse of him is in the 1919 electoral roll for the Boulder subdivision of Kalgoorlie, living at 13 Forrest Street, with his mother, Christina (listed as “laundry keeper”) and his sister, Edith Marie (listed as “home duties.”) Ned himself is listed as “newspaper artist” (9). They were all at the same address, with the same occupations in the 1922 Boulder electoral roll. Since the Rubaiyat drawings were published in The Bookfellow in 1920–1, they must have been done while he was living in Boulder.

However, by 1925 electoral rolls reveal that Ned and his mother were living at 605 Murray Street, West Perth. (His sister stayed in Kalgoorlie: she was still living in Forrest Street in the 1925 electoral roll (5b).) Ned was now listed as “photographer” and his mother as “home duties.” Thus the change from illustrator to photographer, noted by Lee Whitmore above, seems to have begun sometime between 1922 and 1925 – after his illustrations had appeared in The Bookfellow in 1920–1, but before their publication in book form in 1926. Presumably, then, it was photography that paid the bills – family portraits, wedding photos and such like being the most likely earners.

Before we look in detail at his Rubaiyat drawings, it is convenient at this point to complete this biographical sketch of him. By 1937, Ned and his mother had moved to Sydney, the electoral roll for that year giving their address as 78 Little Arthur Street, in the north of the city. As noted above, this was the address known to Lee Whitmore, and where they were to stay for many years. Ned is still listed as “photographer”. Christina Wethered died in 1951 at the ripe old age of 90, leaving Ned on his own now, but with the friendship of the Whitmore family. The electoral roll for 1963 shows that he was still living at the same address, and still working as a photographer. The above–mentioned demolition of his house must therefore have taken place in late 1963 or early 1964, for, as we have seen, Ned died on 24 July 1964.

The Rubaiyat

The front cover and title page of Ned’s Rubaiyat are shown in Figs.3a and 3b, and his ten full page illustrations in Figs.3c to 3l (browse.) They are shown here in the order of the numbers of the verses they illustrate, and not in the order in which they feature in the book. But since the relevant verse is quoted at the foot of each illustration, there is no chance of associating an illustration with the wrong verse. Before looking at each illustration in detail. it is well worthwhile to browse through them, because by doing so one rapidly realises that a lobster features in every one of them (and also on the cover.) Why ? Given the quirky nature of the drawings, the explanation of the lobster is almost certain to be just as quirky. Three explanations come to mind.

The first is that the lobster is an alcoholic hallucination, like the beasties in Fig.2k, and indeed, such beasties feature with the lobster in Figs.3f & 3i, as we shall see. But more often than not, the lobster appears without such beasties, plus, though I have heard of spiders and snakes being associated with delerium tremens, I have never heard of the lobster being thus reported.

The second explanation, related to the first, is that Ned’s lobster was a precursor to the six–foot invisible rabbit, Harvey, who was the best friend to the amiable inebriate Elwood P. Dowd in Mary Chase’s play Harvey (1944) and in the more famous 1950 film based on it. What relates this to the first explanation is that in the play Elwood refers to Harvey as a pooka – a type of Irish goblin that can take many forms, one of which is a rabbit – this being known to Mary Chase from tales told to her in her youth by her Irish mother and her four Irish uncles. It is possible that Ned picked up similar snippets of folklore from Irish immigrants he met on his travels. Of course, the pooka could occasionally have ‘appeared’ as a result of drinking too much moonshine, and indeed Elwood P. Dowd was himself a drinker, so the borderline between the supernatural and the hallucinations associated with delerium tremens can be blurred (in more ways than one!) Plus I am not actually aware of the lobster as one of the animal forms commonly assumed by a pooka – a horse is perhaps the commonest.

The third explanation, and the one to which I think I myself would incline, is that Ned was greatly amused by the story of the French Romantic poet Gérard de Nerval (1808–1855), who is reputed to have kept a pet lobster, which he once took for a walk in the gardens of the Palais–Royal in Paris, and during which he kept it on a blue silk ‘lead’. (7b) The story was certainly widely enough known in Australia for Ned to have picked it up from newspapers (1g), and to have transferred it to Omar, minus its blue silk lead, in his Rubaiyat illustrations. As to why Nerval was so intrigued by a lobster as to rescue one and keep it as a pet, the answer is perhaps contained in chapter 4 of Charles Kingsley’s famous story, The Water–Babies:

Tom had never seen a lobster before; and he was mightily taken with this one; for he thought him the most curious, odd, ridiculous creature he had ever seen; and there he was not far wrong; for all the ingenious men, and all the scientific men, and all the fanciful men, in the world, with all the old German bogey–painters into the bargain, could never invent, if all their wits were boiled into one, anything so curious, and so ridiculous, as a lobster.

But whatever the explanation of Ned’s lobster, it is there, with Omar, playing various quirky roles.

So let us now take a look at Ned’s Rubaiyat illustrations in detail. As the front cover (Fig.3a) is effectively a combination of images taken from the illustrations of the verses, some of its details are best dealt with as we go along. Suffice it to say here that at the base of the cover we have an inebriated Omar “sleeping it off”, with his tankard swigging lobster at his feet ! As stated above, the illustrations are here presented in verse order.

Fig.3c (verse 1): This shows a somewhat unsteady Omar, bottle in hand, waking up a sleeping policeman, characterised by his helmet and truncheon, who has presumably been on night shift, and nodded off whilst leaning against a wall. It is not clear why Ned chose to depict “Awake!” in this way, but it may perhaps be based on an actual sighting of a snoozing policeman. The lobster is tugging on Omar’s coat, perhaps to deter him from waking the policeman up, lest he get arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Note the stray (?) cats in the background – as we saw earlier, Ned had a fondness for cats. Are they following a ‘Persianised’ Ned in the hope of getting something tasty from the pails he is carrying ? Note the face in the exclamation mark of “Awake!”

Fig.3d (verse 6): The shows Omar “sleeping it off” beneath a tree (cf Fig.3a), in mismatched footwear, with two empty bottles overturned at his feet, and with another, upright one (still unfinished ?) behind him. Note the corkscrew on the ground in front of it, indicating that this is the “Wine!” of the verse. In this, as in two other illustrations (Figs.3i & 3l), Omar has an rolled–up umbrella with him. Note the lobster, clutching a bottle in one claw and a pipe in the other! The Rose (?) of this verse, in a plant–pot, is clearly a shop–bought one, the price of 2/6 (2 shillings and 6 pence) clearly visible. As for the Nightingale crying to the Rose, it looks more like a Kookaburra than a Nightingale. There are two running animals in the distance (one chasing the other ?) but their significance, if any, isn’t clear. They could even have been drafted in from verse 17 (Fig.3f) – the lion in pursuit of the wild ass ?

Fig.3e (verse 11): This is perhaps the most frequently illustrated verse in The Rubaiyat, and Ned has clearly had some fun with it. Omar’s “Book of Verse” is a copy of Off the Bluebush and he is drinking straight from the “Flask of Wine” through a tube. His Beloved beside him “singing in the Wilderness” is singing an old Sea–Shanty titled “Whisky for my Johnnie,” to the accompaniment of a fiddle being played by the hat–wearing lobster. The “Loaf of Bread” is clearly visible on the left, and “the Bough” beneath which the scene is set is a native Australian Grass Tree. Note the swagman in the background, and Omar’s right big toe poking out through his sock. Note also the decorative surround of the picture – strange faces / masks sprouting from plants which grow from pots in the bottom left and bottom right hand corners.

Fig.3f (verse 17): This is clearly a scene of alcoholic hallucination, like Fig.2k – note the goblin–like figure peering out of the large jar on the right, the ass (?) wearing spectacles and smoking a pipe, emerging from a large pot on the left, with another, less prominent, in the upper right hand corner of the picture. The illustration conflates “the Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep” – the sleepy Lion and the Lizards, two balancing wine–glasses on their noses; one in the background holding a fan, are clearly visible – with “Bahram, that great Hunter”, his bow and a quiver of arrows beside him, who “lies fast asleep”, not dead, but dead drunk. (Note the two similarly intoxicated birds next to his left hand.) The “Wild Ass” that “stamps o’er his Head” in FitzGerald’s verse, is either floating prominently in the background, or is about the crash down on Bahram’s head to see if he can wake him. Omar’s lobster is clearly visible in the background, but where is Omar himself ? The prominent somewhat dishevelled and intoxicated figure of the Scotsman in a kilt does not look anything like the Omar in Ned’s other drawings, and if he isn’t a distorted Omar in Scotch Whisky mode, it isn’t clear who he is or what he represents. Note the serpent / snake emerging from his drinking vessel (cf. Fig.3a) and also the decorative surround of the picture – a pot from which grows a sequence of nightmarish faces (cf. Fig.3e), plus assorted lizards (again, cf. Fig.3a.)

Fig.3g (verse 38): The scene is clearly one of “Annihilations Waste” – the final destination of men (skulls), lobsters (the lobster claws in the foreground) and empty bottles (lots of them!) Omar holds up two more empty bottles, calling to mind a phrase used in my student days whenever a bottle was finished: “that’s dead.” Again, the decorative surround is worthy of note, with a moustached and bespectacled skeleton, still wearing part of his formal dinner suit, and holding an empty downturned bottle (left); with the skeletal remains of man (top right) and lobster (top left); with skulls atop bottles (right); and with snakes (bottom.) On a more positive front, note the angel (?) bearing a frothy mug of beer on the right hand side of the box containing verse 38.

Fig.3h (verse 40): Here is Omar in bed with his new ‘wife’, “the Daughter of the Vine”, in the form of a smiling barrel of wine. A frowning barrel looks on from the bedside table, presumably representing “old barren Reason” (no longer the favourite vintage ?), jealous that she is not now his ‘spouse’. Note that the course of the marriage is pictured at the foot of the drawing. In the three panelled predella we have: left, Omar, with his arm round his future barrel wife, seated in the light of the new moon; centre, Omar, down on one knee, proposing to her, in the light of the full moon; and right, Omar and his barrel wife with two barrel children, in the light of the old moon. To the left of the box containing verse 40 we have the bride in her wedding dress, with two bridesmaids, and to the right of the box a gravestone bearing the inscription RIP. In the main illustration note the lobster at the foot of the bed reading “Rubaiyat of OK”; what seems to be an ornamental angel on the head–board of the bed, raising a toast to the happy couple; and the notice above the bed reading “Never leave for tomorrow what you can drink today.” The decorative border is similar to previous ones,and needs no special comment.

Fig.3i (verse 43): Here is Omar, Toby Jug in hand, rolled up umbrella over his right arm, and giving a thumbs down to a horrified priest with his left hand. This clearly represents the Logic of the Grape confuting a representative of jarring religious sects. Note the dancing (?) lobster, wearing a hat, and seemingly with a cane in its right claw, plus the assorted beasties following on, recalling the hallucinatory creatures in Fig.2k. That this is what they are intended to be is confirmed by the bag which one of them carries, labelled “J. Jam, Fantodist.” The word “fantod” is used in the sense of phantasm in J.P. Bourke’s poem, quoted earlier and illustrated by Fig.2k, and the name “J. Jam” almost certainly derives from “jimjams”, an old slang word for delerium tremens – the dts, the heebie jeebies. Note the Hotel Bar in the background, atop which is what looks to be a decorative angel raising another Toby Jug (cf the headboard angel in Fig.3h.) The decorative borders of this illustration again need no explanation.

Fig.3j (verse 51): A tavern scene, with Omar seated on the right, seemingly asleep, the lobster in his lap. At the bar are two men, one a turbaned swagman, with the usual bedroll and billy can, and behind the bar is a somewhat fearsome looking landlady holding a book. (Ned’s mother had run at least two hotels / boarding houses, remember.) At a guess the book records what the men owe the landlady, and they are finding that neither all their piety nor wit will serve to cancel out half a line of what is written in there. The decorative surround here is interesting, some figures on the left hand edge being reminiscent of some of Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books: the lobster of quadrille fame (though one lobster looks much like another anyway), the gryphon (here minus wings) and, perhaps, the carpenter (here plus pipe.) However, the resemblances could be purely coincidental given the strange nature of the figures in Ned’s decorative surrounds generally, and of his ‘fantods’. There is no mock turtle, for example, no flamingo, nothing like a caterpillar smoking a hookah, no march hare (unless it be one or other of the long eared fantods in Fig.3f, which doesn’t seem likely), and, surprisingly given his love of cats, no Cheshire cat.

Fig.3k (verse 69): Here we have Omar, bottle concealed behind his back, cynically bowing and doffing his turban to two passing worthies, who do not even deem to acknowledge his presence – one is clearly a Christian, a Vicar in oriental dress, with dog–collar and bible; the other a Moslem, a bearded cleric / Imam. It may or may not be significant that the Vicar’s clothing closely matches that of Omar, perhaps Ned’s comment on the frequently hypocritical standards of some supposedly pious Christians. The lobster is hanging onto the back of Omar’s coat, facing downwards and holding a stocking in one claw and a key (?) with a ticket saying “Tatt’s 5/–” in the other. “Tatt’s” was a well–known nickname for “Tattersall’s Consultations”, basically a lottery / sweepstake scheme for betting on horse races, the lobster’s ticket denoting a bet of 5 shillings. On the ground, to the left of the dangling stocking is a discarded playing card and to its right, what seems to be a discarded cigar with smoke still drifting up from it. The significance of all this is far from clear, though the card (along with the sweepstake ticket) and cigar may represent the vices of gambling and smoking, concealed from the two worthies, like the bottle – the vice of drinking. (In student days I remember meeting a man in a pub who seriously reckoned that life would be pretty miserable without smoking, drinking and betting on the horses!) The key (?) and stocking remain more of a mystery. The key – if key it is – is perhaps simply the traditional key to health, wealth and happiness, the emphasis here being on the second, as implied by the Tatt’s betting slip. As for the stocking, this is more puzzling, but since it is held by the lobster, it seems likely that it too is something to do with betting. If so, then it is perhaps there in readiness to “sock away” the hoped–for winnings. This requires some explanation. “To sock away” (money) was a slang expression, current in Australia in Ned’s day (1h), the modern equivalent of which, in the present context, would be “to squirrel away the winnings” or “to stash the cash.” It almost certainly resulted from the actual practice of concealing money in a sock, in the same way as others might conceal it in a tea–pot or under a mattress. Another possibility – given that it is a stocking rather than a sock – is that it is a woman’s stocking, a glimpse of which, following the later words of Cole Porter, “was looked on as something shocking” by many. Taken with the bottle and the betting slip, then, we could have here a reference to a triple indulgence in wine, women and gambling, or, to give it an alliterative twist, wine, women and wagers. I leave readers to make their own choice. Note the sign for “The Cow Caravanserai: Best Beer and Counter Lunch” on the wall to the left of the picture. Note also the decorative surround of the picture – a glass of wine at the very top, lobsters to its left and right, and trailing vine leaves and grapes down the left and right hand edges. Plus one final neat touch: in the bottom left hand corner is a tiny image of Omar ‘worshipping’ a foaming tankard of ale.

Fig.3l (verse 73): Here we have Omar with his rolled–up umbrella over his right arm, a cigar between the fingers of his right hand, and holding a billy can behind him with his left hand. He is clearly expostulating to the other man about the sign on the door (?) of the bar: “Notice: Owing to the death of the Sultan’s cat, all taverns will be closed today.” (The name of the landlord (?) above the notice reads “Mickárl Doyárl”, presumably Ned’s ‘Persianised’ version of the Irish (?) name “Michael Doyle”.) Grasping “this sorry Scheme of Things” and remoulding it “nearer to the Heart‘s Desire” presumably here refers to resurrecting the Sultan’s cat and getting the taverns open forthwith! (Ned was a cat lover, remember.) Note the lobster behind Omar, drying his tears on a handkerchief (or clawkerchief ?) It is not clear, though, whether he is crying because of the death of the cat or because the taverns are shut! The decorative border here needs no explanation, being so similar in format to others considered above.

As can be seen, Ned’s illustrations merit close scrutiny to pick out the various intriguing details in them, some of which are easily missed on a cursory glance. The full significance of some remains obscure, but most are clear enough, and to my mind his illustrations deserve more credit than they have hitherto received, though that may have much to do with the rarity of the book. It is a source of regret that Ned didn’t illustrate more books, but there it is. For whatever reason – and given the meagre royalties his illustrations earned him, it is perhaps not surprising – he became a photographer.

What happened to Ned’s original Rubaiyat drawings ? The Sydney Morning Herald for 25 August 1928, p.24 (col.3) carried a notice of “the art sale of the year – the Tyrrell Collection of Antiques and Works of Art,” to take place at James R. Lawson’s Great Auction Sale Rooms and Galleries, Sydney, on the 28th and 29th August. As the notice makes clear, the vendor was James R. Tyrrell, and the following was one lot on offer:

BLACK AND WHITE DRAWINGS. The Australian Omar Khayyam, by Ned Wethered. A series of eleven remarkable and amusing Original Drawings in six frames. A fine set for a billiard or club room.

The vendor was almost certainly James Robert Tyrrell (1875–1961), bookseller, publisher (of Off the Bluebush, note), dealer in, and collector of, antiques and works of art. The sale may well have been prompted by financial difficulties he is known to have experienced in the late 1920s (10a). Presumably Mr Tyrrell had acquired the drawings, possibly from Ned himself, soon after the publication of the book, but whether or not they sold, and if so to whom, is not known. We do know, however, that in 1929 nine of them somehow ended up in the State Library of New South Wales (10b), so these at least are safe. But this means, of course, that two of them are effectively lost. Hopefully they are still ‘out there’ somewhere and will re–surface in due course.


Note 1: A large number of Australian Newspapers and Gazettes can be freely accessed online at the very useful website: The following are referred to in the body of the above article: a) The Argus (Melbourne), 24 September 1926, p.16; The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 September 1926, p.12 & 30 October 1926, p.15; b) In addition to the official death records for 1893, the New South Wales Government Gazette for 27 June 1893, p.5104 ran the usual appeal for all creditors, and any other persons having claims on his estate, to come forward and inform the Proctors for the Executors prior to the administration of the estate; c) We know this from the account of a court case, reported in The Evening News (Sydney) for 12 May 1894, p.5, in which two men stood accused of attempting to leave the hotel without paying their bill. d) Her application for a full license to run a boarding house (for which she already had a temporary license) was published in The Collie Miner on 29 August 1903, p.2. Here she was involved in another court case, this time involving one of her lodgers stealing some money from the room of another lodger, as reported in The Southern Times (Bunbury) on 5 March 1904, p.2. e) Her application for registration as a laundress was published in The Evening Star (Boulder) on 17 March 1911, p.3. f) See, for example, The World’s News (Sydney), 11 September 1915, p.29 and The Murray Pioneer and Australian River Record (Renmark, South Australia), 7 October 1915, p.6. g) The story was reported as early as 1898, in an article on “Madness and Genius”, in The Kalgoorlie Miner, of all places (4 July 1898, p.2), and again in 1920, in the same newspaper, in an article on “Literary Dandies” (28 July 1920, p.3.) Between these two dates it appeared in: the nationally distributed Sydney magazine, The Bulletin, firstly in an article headed “Symbolist Poetry” (19 May 1900, p.2); secondly in an article headed “La Vie de Boheme” (12 August 1909, p.2); and thirdly in the fifth verse of a culinary poem titled “Ode to a Lobster” by “Kuscobin” (10 June 1915, p.26.) It also appeared in the Perth newspaper The West Australian, firstly in an article on “Strange Pets” (24 August 1912, p.12); secondly in an article on “The Seafarer in Wartime” (23 March 1918, p.6); and thirdly in an article on “Genius and Gastronomy” (28 October 1922, p.8). Other examples could be cited. h) For example, it was recorded in the Brisbane newspaper Truth (17 August 1913, p.4) that the deposed King Manuel II of Portugal had “a couple of million socked away” to support him in his exile in England; similarly, in a poem written in the aftermath of the First World War, published in the Perth Sunday Times (1 December 1918, p.4) we read that “America, of course, will want a wad of all the wealth / that (Kaiser) Wilhelm’s socked away for rainy days”; and finally, in a business report on a company under investigation by the Royal Commission, published in the New South Wales newspaper The Tweed Daily (31 May 1919, p.7), we read that “possibly the management has not been able to sock away so much as it used to.” Other examples could be cited.

Note 2a: The drawings appeared in the issues of April (p.9), May (p.9), June (p.9), July (p.11), August (p.11), October (p.5), November (p.9) & December 1920 (p.13), and of January (p.11) & February 1921 (p.10). Prior publication in a newspaper or magazine is not uncommon, and the parallel case of Gilbert James springs to mind. His Rubaiyat illustrations were first published in the English newspaper The Sketch in 1896–8 and subsequently published in book form most notably by Leonard Smithers (1898) and Routledge & Sons (1904).

Note 2b: See the online biography of him, taken from The Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.12 (1990) at

Note 2c: Letter from Stephens to Messrs Tyrrells Limited, dated 3 September 1920. Item UQFL2/1105 in the Hayes Manuscript Collection, the Fryer Library, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Note 2d: Letter from Stephens to Leonard Gilmour dated 14 October 1925. Item UQFL2/1104a in the Hayes Manuscript Collection, the Fryer Library, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Note 2e: A copy of records of accounts on an invoice headed The Bookfellow, addressed to Ned Wethered, with entries dated 1 March & 29 April 1927 and 6 February & 30 November 1928. Item UQFL2/1126 in the Hayes Manuscript Collection, the Fryer Library, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Note 2f: The issue of 15 October 1913 (p.21).

Note 2g: The book was actually published by Tyrrell’s, so I would assume that Stephens merely acted as as Bourke’s editor and both Bourke’s and Ned’s literary agent in getting it published, as he would later do for Ned with The Australian Omar Khayyam.

Note 2h: Parodies of The Rubaiyat were actually very popular at that time, and, for example, “The Boarding–House Rubaiyat” appeared in The Bookfellow on 15 July 1920 (p.17). Earlier, “The Red Page” of the magazine The Bulletin, on 27 December 1906 (p.2) had featured a column titled “The Gentle Art of Making Rubaiyats.” It covered the well–known parodies by Carolyn Wells, Oliver Herford and Gelett Burgess (all American), but complained that “so far the Rubaiyat of Australia has not been written.” For a prize of one guinea, therefore, “the Omar of the Bush” was invited to come forward and fill that gap. And indeed they did come forward – 39 of them – samples of the results being printed in “The Red Page” of the issue of 21 February 1907 (p.2). For some years, the ubiquitous A. G. Stephens had run “The Red Page” of The Bulletin, and indeed had persuaded its management to (unsuccessfully) launch the first series of The Bookfellow, but in October 1906 he left (or was ousted from) the former publication, so it would not have been him that launched the competition. For those interested, four examples of Australian parodies subsequently published in The Bulletin are: “The Rubaiyat of the Rounds” (about journalism) by “Rotunda” on 4 February 1909, p.38; “The Rubaiyat of the Flickergraph” (ie the cinema) by Harrison Owen on 10 February 1910; p.9; “The Rubaiyat of an Average Bloke” by Harrison Owen on 14 December 1911, p.27; and “The Rubaiyat of a Googly Bowler” (about cricket) by “Milky White” on 17 April 1913, p.28. Many more examples are to be found in other publications, of course.

Note 3: See the online biography of him, taken from The Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.7 (1979) at His year of birth is sometimes given as 1860 (eg in the Stephens Preface to Off the Bluebush, p.21), but official birth records show that 1857 is the correct one.

Note 4: See Lee’s website at: and click on the Animations tab to see the film and information about it.

Note 5a: From Baptisms Administered in the Parish of St. Michael, in the County of Cumberland, in the Year 1890. This fixes both his birth in Hungerford on 4 September 1890 and his baptism in Sydney on 8 October 1890. This and other useful documents, notably Australian electoral rolls, city directories and rate books, can be found on the excellent website: Some documents, however, need to be accessed via the free and very useful website:

Note 5b: Using the online resources given in Note 5a above, one learns that Ned’s sister stayed in Kalgoorlie after he and his mother moved to Perth in 1924–5. In 1934 she married John Samuel Trenfield, and electoral rolls tell us that the couple were still living in Kalgoorlie in 1936. In fact they seem to have lived in the western goldfields area for the whole of their married life, until Edith Marie Trenfield died, in Esperance, in 1975. Her husband died in 1988. Lee Whitmore did not know of Edith Marie’s existence, so it may well be that either this denotes a family rift of some sort, or that Ned and his sister simply lost contact with each other over time and distance.

Note 6: The discomfiture of the Christian faithful at such events would no doubt have been a source of some wry amusement to Omar, as indeed it is to many an Omarian today. What on earth was God playing at, allowing this to happen ? It is well known that the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 threw a similarly unfavourable light on God’s mysterious ways, in that it destroyed over twenty churches and yet spared a street full of brothels! See, for example, T.D.Kendrick, The Lisbon Earthquake (1956), p.31 (churches) and p.79 (brothels).

Note 7a: The hallucinatory effects of delirium tremens tend to be more auditory and tactile than visual, though “seeing snakes and spiders” can occur. In short, Fig.2k involves considerable, though effective, artistic licence. The kilted figure certainly looks like a leprechaun, and though kilts are normally associated with Scotland and leprechauns with Ireland, there are Irish kilts, and there are Scottish goblins who behave in many ways like leprechauns. Ned’s illustration could well be a conflation of Irish and Scottish forms, not unreasonable given a common Gaelic heritage, for both ‘Bluebush’ and Ned could have picked up snippets of folklore from Irish and Scottish immigrants. (On a personal note, in student days, I learned of the Firbolgs from a discussion between two Irish navvies.) Note that “A Bloke from Mullingar” relates to Ireland, and that in the poem “We took the Pledge till May”, Dave Barker and Sandy Mac are both Scottish. I wonder, too, if poet and author may have come across tales of clurichauns – leprechauns with a taste for drink!

Note 7b: The pet lobster story seems to have been first recorded by Théophile Gautier in his account of Nerval, first published in 1875, in his book Portraits et Souvenirs Littéraires. When mocked, Nerval protested that it was no more ridiculous than taking a dog for a walk, and besides, lobsters don’t bark and they don’t pester you for attention. Not only that, but, unlike dogs, they know the secrets of the sea. There seems to be some truth in the story, in that Nerval did rescue a lobster from a cooking–pot fate. But it is highly unlikely that in practice he could have taken it for a walk in the gardens of the Palais–Royal: as a sea creature it is not designed to walk on land, and it would not survive out of water for more than about half an hour. Or it was lucky if it did!

Note 8: A parallel to this comes to mind. In his address to the Omar Khayyam Club of London, delivered on 8 December 1897, Colonel John Hay reported that he had heard the quatrains of Omar quoted by a frontiersman “in one of the most lonely and desolate spots of the high Rockies.” See “In Praise of Omar” in The Book of the Omar Khayyam Club, 1892–1910 (London, 1910), p.199–200.

Note 9: I have browsed through numerous newspapers published in Western Australia in about 1918–1919, in search of artwork by Ned, but to no avail. Most illustrations are those involved in adverts, and these are generally unsigned, and where they do bear the signature of an illustrator, it isn’t Ned’s. In view of its mention in notes 1g & 2h above, I also checked out several 1918–1919 issues of the magazine The Bulletin, which featured numerous drawings and cartoons besides those in adverts, but though I came across work signed by by more than a dozen artists, notably Norman Lindsay and the then young David Low, Ned was not one of them. To date, the only newspaper / magazine art–work that has come to light is that in The Bookfellow in 1920–1.

Note 10a: See the online biography of him, taken from The Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.12 (1990) at .

Note 10b: The two missing ones are those facing pages 16 and 20 in the book, here Figs.3i & 3l respectively. For details click here.



My thanks are due to Lee Whitmore not only for the very useful information she supplied me in emails, but also for permission to use the stills from her film as illustrations for this article (Figs.1a, 1b & 1c.) I must also thank Joe Howard, Sandra Mason & Bill Martin, and Roger Paas for proof–reading the article and making various useful suggestions as a result. Finally I must thank Flic French of the Fryer Library, the University of Queensland, for the scans of the Ned–related items in the Hayes Manuscript Collection there (cited in notes 2c, 2d & 2e.)


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